Select Committee on Home Affairs Written Evidence

35.  Memorandum submitted by Settle Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)


  Settle Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) includes people with practical experience of working with refugees in the UK in voluntary and professional capacities.

  It is our experience that the present system for dealing with asylum cases:

      1.  Fails to conform reliably to national and international standards of justice.

      2.  Causes unnecessary suffering to those already traumatised.

      3.  Wastes resources by denying asylum seekers the opportunity to support themselves.

  It appears that the Government's focus on asylum numbers lies at the root of this situation.

  We recommend

      1.   That each decision on an asylum application be based on an accurate and sensitive appreciation of its merits, and to that end that the Home Office be again asked to review the calibre and training of the relevant caseworkers, and that all refused applicants have the right to an effective in-country appeal with such legal support as may be necessary to put their case to best effect.

      2.   That throughout their time here, all asylum-seekers are treated with respect and consideration for their mental and physical well-being.

      3.   That they be given the chance, where feasible, to take employment and thus contribute to the UK economy.

1.   Justice

  1.1  Our central concern is with what happens to those who seek asylum here. We believe that all should be treated with justice and compassion, a principle underlying the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees, to which 140 states, including the UK, have committed themselves. In the words of Alvaro Gil-Robles, United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights,

        "a society that loses its sensitivity to the sufferings of foreigners, merely because they are foreigners, has lost something very precious indeed." (Gil-Robles, para 77)

  1.2  Ultimately, it is to the global extension of human rights and the elimination of war and persecution that we should look to reduce the flow of refugees. As things are, though, there are many millions throughout the world for whom asylum is the only escape from a life otherwise crushed by fear and oppression.

  1.3  From our experience of working closely with individual refugees in East Lancashire, we are aware of dozens of cases of individuals who have been refused asylum, despite it being quite clear to us that they have fled their homelands because of "a well-founded fear of persecution".

  1.4  The failure of the system to protect clearly frightened people stems from two prime causes. The first would appear to be a numbers-driven, rather than justice-driven, asylum application system. Parliamentary debate and government responses include regular instances of linking "asylum" with "numbers": for example, this reply to a question from Lord Dholakia about the possibility of asylum seekers working (Hansard 2004 Vol 667 Col 896):

        Lord Rooker (Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister): "My Lords, with all due respect, that is the way to make the asylum numbers go through the roof. We all know that."

  1.5  The second cause would appear to be poor processing of claims and appeals. As a recent study by Amnesty International UK (February 2004) showed, the Home Office's initial decisions in asylum cases are "failing many applicants". (Amnesty, p 46)

  1.6  This is not merely a question of increasing staff numbers. We support the Committee's recommendation that Home Office should review the overall calibre and training of the caseworkers who take the initial decisions. Gil-Robles (para 70) regards the total of 30 days training, including interview training, that new caseworkers apparently receive, as

        "manifestly inadequate to handle complex cases, which require a detailed knowledge of country situations and considerable experience of the psychological behaviour of those fleeing persecution."

  1.7  The Amnesty study claims that Home Office caseworkers frequently make

        "unreasoned and unjustifiable assertions about asylum applicants which cast doubt on the applicant's individual credibility." (Amnesty, p 19)

  1.8  In our view, justice demands that asylum-seekers have a right to be told on what grounds their stories have been judged "incredible" and given an opportunity to rebut that judgment. We are also concerned there are significant errors in interview transcripts where translation is involved; and that interviewees are asked to sign the transcripts without being asked to read them through first. This can prejudice the whole of their subsequent cases.

  1.9  We are extremely concerned by the limited legal support then provided to enable an appeal. As an appellant's lawyer can now claim payment for only five hours time it becomes difficult to secure adequate legal advice and representation.

  1.10  The most serious obstacle to justice, though, arises out of the 2002 Act, which allows the Home Office to designate countries as "safe"; applications from nationals of these countries, if initially refused, are considered "manifestly ill-founded", and they are then deported. If they appeal, they must do so from the country from which they had fled.

