Select Committee on Home Affairs Written Evidence

1.  Memorandum submitted by Amnesty International UK

  Amnesty International welcomes the opportunity to provide evidence to the Home Affairs Committee Inquiry into Immigration Control. This submission focuses on detention policy and conditions and the quality of initial decisions in asylum claims.

  Two reports published by Amnesty International are enclosed: [not printed] "UNITED KINGDOM: Seeking asylum is not a crime: detention of people who have sought asylum" and "Get it Right: How Home Office decision-making fails refugees".


  1.  An increasing number of people who have claimed asylum at some stage in the UK are being detained solely under Immigration Act powers, including families with children. The number of available detention places has tripled[1] since this Government came to power in 1997 and the vast majority of those detained under Immigration Act powers are people who have claimed asylum. [2]

  2.  In June 2005 Amnesty International report published a report entitled UK: Seeking Asylum Is Not A Crime: Detention of people who have sought asylum. The report examined the increased use of detention both at the beginning and at the end of the asylum process. The report considered whether the UK met its obligations with respect to the right to liberty and the right of people to be treated with dignity and humanity under international refugee and human rights law and standards.

  3.  While the UK authorities have often claimed that detention is pivotal to their strategy to remove asylum-seekers whose claims have been dismissed, they have also stated that: ". . . detention would only be used as a last resort".[3] Amnesty International found that many people who have sought asylum at some stage are detained at different points of the asylum process and were detained even though the prospect of effecting their forcible removal within a reasonable time may be slim.

  4.  Amnesty International found that many people who had sought asylum were detained in grim, prison-like establishments, in remote locations far away from their families. There were cases of individuals who languished in detention and one of those interviewed had been detained for two years. Many complained about being moved around the detention estate, from one Immigration Removal Centre to another, sometimes in the middle of the night. The organisation found the detention of families, including mothers with very young children, survivors of torture and other vulnerable individuals particularly unacceptable.

  5.  Amnesty International examined the cases of asylum-seekers who were detained for the duration of the asylum process whose claims were considered under accelerated asylum-determination procedures predicated on detention. At Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre (IRC), the Home Office aims to make an initial decision within three days. [4]Once the application is decided and most likely refused, the applicants continue to be detained during the appeal process pending their forcible removal from the UK.

  6.  Among asylum-seekers detained at Oakington Reception Centre—where claims are fast-tracked—are those whose claims are refused and certified as "clearly unfounded". Under the "non suspensive appeals" (NSA) procedures such applicants can be removed with no right of appeal from within the UK against the refusal of asylum. The NSA procedure is premised on a list of so-called "safe countries" compiled and updated by the UK authorities. The vast majority of such claims are refused. In some cases, those who were processed through fast-track procedures are subsequently detained for long periods on time.

  7.  In February 2005 the UK authorities announced that a projected target of up to 30% of new asylum applicants would be put through a "fast-track detained process" by the end of the year. [5]Amnesty International is concerned about the quality of decisions and procedural safeguards within these "detained accelerated procedures". Speeding up the decision-making process is beneficial only if it is not at the expense of fairness and quality. In addition, the organisation considers that the expeditious processing of asylum claims should not be premised on detention.

  8.  As part of its research, Amnesty International set out to establish how many people who have sought asylum at some point are detained in the UK under Immigration Act powers. For the first time, in May 2005, the UK authorities produced statistics on the number of asylum-seekers whose claims are fast-tracked and who are detained at Harmondsworth IRC for the duration of the asylum process. Statistics are also available quarterly on asylum-seekers whose claims are processed at Oakington Reception Centre. However, in the course of a year no comprehensive statistics are produced on the number of those who have sought asylum who are held in detention, or the length of time for which they are detained. The official quarterly statistics give a "snapshot" of persons recorded as being in detention in the UK solely under Immigration Act powers on a particular day, with the percentage of those who have sought asylum at any stage, by places of detention, gender and the length of time spent in detention on that particular day.

  9.  Therefore, Amnesty International is concerned that the picture of how many people who have sought asylum and are detained, and the length of detention remain unclear. Despite requests, the UK authorities have failed to make an accurate picture of this phenomenon publicly available. The Home Affairs Committee in its report on Asylum Removals in April 2003 recommended that the UK authorities should provide quarterly figures on total numbers detained during the period with lengths of detention.

