Select Committee on Home Affairs Memoranda

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.[10]


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 seekers—the 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 claim.

  Both the Home Office[11] and the Lord Chancellor's Department[12] acknowledge that the provision of legal advice speeds up the determination process. However, the Government is only committed to ensuring access to legal advice—which may mean little more than providing a list of lawyers—because 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[13]. 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[14]. The latest asylum statistics reveal that nearly one in four appeals are now upheld by adjudicators[15]. 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 Bill—such as denying some asylum applicants a meaningful right of appeal—will 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 Centre.

  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.

3.  Removals

  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 entirety—if 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[16].

  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 children—especially the proposals for segregated education.

  The Refugee Council has produced an alternative model for accommodation centres based on its experience of running successful reception centres. This model—of smaller, community-based centres—is 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.

5.  Integration

  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.

6.  Detention

  Although the Refugee Council remains fundamentally opposed to the detention of asylum seekers, it accepts that it may be necessary in exceptional circumstances—if 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 final—or, for some, initial—decisions.

  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.

September 2002

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11   Letter from Lord Filkin to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, 2 July 2002; issue (e). Back

12   Lord Chancellor's Department Press Notice 273/00, 24 July 2000; Notes to editors, (6). Back

13   HC Debates 24 April 2002; col 344 and HC Debates 11 June 2002; col 801. Back

14 See paragraph 24. Back

15 See table 5. Back

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