  1.11  In our view, justice requires that appellants are able to be present at their appeal, so that they can answer, and challenge, points made by those opposing it. Moreover, though few such appeals are successful—Gil-Robles (para 67) was told that only four out of 200 had been since the adoption of the 2002 Act—that means that, in violation of the Refugees Convention, the UK sent four people, eventually acknowledged to have a "well-founded fear of persecution", back to the very source of that threat.

  1.12  There are also some who do not appeal against an initial refusal, not because they do not have a "well-founded fear of persecution", but because of the difficulty of obtaining competent, or indeed any, legal assistance. (Flavin, p 17)

  1.13  A further reason for the unsatisfactory character of decisions on asylum, both initial decisions and those come to on appeal, is the "inaccurate and unduly optimistic view" which the Home Office has promoted, in its elaborate "Country Reports", about the state of human rights in the countries from which applicants come. The intention is that these will help caseworkers and those who sit on what is now the only appellate Tribunal. Analyses of these reports by the Immigration Advisory Service have been very critical. In 2004, they concluded that 12 of the 23 reports they examined (those for Afghanistan, Albania, Angola, China, Colombia, DRC (The Democratic Republic of the Congo, ie, the former Zaire), Eritrea, Iran, Northern Iraq, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe) were

        "unreliable sources for use in asylum decisions". (IAS 2004, p 9)

  1.14  The IAS noted considerable improvements in the four country reports for 2005 that it examined recently, but still had some serious criticisms to make. That for the DRC, for instance, was said to give "an overly positive representation of the situation that real or perceived Tutsis face in the DRC", and it detected "a positive tilt" elsewhere in the report, "achieved largely by selectively choosing sections of reports, or by quoting a section out of context". (IAS 2005, p 39)

  1.15  Such defects can be critical when the Home Office classifies a given country of origin either as "safe", thus denying applicants "in-country" appeals, or suitable for "straightforward" and therefore rapid, and usually negative, decisions, which include the right to in-country appeal. A judge this year declared that to designate Bangladesh as "safe" was "unlawful", since "no rational decision-maker could have been satisfied that there was, in general, in Bangladesh, no serious risk of persecution of persons entitled to reside there." (Justice Wilson, in case summarized in Travis) As stated earlier, we regard the denial of "in-country" appeals as unjust; for the "straightforward" list, we would recommend that a Home Office designation of a country as suitable should require confirmation by an independent panel of experts.

2.   Unnecessary suffering

  2.1  Our experience is that under the existing system refugees suffer unnecessarily; for instance, pregnant women are put through harrowingly lengthy interviews, without any real concern for their condition; and there is a lack of medical care, particularly for those suffering (often understandably) from psychiatric illness.

  2.2  We know, for example, of a 7-month-pregnant asylum seeker with hepatitis-C who was called for her screening interview at 8 am on the day she had arrived from Africa. The interview started at 10 am and lasted until 5 pm with just a 25 minute break, which she found immensely gruelling. Called back a week later, she was given a break in the five-hour interview only because the translator pointed out her medical condition and weakness.

  2.3  We see pregnant women being dispersed late in pregnancy.

  2.4  We see the disruption of social support networks when refugees with mental illness are dispersed, and feel that the problems which this causes are insufficiently recognised.

  2.5  We see the separation of adult children from their families causing distress to, and withdrawal of support from, the whole family.

  2.6  We fear that the withdrawal of non-life-threatening medical services once an asylum claim has been rejected causes great suffering, especially to those with psychiatric illness. Furthermore, the withdrawal of housing and support from anyone compulsorily admitted to hospital under section means that, at the vulnerable point of discharge, they are homeless and penniless.

  2.7  Multi-occupancy housing provides special problems. Whilst efforts are often made to respect religious, linguistic and cultural differences, we are aware of occasions where lack of consideration has led to communication difficulties and friction within the household.

