Draft Asylum (Designated States) Order 2003

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Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): I join the Minister in welcoming you most warmly to the Chair for this important debate, Mr. Conway.

The Minister was right initially to make some reference to the recent asylum statistics, which were published only a week or so ago, and to say that the credibility of the asylum system is an important issue with the public. The fact is that the last quarter of 2002 saw more than 30,000 applications for asylum—the highest quarterly level on record. At the same time, there were 4 per cent. fewer initial decisions and 4 per cent. fewer removals of principal applicants. Only 2,630 principal applicants were removed. That points to the collapse of the removals policy. It is important for the Minister and the Government to understand that there is still a great deal wrong with the current asylum system.

The Opposition understand why the measure has been introduced. We cannot object to it in principle. We have long thought it quite extraordinary that we receive asylum applications from countries that have been accepted as candidates for EU membership. How can we say, on the one hand, that citizens in a certain country are subject to persecution yet, on the other, that that country has sufficiently proper and robust systems to qualify it to join the EU? All 10 countries specified in section 115 of the 2002 Act plan to enter the EU in the near future. Logically, we must therefore deem them to be democratic and to have achieved acceptable standards of human rights and adherence to the general rule of law.

What of the new countries that the Minister proposes to add to the list? I find it difficult to understand why the particular seven countries have been chosen. Perhaps the Minister, in a letter if not today, can give us specific reasons why those, as opposed to other countries, were selected. She rightly pointed out that no country is 100 per cent. safe, but I want to spend a moment or two considering the countries that we are asked to add to the list today.

There is some logic in including Bulgaria and Romania because both plan to enter the EU in some four years' time. Both have recently—three weeks ago, I think—entered agreements with our Government to facilitate the quicker return of illegal immigrants. Our Government are committed to working closely with EU admission candidates, and reference to Bulgaria and Romania is relevant in this context. The agreements are an example of that work. However, very few asylum applicants come from those countries, and I wonder whether the Minister could confirm today or later that in the last quarter of 2002 only some 380 Romanians claimed asylum in this country.

When the Minister says that there is no serious risk of persecution and that removal to those countries would not, in general, contravene our ECHR obligations, I hope that she is taking on board the

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problems in those two countries. I have had discussions with Amnesty International on Bulgaria, where there is plenty of evidence of police brutality. In 2001, law enforcement or military personnel were responsible for a number of killings in that country. The police shot and killed at least six people in 2001 and other people died while in police custody. Four of those killed were of Roma or Turkish ethnicity. The constitution prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, but Amnesty International understands that the police commonly treat criminal suspects and members of minorities in that way in order to extract false testimony. Security force personnel have also physically abused street children, the vast majority of whom are Roma. Very seldom are allegations of police abuse properly investigated and offending officers are not consistently punished.

Romania also has problems. In 2001, police use of excessive force resulted in a number of deaths. Police officers continue to beat detainees and reportedly use excessive force and harass Roma. Authorities evicted a number of Roma from their homes as part of a programme to return illegal squatters on public land to their places of origin. Religious groups not officially recognised by the Government complain that they receive discriminatory treatment from the authorities.

Minority Romani groups complain of routine police brutality, including beatings, prejudice and racial harassment at local level. Under the Government programme ''Back Home'', Roma living on public land in Bucharest were forced to relocate to their countries of origin. Police allegedly often use excessive force against Roma and also subject them to brutal treatment and harassment. Prosecutors commonly refuse to open criminal investigation into allegations of police abuse against Roma.

All is not well in Bulgaria and Romania, which brings me to my central proposition that each application should be considered on its own merits.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Is he opposing the order?

Mr. Malins: No, I am not. I said at the outset that I am not and I repeat that for the hon. Gentleman. I understand and accept the principle of the order, but it is important for the Opposition to put on record their concerns about some of the countries involved and some of the processes. That is what I am trying to do. However, I repeat for his benefit that I shall not ask my hon. Friends to vote against the matter in principle, although we must keep a careful eye on the situation. Following the hon. Gentleman's point, I do not doubt that the Minister is doing that with her officials.

The addition of Albania, Macedonia, Moldova and Serbia and Montenegro to the list is perhaps a little more surprising. I do not think that any of them are planning to enter the European Union in the near future, although I stand to be corrected if I am wrong. None of them has a particularly good human rights record in recent times.

The Government in Albania have a poor record on human rights matters in many areas. The Opposition

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Democratic party allege that the Government were responsible for the killing of one of their members while in police custody. The police beat and abuse suspects, detainees and prisoners. There is often arbitrary ill treatment, arrest and detention of people without good cause, and prolonged pre-trial detention remains a problem. Despite the constitution stipulating that no one can be subject to torture or cruel or brutal treatment, there have been continued reports that police forces nationwide use torture and inhuman or degrading treatment.

