Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320 - 339)



  320. Can I put something which I quite accept is potentially controversial, and I will try to phrase it in a fashion which is as straight down the line as I can? There are a lot of conflicts going on around the world, there always have been, but today they are seen on our televisions and people sitting in their sitting rooms around the country observe and get very upset about what is going on. Under the 1951 Convention we are, of course, obligated to do what we can to help, but I wonder whether there is not a countervailing duty to our own citizens that if you follow the Convention to its absolute logic then wherever there is persecution—and there is a lot of it around the world, I am sure you will agree—somehow the British people ultimately are the back-stop who have the responsibility for accepting all these people, and we are talking literally of hundreds of thousands of people. I wonder whether, therefore, the point that was made by the Professor is actually not the real issue, we should give people a reason not to move, we should be doing more to deal with those countries which do persecute their people. May I put an example to you? What are we doing in Zimbabwe, where the Government has behaved and the president has behaved in a wholly inhumane and barbaric fashion, to stop him not just hoofing out the Europeans, but those of the MDC who disagree with him?
  (Ms Hanlan) Again you are preaching to the converted.

  321. I did not expect to have such a friendly response, but thank you very much.
  (Ms Hanlan) As you might know, at the level of the EU there is the High Level Working Group. They are supposed to be addressing the issue in a global comprehensive manner, because you are quite right, by the time an asylum seeker reaches the country of asylum, think of the numbers who are left behind to suffer and who become internally displaced. UNHCR is very familiar not only with the suffering outside in refugee camps, but also with the suffering inside by the internally displaced person. We fully support and give a lot of evidence to the High Level Working Group, which is supposed to be looking comprehensively at the source of the problem. Unless the source of the problem is addressed we will never cease to have this human misery wandering around the world, being misunderstood by taxpayers and pensioners and all kinds of people. Therefore, it is important, I would venture to suggest, that governments should give the fullest impetus to the High Level Working Group who are looking at six countries—the six countries which generate the largest number of refugees coming into the EU—and they are looking at those countries and they are trying to look at developmental and foreign policy issues, because it is not sufficient that it is just a Home Office matter. It starts way before that.

Mr Cawsey

  322. Professor, I would like to ask you about present UK procedures for border and immigration control. In your note which you sent the Committee you said that " . . . the United Kingdom's international obligations, its own interests, and the system of international protection of refugees are best served by, as a minimum: . . ." which you then laid out for us and that included legislation, clear administrative instructions to border control authorities, prompt referral and fair and effective decision-making. These are all laid out. It is not my job today to sit here and try to speak on behalf of the Government but if they were here I think perhaps one of the things they might say in response to that would be "We do not necessarily disagree. Part of the Immigration and Asylum Act that we brought into effect was to try to deal with some of those issues". I know it is still fairly early days bearing in mind that only became effective in May and we are now in July. Are you saying ipso facto from that memorandum to us that you think the United Kingdom is falling short of these minimum standards that you have laid out?
  (Professor Goodwin-Gill) I ran out of words at that time, my limit had been reached. There was more that I might have said. I think at a certain level one can see that in the United Kingdom minimum standards are being achieved but they are not meeting the problems, for example, of the 70,000 which were mentioned earlier. We have in process a procedure but it does not do the job. The world has changed and we have not. If we are getting a massive influx like that and we cannot deal with it, why are we blaming the influx instead of ourselves? I think we need, as I said a moment ago—and this is what I would have added to my paragraph 24—to front end load, to put decision makers in front of the people about whom they are making decisions. Until you do that, if you continue taking decisions at several removes of time and space you are going to fall into error, you are going to have delays and you are going to have challenges, and rightly so too. Front end loading is what I would emphasise. The European Commission is coming up with some quite interesting standards for procedures which it is hoped will be common to all European Union countries with a first level decision maker who will have country of origin information, who will deal directly with the asylum seeker, who in turn will receive appropriate advice, and we can have a debate about what is appropriate advice. There will then be an appeal and a level of review, a rather quite short minimum procedure. Those are the sorts of standards that I think we should be looking at quite seriously. Unless you aim to get it right the first time around then you are going to be in problems, in situations of delay and exploitation quite frankly.

  323. I agree with that. Also I agree with the comment that was made earlier about the fact that if you cannot do something about getting a fair and fast decision then you will attract more people to come in because it is just inevitable for all the reasons you said earlier on. One of the things that the Government is trying to achieve now through its latest Act of Parliament is that very sort of process where there is a two month decision and a four month appeal making it six months in totality. All right, that has yet to be achieved but nevertheless it is in place now. When the Government manages to reach that standard would you still say that will not be enough? What is the gap going to be between what you see as a minimum ideal and what the Government is trying to achieve in reality at the moment?
  (Professor Goodwin-Gill) I am a lawyer, I evolve. One is always going to be building on expectations. One of the curious things about due process is that it does develop over time so I do not think we will ever achieve a finished product. I think we can do far better than we are at the moment. I am afraid also there is one area we have not touched on today that does need to be discussed and that is the extent to which our human rights obligations beyond the Refugee Convention require to be integrated into our policy and decision making procedures, into our legislation as well. What worries me greatly is that we have not yet done that, we do not have a process that fully takes into account our obligations under the Torture Convention or that takes into account what we recognise as humanitarian obligations on ourselves, the need not to send people back to conflict, which finds a way of dealing with that, dealing with those whose treatment, if returned, falls short of Convention style persecution. We should be considering how we can develop complementary and credible systems of protection. Here when I talk about "credible" I am talking about credible vis a« vis the public, credible systems of complementary protection that necessarily can involve a political dimension. This again came up in Mr Straw's statement in Lisbon. They can involve a political dimension in so far as the policy decision might be involved, for instance, to grant refuge to nationals of this particular country, what terms of protection should be granted and when that protection should be brought to an end. It will be credible only if those policy decisions are based on some sort of transparent process referring to what is commonly known from public domain information, which reflect a process of consultation with UNHCR, with community based groups, and which ultimately are compatible with human rights. These are the issues that we need also to be looking at in addition, I am afraid, Chairman, to your Committee's interest in the 1951 Convention.

