Equality and the UK asylum process – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Women and Equalities Committee

Related inquiry: Equality and the UK asylum process

Date Published: 27 June 2023

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Summary

People with vulnerabilities arising from Equality Act protected characteristics, including women with histories of gender-based violence and abuse, children, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) people, and disabled people, experience unnecessary risks under the Home Office’s management of the asylum process. Recent and proposed changes to the system are likely to increase those risks. The Home Office must demonstrate it is taking effective steps to mitigate unequal effects.

The Home Office should collect and publish data in relation to asylum claims, initial decisions, appeals and final outcomes disaggregated by: UN Refugee Convention ground; whether the claim included sexual and gender-based violence and other abuse; and the protected characteristics of claimants.

The Department must ensure its guidance on gender issues in the asylum claim process, including meeting claimants’ requests for female asylum interviewers and interpreters and childcare during interviews, is consistently followed. It should change the way it processes claims from women with histories of gender-based violence and abuse, ensuring women are supported by an independent expert advocate and end the reliance on long and gruelling single substantive interviews.

The Home Office should publish the findings of its 2019–20 internal review of its determination of claims based on sexual orientation and gender identity and the steps it has taken to improve its decision-making in such cases. It must review the performance of the Country Policy Information Team, including its ability to maintain and update high quality Country Policy Information Notes (CPINs) in a timely manner.

Asylum legal aid also needs an overhaul. Funding should be increased for expert legal advice, particularly in complex asylum cases involving sexual orientation or gender identity, religious belief or renunciation of belief, and sexual and gender-based violence and abuse.

There must be a long-term solution to ensure the Home Secretary continues to meet her legal duty to meet the essential living needs of asylum seekers in the context of the rising cost of living and after years of below inflation increases to asylum support. The weekly asylum support payment should increase to 70% of the standard rate of Universal Credit, and the Department should consider introducing a separate higher rate for women.

Serious concerns about substandard conditions in asylum accommodation persist. No one should have to endure unsanitary conditions, particularly people who are vulnerable. The Home Office must enhance its resources for accommodation inspection and contract management, with particular regard to the experiences of pregnant women and those with young children.

There must be an urgent review of safeguarding, including steps to prevent LGBT hate crime and violence against women, across all types of asylum accommodation, including the newly acquired accommodation barges. Housing vulnerable asylum seekers, including single women, mothers, children and LGBT people, in crowded hotel and other types of contingency accommodation is unacceptable. While use of hotels and other contingency settings persists, there must be effective policies and practices in place to better protect vulnerable adults and children from harm.

The Home Office must stop the dangerous practice of moving pregnant women and new mothers between asylum accommodation settings. Mothers and babies should only move after clinical advice has been sought and acted on, the mother has consented to a move, and it is in the mother’s and baby’s best interests.

There are clear risks that the asylum provisions in the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 will have unequal impacts, including on women and girls with histories of sexual and gender-based violence and abuse; LGBT people who have complex sexual orientation and gender-based claims; and disabled people. The Government’s equality impact assessment is inadequate and must be updated, with advice from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, to ensure effective mitigations are in place and in full compliance with the Public Sector Equality Duty.

The Nationality and Borders Act and Illegal Migration Bill risk turning back the clock on policies intended to ensure immigration detention is used only as a last resort, and to reduce the risks of harm to vulnerable people. The Government must set out how it intends to mitigate risks to vulnerable adults, including whether it remains committed to the Adults at Risk in detention policy established after the Shaw reviews. The Government has not yet set out its planned approach to the detention of children under Illegal Migration Bill provisions. We strongly believe the Government should abandon any intention of detaining asylum-seeking children under those provisions.

A significant number of vulnerable people, to whom the removal process would very likely be harmful, have received notices of the Home Office’s intention to remove them to Rwanda. Notices of intent should be suspended, and no new notices issued until all legal challenges to the policy are complete. The risks of harm to children arising from the removal process outweigh any risks of damaging the intended deterrent effect of the policy–the Government should abandon any intention of forcibly removing children to Rwanda. Should removals to Rwanda be operationalised, the Home Office must establish a vulnerability assessment process prior to notice of intention stage. It should also publish data disaggregated by protected characteristics of people selected for and removed to Rwanda.

The Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) resettled more than 20,000 people and demonstrated that the UK can do resettlement well. It should be used as a best practice model for the future. The Afghan resettlement schemes, by contrast, have been fraught with difficulty, including serious safeguarding issues for women and children in crowded accommodation. The lessons of the Afghan resettlement programme must be learnt so that mistakes are not repeated in future migrant crises. The Government must commission and publish an independent review.