The position in Moldova is also of some concern because torture and ill treatment are alleged to occur in order to extract confessions from people in police custody. Many more examples of human rights abuses have been provided by Amnesty International, which we all admire and which does tremendously good work. Amnesty International has also expressed concern over a long period about continued allegations of police ill treatment and torture in Macedonia.

In the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia—Serbia and Montenegro—Amnesty International continues to be seriously and properly concerned about numerous allegations of police torture and ill treatment throughout the country and the apparent lack of will by the authorities adequately to address the issue.

The purpose of my recent comments is to illustrate to the Committee that all is not well in some of those countries. When one gets down to the sheer nuts and bolts of an asylum application, questions must be asked if someone's initial application is refused and they are removed to such a country to conduct an appeal from there. I was interested in the Minister's comment about the number of appeals that have been launched from abroad, but tough questions must be asked about the safety or otherwise of the country to which someone is returned.

I could not quite understand why Jamaica was included. There has been more of a visa problem than an asylum problem with Jamaica. Only in January, the Government introduced new measures whereby Jamaican nationals travelling to the United Kingdom were required to have visas from midnight on 8 January. The Home Secretary pointed out then that for a long time the number of Jamaican passengers being refused entry on arrival in the UK had been increasing. At our main ports of entry during the run-up to Christmas last year, Jamaican nationals accounted for about 20 per cent. of all passengers refused, and reference was made to the fact that many absconded on arrival—more than 150 a month during the first half of 2002. That was a visa issue and there are specific problems relating to Jamaica. I am not sure and remain to be convinced that the proper course is to group Jamaica with the other six newly listed states.

Many Committee members will know that the human rights situation in Jamaica is of some concern to a number of people. The level of violence has escalated recently and Amnesty International has extensive documented examples of human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings by the police and security forces, torture and ill treatment with impunity. I have learned a lot recently from

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talking to Amnesty International and from its briefings on the threat to women in the community and their homes from the violence in Jamaica.

I have also learned a lot about the more specific threat to people because of their sexuality. Homosexuality between men is criminalised in Jamaica and can result in serious sentences of imprisonment with or without hard labour. Amnesty International receives frequent reports of violence and threats by members of the community against people because of their sexuality or perceived sexuality. I was shown, and read with care, ''in exile'', which documents the hellish life led by a young man who fled to the UK from Jamaica, having been in danger for many years because of his sexuality. I expect that the Minister or her staff have seen that magazine from time to time. The young man feared for his life all the time—every day. He constantly expected to be attacked and abused, and had to leave. It is odd to consider that that is the situation in Jamaica. We must be concerned about overall human rights in a number of the countries that we are adding to the list today.

I suppose a question that we would all ask, and hope that the Minister could answer most positively, is whether every single asylum application should be considered on its merits. The answer must be yes. Can it ever be said that any country is safe for all people always? The probable answer to that is no. That focuses our minds on the continued importance of initial decision making. I asked a series of parliamentary questions last year about the qualifications and experience of those who were making initial decisions.

It may come as a surprise to you to know, Mr. Conway, that initial decisions on asylum are made by Home Office officials of a relatively junior level—I do not mean that unkindly—who are not as qualified as those who have had full judicial training. As a result, people are exercising a judicial function—there is no doubt about that. They are exercising the power of yes or no; I do not want to dramatise things by saying that it is the power over life and death. The decision should be based on legal criteria and be exercised judicially, yet people are making such decisions without the full and adequate training that is necessary.

If one wanted to look for observations on the matter elsewhere, one need look no further than the Law Society, which has expressed some concerns. It is worried that the use of such a list could result in the failure to consider the particular facts of each case. It refers to the first instance decision-making body, and wonders whether the initial decision making is of sufficiently good quality as it thinks essential. That brings me neatly to the issue of the independent documentation centre.

You have no idea, Mr. Conway, how many wonderful new clauses and amendments I drafted during the passage of the legislation last year that were never debated. I spend my life in this House preparing documents that never see the light of day, even though they are an awful lot better than most things that do so. I do not know what goes on. When we were examining the Bill, we were wondering about the independent documentation centre. Everyone asked

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whether we needed an independent outside body that could tell the Government on a daily basis of the situation in a particular country. An independent body would be able to say that a particular country had certain problems, and the Government could take that information on board. We do not have an independent documentation centre because we did not reach that proposal when considering the Bill last year—more is the pity.

The Government seemed to have moved towards that proposal by discussing—perhaps it is now fully functional—the setting up a panel to advise on in-country information, which is so vital to the handling of an asylum application. I hope that the Minister can say more about that, if not today then on a future occasion.

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