  10.  As a result of its research, Amnesty International suspects that at least 27,000 and 25,000 people who had sought asylum at some stage were detained in 2003 and 2004 respectively for some period of time. This represents a very significant use of detention and immediately raises the question of whether such prolific use of detention is in compliance with international human rights law.

  11.  The UK authorities have argued that detention is necessary to prevent people from absconding at the end of the asylum process. But the organisation is concerned that the authorities are using the risk of absconding as justification for detention without a detailed and meaningful assessment of the risk posed by each individual, if any. For example, prior to being detained, those were interviewed by Amnesty International during the course of its research had, when instructed to do so by the UK authorities, complied with reporting requirements. Therefore, they presented no risk of absconding. The Home Affairs Committee expressed concern about the lack of official data on the risk of absconding. In their report on Asylum Removals the Committee said that this risk has not been quantified.

  12.  At the time of being taken into detention people were not told how long they would be detained. Those interviewed by Amnesty International complained about not knowing what was happening with their asylum claim whilst they were held in detention and that it was difficult to pursue their claim. They told the organisation that while in detention they felt abandoned and demoralised. A number complained of being subjected to verbal abuse. Some of those interviewed seemed to experience great difficulty in relaying their stories even months after their release from detention and a number of those interviewed were still suffering from severe depression.

  13.  Whether at the beginning or the end of the asylum-determination process, the individuals concerned may be taken into detention on the basis that a bed is available within the detention estate, rather than on considerations of necessity, proportionality and appropriateness to detain them. [6]

  14.  Under Immigration Act powers, the UK authorities are empowered to authorise the detention of people who at some stage have sought asylum in the country. [7]No prior judicial authorisation of detention is required and there is no prompt and automatic judicial oversight of the decision to detain nor are there automatic judicial reviews of the continuance of detention. In addition, there are no maximum time limits of the length of detention. In light of all of this, Amnesty International is seriously concerned that detention of people who have at some stage sought asylum can continue indefinitely without any automatic judicial intervention.

  15.  Within the UK legislative framework, one of the few avenues open to those detained, who have sought asylum, is to attempt to secure their release by initiating a bail application. Provisions had been made under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 for two automatic bail hearings, but these were never implemented and were, in fact, repealed under the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. The other avenues open to those in detention would be to challenge the lawfulness of their detention through habeas corpus or to seek a judicial review of the decision to detain them. However, as the organisation found, neither remedy was particularly effective which is evidenced by the fact that they are rarely used.

  16.  Amnesty International is further concerned that the difficulties that those who have sought asylum face in accessing justice while in detention have been compounded by the recent restrictions to publicly funded immigration and asylum work. In April 2004, the UK authorities introduced new funding arrangements for legal work on asylum and immigration cases in England and Wales, with the aim of cutting the overall amount of public funding for this area of work. These arrangements have resulted in the withdrawal of established solicitors from this area of work leaving a dearth of expertise. At all stages of the asylum process many are left with little or no access to effective legal advice and representation. This problem is particularly acute for those in detention who are at the end of the asylum process.

  17.  In light of its research Amnesty International found that the detention of people who have sought asylum has a terrible human cost, inflicting untold misery on the individuals concerned and their families. The organisation considers that detention is not being carried out according to international standards, is arbitrary and serves little if no purpose at all in the majority of cases where measures short of detention would suffice.


  18.  Amnesty International has had a long-standing concern with the quality of the initial decision-making on asylum claims by the Immigration and Nationality Directorate of the Home Office. The organisation has recommended that initial decision-making on asylum claims should be "front-loaded" with resources focused on good quality defensible decisions early in the decision making process. "Front-loading" enhances efficiency by ensuring that the initial Home Office decision is based on a full understanding of the applicant's case and is therefore reliable. An essential component of such an approach is that asylum seekers should have access to early provision of good quality legal advice.

  19.  Amnesty International and many other commentators believe that the one of the main problem with the asylum system is the poor quality of decision-making. The report Get it Right: How Home Office decision-making fails refugees, published in February 2004, identified the organisation's concern that the quality of initial decision-making on asylum claims was inadequate and highlighted three areas where standards of initial decision-making persistently fell short of those expected in a just and efficient asylum-determination system:

    —  Accurate information relating to the human rights situation in countries of origin.

