Select Committee on Home Affairs Written Evidence

31.  Second supplementary submitted by The Law Society

Memorandum submitted by Rt Hon Oliver Letwin MP—A Quota-Based System for Refugees

  We recognise the concern which exists about the current (historically high) rate of asylum applications although we note that there has been a significant downturn in recent months. We accept entirely that it is necessary to distinguish between claims for asylum and would-be economic migrants. We support arrangements which would enable a rapid decision to be made about claims for asylum, based on accurate information about the applicant's circumstances.

  But we do not think the proposals in Mr Letwin's memorandum represent a practical way forward for a civilised country which wishes to treat its human rights obligations seriously. Taken as a whole, the Law Society is extremely concerned that proposals contained in the memorandum threaten the global safety net provided by the 1951 Refugee Convention. I set out below our specific concerns in relation to the main points in the memorandum.


  The Society is concerned that the use of quotas is likely to undermine the right to claim asylum enshrined in the Refugee Convention. It is unclear exactly how the quota figure stated in the memorandum has been decided upon, and as such, it appears somewhat arbitrary. It is, for obvious reasons, impossible for the UK Government to foretell exactly when situations that lead to asylum claims will occur in other countries and to what extent people will need to claim. As is clear from recent history, situations around the world can change very quickly. In view of this, and the fact that the numbers of asylum seekers may increase or decrease rapidly and significantly depending on world events, we are unclear how any quota system could ever be sufficiently flexible enough to respond appropriately to the need to claim asylum. This may lead to people who need asylum being denied it on the basis that the quota for a particular period is full, rather than as a result of the merit or otherwise of their claim. The implication of the proposal is that if the number of justified claims for asylum exceeded the quotas for all those countries participating in the FCO scheme, the remaining refugees would be left in limbo in the camp. That would effectively abrogate the Convention.


  We have serious concerns that the processing of claims outside of the UK and the EU will lead to the avoidance of the UK's international human rights obligations. We are particularly concerned that those who are in processing camps will be unable to access competent legal advice and representation.

  The memorandum states that offshore processing centres should be in places "entirely unattractive to those seeking economic migration". This is likely to mean that they will be in developing parts of the world, which are poor and likely to lack the systems and infrastructure necessary to support such camps. We are concerned about what will happen to those who are not accepted under the quota and the impact this may have on the countries where the camps are situated. These issues are not addressed in the memorandum.

  We note that Mr Letwin states that he is liaising with Australian ministers about the quota system in Australia. The conditions in Australian processing camps have been criticised by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.[80] With regard to the proposal that UNHCR/IOM should be used as the principal agents for applying the criteria in practice, UNHCR staff in West African refugee camps have been reported to have abused camp residents[81] and Amnesty International has criticised IOM in its role in running Australian processing camps.[82]

  In relation to those who manage to bypass the quota system and reach the UK and have a well-founded claim, the proposal that they be entered into the quota for the next year appears to mean that they could be in an offshore processing centre for many months, despite having a valid claim.


  The Memorandum envisages a recasting of all relevant legislation and Britain's relationship to international treaties and conventions, to make it lawful to remove asylum seekers to offshore asylum processing centres. We are gravely concerned that this proposal would lead to the complete undermining of the international system of protection which has been in place since 1951.


  Access to legal advice, representation and appeal processes are vital safeguards for asylum seekers, wherever their claim is processed, but these are not mentioned in the memorandum. We are unclear how issues such as the need to obtain medical and expert reports and the quality of the decision making process would be dealt with in processing centres.

  The Society has serious concerns about the quality of decision making in the UK on the part of the Home Office in relation to asylum claims. Indeed, the Refugee Council has estimated that 51% of asylum seekers were successful either at different appeal stages or where the Home Office overturned its own refusal decision.[83] We are concerned that the problem of poor quality decision making will not be solved by the proposal to process asylum claims offshore, but is likely instead to exacerbate it. In view of this, it is vital that the essential safeguard of an effective ability to appeal against poor initial decision-making is in place.

  From the above, it appears that the use of offshore processing could lead to complicated sets of legal procedures and appeals, and that the procedures flowing from the proposals will be expensive and very difficult to administer.


  We also have concerns about the proposal that border security be tightened to prevent asylum seekers from entering the country. This, together with the other proposals in the memorandum, appears to be aimed at preventing asylum seekers from gaining access to the UK, rather than seeking to ensure that all asylum claims are dealt with quickly and fairly in line with the UK's international human rights obligations.

  Rather than using Australian practice as a model, we commend to the Home Affairs Committee the Canadian model for dealing with asylum claims. In particular, we believe that the use of an independent document centre and the fast tracking of straightforward cases would greatly enhance the ability of the UK to manage asylum claims in a speedy but fair and just manner.

John Ludlow

Head of Parliamentary Unit

13 June 2003

80   Amnesty International (Aug 2002) Australia-Pacific. Offending Human Dignity-the "Pacific Solution". Human Rights Watch (September 2002) "Not for Export": Why the International Community Should Reject Australia's Refugee Policies. Back

81   UNHCR EXCOM September 2002. Back

82   Amnesty International (Aug 2002) Australia-Pacific. Offending Human Dignity-the "Pacific Solution". Back

83   Refugee Council Statistics 2001. Back

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