  2.8  The most telling indicator of the need for more compassion towards asylum-seekers in the circumstances in which we now put them is the fact that, in the last five years, 34 are known to have committed suicide. (IRR) We know of three of those on the list, and can add one other name, who all committed suicide on the day that the notification of their failed appeal arrived—hardly the act of someone who did not have "a well-founded fear of persecution". We need to recognize that seeking asylum, particularly in an island like ours, often requires an upheaval in itself. Given the desolation of then finding oneself detained, apparently indefinitely, or even if not, left in an impoverished limbo without adequate physical, mental or medical support, such suicides are understandable. We need to know the specific circumstances in which they are liable to occur and means by which they can be prevented.

  2.9  Some applicants, including some with families, remain in a very protracted asylum process and over the years put down roots. In October 2003, the Home Office announced an amnesty for all who had applied for asylum more than three years earlier, if they had at least one child under 18. More than 13,000 families benefited from this compassionate decision. Now, however, there are dawn raids on families who have been here for more than four years. We would recommend that those families who have now been here for three years be treated with similar compassion.

  2.10  Finally, we have to say that there have been cases recently when the process of deportation has been accompanied by violence and racial abuse. The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture has investigated complaints to this effect by 14 black deportees, and found injuries consistent with their complaints. It accepted, as do we, that in the process of deporting reluctant passengers who have failed to gain asylum force may have to be used—force, but not violence, and nothing of a physically damaging nature, and certainly not racial abuse. The Medical Foundation included in its report a list of recommendations to ensure that deportations were carried out with respect for the dignity of those being deported, and avoided any possibility of doing them physical harm in the process. We would ask the Committee to investigate whether these recommendations have been accepted by the Home Office, and how far they have been implemented.

3.   Economic issues

  3.1  We have accepted a legal obligation to offer asylum to those who seek it here who have a "well-founded fear of persecution". This is an obligation in international law. We should not, however, think of this as purely altruistic. This country has, over the centuries, absorbed many influxes of refugees from whom, we believe, it has gained much. Applicants for asylum tend to be among the more active and vigorous members of a society, with a ratio of people of working age to dependents, particularly retired dependents, higher than that in our own population.

  3.2  Our experience is that those whose asylum rights have been exhausted (ARE) can quickly become destitute as they are entitled to no benefits once the NASS support stops (a month after their appeal fails). (Flavin, p 12) Some eventually get limited support as "hard cases", but this may require removal to another part of the country, or agreement to perform "community activities" (none having yet been negotiated with prospective "employers") or to take active steps to return voluntarily to their country of origin, which would invalidate any subsequent human rights claim. Others fail to pursue their rights of appeal and then lose all entitlement to benefit. Sometimes, even when they do appeal, this fact is not passed on within the Home Office to those who pay benefits to asylum-seekers, and their support is delayed for several weeks as a result of this mistake. A Leicester study found over 30 asylum-seekers sleeping rough. Incidence of physical and mental illness among them is high. It is left to their families (if they have any in the UK) or friends or charities to keep them alive.

  3.3  We believe that those who have had a fair hearing, and failed to win asylum or leave to remain, should normally be deported as soon as possible, subject, first, to the general state of human rights in their country of origin, and, secondly, to their right to contest their deportation, on human rights grounds, in the courts. If delay is unavoidable, they should either continue to receive benefit, or be allowed to work.


  Amnesty (AIUK): Get It Right: How Home Office decision making fails refugees (February 2004)

  Flavin, Piers: A Report on Destitution in the Asylum System in Leicester, Leicester Refugee and Asylum Seekers' Voluntary Sector Forum (June 2005)

  Gil-Robles, Alvaro (UN Commissioner for Human Rights): Report on his visit to the UK, 4-12 November 2004, (June 2005)

  Home Office Asylum Statistics, 3rd Quarter 2005

  IAS (Immigration Advisory Service) Research and Information Unit: Home Office Country reports: An Analysis (September 2004)

  IAS Review of Home Office April 2005 Country Report on the DRC (August 2005)

  IRR (Institute of Race Relations): Suicides of Asylum Seekers in the UK (October 2005)

  Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture: Harm on Removal: Excessive Force against Failed Asylum Seekers (October 2004)

  Travis, Alan: Bangladesh not safe, says asylum judge (Guardian, 25 February 2005)

John Asher

2 December 2005

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