    —  Objective consideration of issues relating to the individual credibility of asylum applicants.

    —  Appropriate consideration of allegations of torture and medical evidence.

  20.  Since the publication of the "Get it Right" report, Amnesty International has noted no perceptible change in the quality of initial decision-making by the Home Office. It is of great concern to Amnesty International that the Home Office persists in using out of date, inaccurate and/or selective country of origin information, relying upon its own Country of Origin Information Service and Operational Guidance Notes rather than adopting a "multi-sourcing" fact-finding approach.

  21.  Caseworkers' use of unreasoned, overly subjective assertions about the credibility of individual asylum applicants continues to result in unfair decisions—particularly with regard to applicants from a country in crisis such as Sudan and a country in transition such as Somalia. At the time of writing, no advances have been made with regard to consideration of torture allegations and/or medical evidence, which fails some of the most vulnerable applicants in the asylum process. Similar concerns with the poor quality of initial decision-makings have also been expressed by the Home Affairs and the Constitutional Affairs Committees, the Lords EU Committee and in June 2004 by the National Audit Office.

  22.  Asylum statistics produced by the Home Office show that from January to September 2005 an average of 17% of rejected initial asylum decisions were overturned on appeal. However, the most recent statistics from July-September 2005 show that when broken down by nationality, in 49% of Eritrean applications; 42% of Russian applications; 39% of Somali applications and 26% of Sudanese and Zimbabwean applications the initial decision to refuse asylum was wrong and was overturned on appeal.

  23.  In 2004 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) began its Quality Initiative project to assist the Home Office to achieve an improvement in the overall quality of first instance decision-making through auditing existing practice and providing recommendations.

  24.  In its most recent key observations and recommendations of its Quality Initiative project, UNHCR reports instances of poor decision-making and "some evidence of a lack of understanding of key decision making concepts". Instances have also been observed where the relevant law is misapplied or misunderstood and where country of origin information is not properly sourced.

  25.  Amnesty International believes that all applications for asylum in the UK should be dealt with by a qualified, specially trained body of professionals. The overall calibre and training of caseworkers who take initial decisions on asylum applications needs to be reviewed. All caseworkers dealing with asylum applications should receive long-term continuing training, including external training, in refugee and human rights law and country of origin information. They should have specialist knowledge of international standards relating to the protection of refugees and the political and human rights situation in the applicant's country of origin.

  26.  Amnesty International believes that getting more decisions right in the first instance would lead to fewer appeals, thereby cutting the cost to the taxpayer. Fair initial decisions will raise public confidence in the asylum system and reduce the anxiety of asylum applicants.

Jan Shaw

Refugee Programme Director

1 December 2005

1   In March 2005 the capacity in removal centre was 2,672 (excluding short term holding facilities) according to the Director of Detention and Accommodation Centre Services at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate. Back

2   The latest snapshot showed that on 24 September 2005 1,695 persons who had sought asylum at some stage were being detained solely under Immigration Act powers (this excludes persons detained in police cells and persons detained under dual immigration and other powers). Back

3   See, Operational Enforcement Manual, Immigration and Nationality Directorate, Home Office. It "contains guidance and information for Immigration Service officers dealing with enforcement (after-entry) immigration matters". Back

4   Almost all of the facilities used to hold people who have sought asylum in the UK have been named Immigration Removal Centres. Notwithstanding this euphemism, it should be made clear from the outset that they are detention establishments in anything but name. Back

5   "Controlling our borders: Making migration work for Britain-Five year strategy for asylum and immigration", published on 7 February 2005. Back

6   In its December 1998 report, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention expressed concern that: "[t)he release of certain persons on account of non-availability of space and the detention of certain other persons whose cases for release are much stronger but who are detained because space is available makes detention dependent on the availability of space, rather than the quality of the applicant's case", Report of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Addendum-Report on the visit of the Working Group to the United Kingdom on the issue of immigrants and asylum seekers, E/CN.4/1999/63/Add.3, 18 December 1998. Back

7   The powers of the executive are provided under the Immigration Act 1971 and under successive immigration laws passed in the last 12 years. Back

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