Memorandum submitted by The British Refugee
Council (AI 5)
The Refugee Council very much welcomes this
opportunity to contribute to the Home Affairs Select Committee's
consideration of immigration and asylum policy.
The Refugee Council is the largest organisation
in the United Kingdom working with refugees and asylum seekers.
We not only give help and support to asylum seekers and refugees,
we also work with them to ensure their needs and concerns are
addressed by decision-makers.
The Refugee Council is governed by a Board of
Trustees, which includes strong refugee representation. Since
1983, the Council has increased its membership base from 50 to
nearly 180 organisations, a significant number of whom are refugee
community organisations. The Refugee Council regularly consults
its membership base.
The Refugee Council is a strongly independent
organisation and registered as a charity. Funding comes from a
variety of sources including government departments, the European
Commission, trusts and members. The Refugee Council employs around
five hundred staff and has offices in Brixton, Ipswich, Birmingham,
Croydon, Leeds, Vauxhall and Clapham. Further information is available
in the latest annual report.
1. The need for a credible asylum policy
The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill
represents the fourth major piece of asylum legislation in the
last decade. Change after change generates confusion, requires
the voluntary sector to respond, is hugely demoralising for the
men and women working within the system and, perhaps above all,
damages the credibility of the asylum process in the eyes of the
general public. The Refugee Council believes the Government must
listen to key stakeholders in an effort to get it right and put
in place the foundations of a system that is stable and enduring.
2. A fair decision for all asylum seekersthe
key to a credible asylum system
In February 2002, in a joint statement with
Amnesty International UK and Oxfam, the Refugee Council set out
the four key components it believes are a necessary part of a
fair and cost-effective asylum determination system.
(i) A commitment to the quality of the initial
decision, taking regard of individual circumstances and particular
needs (eg protection needs of women).
The asylum determination system must be "front-loaded",
ie resources must be focused on getting good quality and defensible
decisions as soon as possible. Cutting corners risks undermining
confidence in the system, which has the effect of generating confusion
and additional costs.
For example, in 2000 and 2001, 45,510 people
have had their asylum claims rejected without being examined,
mostly for failing to return a form (the Statement of Evidence
Form) outlining the basis of their claim, in English and in full,
within a rigid ten-day time limit. Most of these "non-compliance"
refusals are appealed. Poor decisions such as these are unfair,
costly and time-consuming.
The Refugee Council notes the comprehensive
inquiry report on asylum procedures produced by the Lords European
Union Committee (11th Report, 27 March 2001). This inquiry, after
taking evidence from ministers, the appeal authorities and other
stakeholders, also argues strongly for improved decision-making.
(ii) Early provision of good quality legal advice.
The Refugee Council believes that the early
provision of good quality legal advice is not only vital for asylum
seekers, but also enhances administrative efficiency by ensuring
that the initial decision is based on a proper assessment of the
Both the Home Office
and the Lord Chancellor's Department
acknowledge that the provision of legal advice speeds up the determination
process. However, the Government is only committed to ensuring
access to legal advicewhich may mean little more than providing
a list of lawyersbecause it argues such advice is not a
prerequisite to initial decision-making. The Refugee Council believes
there is a compelling public interest case for the Government
to commit to ensuring provision of legal representation.
(iii) Adequate safeguards against erroneous decisions.
Asylum decisions are often a matter of life
or death, so it is essential that applicants have the opportunity
to reverse erroneous refusals through proper access to appeal
procedures and, where necessary, judicial review.
Every year, a significant number of people recognised
as refugees by the Government have first been through the trauma
and delay of having their cases rejected by the Home Office. This
is why, as the Home Secretary himself has acknowledged, the real
success rate of asylum claims is somewhere between 40-50 per cent.
Home Office statistics show that about 77 per cent of refusals
made in 2001 resulted in an appeal, with a fifth of appeals that
year being upheld.
The latest asylum statistics reveal that nearly one in four appeals
are now upheld by adjudicators.
The Committee is also reminded that many refusals are overturned
by the Home Office before they reach the appeal authorities.
The Refugee Council believes the changes to
the appeals system in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum
Billsuch as denying some asylum applicants a meaningful
right of appealwill not speed up the asylum process but
may instead lead to people being returned to situations where
they will be at risk of human rights violations. The Lords European
Union Committee's report on asylum procedures concluded that "All
cases, including manifestly unfounded ones, should be dealt with
on their merits speedily within an efficient `regular' procedure"
(para 132). On the need for suspensive appeals the Committee was
equally robust: "the need to ensure that an appeal against
a negative decision has suspensive effect would appear to be an
essential safeguard" (para 139). As things stand with the
"one pair of eyes" policy, whereby not all decisions
are routinely checked, the removal of the suspensive effect of
appeals will mean that people may be refused and removed on the
basis of a single individual's administrative decision.