  324. We were discussing earlier how wide the brief for this particular report is getting. One thing we will want to do whenever we reach the end of it is to say to Government, "these are the areas that you really need to make very quick progress on if you want to make things better". Just listening to you in the last few minutes you have spoken about decision makers being at the front of the process, a fast, fair and effective system, and now the human rights issue is to be considered as well. If you were to advise this Committee of one specific area where we should go back to the Government and say "this is the thing you really must make immediate improvements on", what would it be?
  (Professor Goodwin-Gill) Decision making.

  325. The speed of the decision making?
  (Professor Goodwin-Gill) Absolutely. And the quality. The Home Office has some interesting initiatives, for example, on gathering of country of origin information. I think decision makers are better informed than they were 25 years ago and it has done that with some difficulty because there has not always been a united position, for example, amongst the suppliers of information in this country. That is an important initiative which should be commended. Quite frankly, and experience surely tells us this, I think we have to go the steps further that I have been suggesting.

  326. Thank you for that. Ms Hanlan, in the memorandum we got from the UNHCR that said to us "The countries of the European Union, including Britain, have built up a formidable range of border control measures which make it practically impossible for refugees fleeing persecution in their own countries to gain legal entry into their territories and exercise the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution . . ." Are you effectively saying, therefore, that in this country our current policies, procedures and practices for controlling our external borders are inconsistent with our obligations under the 1951 Convention?
  (Ms Hanlan) No, because the Convention is not intended to address the issues of access or denial of access to a country. We cannot therefore conclude that current UK procedures are inconsistent with the letter of the Convention but they are inconsistent with the spirit. What we can also conclude is that in not applying Article 31 to asylum seekers and thereby criminalising them, that is inconsistent. We cannot go into details about border controls, visas, carrier sanctions and that kind of thing. These issues to which you refer are not covered by the Convention in other words.

  327. If there was a genuine asylum seeker who was trying to get protection under the provisions of the Convention, is it possible for them to reach the UK without actually breaching immigration law?
  (Ms Hanlan) I think there are a few who still can access the state without having to use forged documentation.

  328. But only a few?
  (Ms Hanlan) In fact, the majority do.

  329. So it is the majority?
  (Ms Hanlan) Yes, it is the majority. Not being cynical, the majority of asylum seekers are not arriving on forged documentation.

  330. Perhaps the answer to this is no. Do you think that we need to consider or at least advise our Government that we need to reform the law and practice to assist legitimate asylum seekers to come to this country without breaching border controls? You do not think there is a problem that we need to address there?
  (Ms Hanlan) We cannot be numbers driven. Every single asylum seeker is a valid individual as far as we are concerned, whether it is one or whether it is 1,000 or whether it is 100,000.

  331. But is there a category of asylum seeker, whether coming to the UK or wherever, that is finding it difficult to get into any country they can claim asylum from without breaching border controls and immigration law?
  (Ms Hanlan) I would not say there is a category, no.

  332. There is not?
  (Ms Hanlan) No. If I can just go back to a previous question that you raised. If one looks at the system here, there are two big important flaws. One, from UNHCR's point of view, is the delay in processing claims and the second one is that there is no removals policy because the integrity of the system is seriously affected if people having failed in their claim simply are not removed. I think that is much more an issue than the issue of whether there is a particular category of person who might or might not be forced to breach controls.

  333. If I can put to you the same question I put to the Professor, although I think you have already answered it in one respect. If there was one thing that you think we should advise the Government on in terms of improving the situation would it again be speed of decision making that would be the best thing to concentrate our minds on?
  (Ms Hanlan) Provided that people have legal advice up front, that is really important.

  Mr Cawsey: I do not just mean speed.


  334. I think Professor Goodwin-Gill said quality as well.
  (Ms Hanlan) Yes, quality. Speed and quality and then removals.

  335. Let me ask you, Ms Hanlan, if I may, we are very interested in the answer you gave us earlier about the work the UNHCR is carrying on, hopefully to come before us in a recommendation, I think you said, at the end of next year, 2001?
  (Ms Hanlan) I am sorry?

  336. Did you say that you hope to get some recommendations out by the end of next year?
  (Ms Hanlan) That is right.

  337. At the moment, do you have a relationship with the Government over, for example, development of the Asylum and Immigration Act? Do you have any input into that?
  (Ms Hanlan) Indeed, at every single stage.

  338. You have a regular relationship with them?
  (Ms Hanlan) Yes, we have a regular relationship with them.

  339. Do you visit Oakington, or have you?
  (Ms Hanlan) Our staff have on more than one occasion.

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