(iv) The establishment of an Independent Documentation
The Refugee Council believes that the problems
associated with the Home Office's Zimbabwe country assessment
earlier this year demonstrate the need for an asylum determination
process that commands the respect of all parties with an interest
in the credibility of the asylum system. A properly independent
country assessment centre would provide the best means of guaranteeing
the provision of full, accurate and up-to-date information about
countries from which people have fled, outside the influence of
any one group involved in the asylum process.
It would also cut costs and aid fairness by
helping to prevent excessive amounts of often contradictory material
being put forward in front of adjudicators and judges in some
cases, and virtually none in others.
The Refugee Council recognises that the overall
integrity of the asylum process relies on the ability ultimately
to remove those found not to be in need of protection. However,
the process can only have integrity if it stands up to scrutiny
in its entiretyif it maintains standards of international
law; if people are able to fully present their case with the benefit
of legal representation and interpretation; if procedures are
fair and allow proper opportunities for lawful challenge and if
the manner of removal is humane and dignified and does not put
individuals at risk on return.
The Refugee Council has produced a policy paper
on removals that lists sixteen principles which can be divided
into four groups: International principles of protection; Integrity
of the UK protection system; Procedures prior to removal; and,
Manner of removal.
The Refugee Council is happy to provide additional
written information on removals at a later date for the Committee's
inquiry into removals.
4. Accommodation centres
The Refugee Council has a number of serious
concerns with the accommodation centres proposed by the Government.
Large scale centres are expensive, risk institutionalising residents
and entail greater management risks. The Refugee Council also
believes that the policy to establish accommodation centres with
750 bed spaces reduces the number of possible sites near urban
centres and away from the kind of support infrastructure that
asylum seekers and their families would need. Other concerns include
the impact on successful settlement and the effect on the welfare
and development of childrenespecially the proposals for
The Refugee Council has produced an alternative
model for accommodation centres based on its experience of running
successful reception centres. This modelof smaller, community-based
centresis being considered by the Government.
It seems to be clear that the first of the pilot
accommodation centres will not be built for a number of years.
Even then, it is likely to be a few more years before accommodation
centres have been successfully evaluated and are the main mechanism
by which asylum seekers are supported. For the foreseeable future,
therefore, the majority of destitute asylum seekers will continue
to be supported by the National Asylum Support Service (NASS).
This is why the Refugee Council favours much more emphasis from
the Government on the real problems now facing the dispersal system.
The Refugee Council is very disappointed that
the conclusions of the Government's dispersal review have still
not been implemented. The Refugee Council believes the review
provides a sound blueprint for the future and this opportunity
to improve the way dispersal operates must not be missed. In particular,
the Refugee Council agrees with the need for greater regionalisation
of NASS. The problems it faces, to a large extent, are inevitable
if NASS continues to be centrally run. The Refugee Council is
strongly of the opinion that it is not possible to run a major
national housing programme from offices in Croydon. NASS needs
to be properly regionalised so that it has staff on the ground
with authority to make decisions based on their local expertise.
The Refugee Council welcomes the Government's
commitment to integration. The National Refugee Integration Forum
is a positive initiative and its work should be seen as good start.
Many important aspects of integration are under the remit of government
departments working on education, employment and housing. The
Refugee Council would like to see a strong and consistent approach
to integration work across all relevant government departments.
This could be on a similar basis to the projects pursued by the
Social Exclusion Unit, where targets are set alongside objectives.
Overall, the Refugee Council believes the Government's
work on integration must be developed further and should be properly
prioritised and resourced.
Although the Refugee Council remains fundamentally
opposed to the detention of asylum seekers, it accepts that it
may be necessary in exceptional circumstancesif the legal
process of claiming asylum has been fully exhausted and if there
is prima facie evidence that an asylum seeker may abscond.
For a number of years, the Refugee Council has had grave concerns
with nature of detention in the UK. In particular, there is real
concern that many of the people in detention are not at the end
of the asylum process and have yet to receive finalor,
for some, initialdecisions.
The Refugee Council has also stated its bitter
disappointment over the proposal in the Nationality, Immigration
and Asylum Bill to repeal the provision of statutory bail hearings
provided for in Part III of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999.
This will mean that many asylum seekers will continue to be deprived
of their liberty as a result of administrative decisions made
by immigration officials that do not have to be justified in any
way to a court.
The Government has also raised concerns with
its recent policy decision to expand the use of detention for
families with children. The Government's position had been that
the detention of children is undesirable and should only be considered
as an option a few days prior to removal. It now wishes to detain
families with children earlier in the process, for periods much
longer that a few days. This has been criticised by children's
charities as a breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the
Child. Officials have also admitted that there is no evidential
or statistical justification for this policy change.
10 http://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/downloads/annual-report.pdf Back
Letter from Lord Filkin to the Joint Committee on Human Rights,
2 July 2002; issue (e). Back
Lord Chancellor's Department Press Notice 273/00, 24 July 2000;
Notes to editors, (6). Back
HC Debates 24 April 2002; col 344 and HC Debates 11 June 2002;
col 801. Back
http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs2/hosb902.pdf See paragraph
http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs2/asylumq202.pdf See table