47. Memorandum from the Refugee
1. The Refugee Council welcomes this opportunity
to contribute to the Joint Committee on Human Rights' consideration
of the desirability for a Human Rights Commission to be established
in the United Kingdom.
2. The Refugee Council is the largest organisation
in the United Kingdom working with refugees and asylum seekers.
We not only give help and support to asylum seekers and refugees,
we also work with them to ensure their needs and concerns are
addressed by decision-makers.
3. The right to asylumthe right to
be free from persecutionis a basic human right. This year,
the Refugee Council celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1951
UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees which, over the
years, has helped to protect millions of ordinary people.
4. The Refugee Council, other refugee organisations
and human rights groups, backed by a number of reports, have expressed
concern that the human rights of asylum seekers and refugees are
not being respected properly in the United Kingdom. The Joint
Committee may be aware that criticisms about the voucher system
and the lack of access to legal advice for asylum seekers, for
example, have been made by the UN Committee on the Elimination
of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Amnesty International and
the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ("Reception
Standards for Asylum Seekers In the European Union", UNHCR,
Geneva, July 2000).
5. It is not possible for established bodies,
such as the Commission for Racial Equality, to address all the
issues facing asylum seekers and refugees because of statutory
or other limitations.
6. It is our view, therefore, that a Human
Rights Commission, working closely with other bodies with special
responsibilities for particular rights, would be a significant
step towards fostering a human rights culture in the United Kingdom
and, in defending the human rights of asylum seekers and refugees,
would help protect the right to asylum from being undermined.
7. A Human Rights Commission could also
fulfil an important role in monitoring and investigating the extent
to which the human rights of asylum seekers and refugees are protected
and advise government and Parliament of necessary reforms in law
(existing and proposed), policy or procedures. It should also
be able to take test cases and make interventions in cases where
it is in the public interest that the law or actions be challenged
8. For example, despite widespread criticism
of the practice, the Home Office is currently rejecting a significant
proportion of asylum applications on the grounds that the applicant
did not complete (in full and in English) and return (within a
rigid ten day deadline) a form outlining his or her asylum application
prior to interview. These asylum applications, even if they are
from countries which the Home Office accepts pose significant
risks, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, are rejected without having
their merits considered. Many applicants issued with such refusals
appeal to the Immigration Appellate Authority at great expense
and at further delay. A Human Rights Commission could investigate
whether such a practice had the effect of abridging the human
rights of asylum seekers and inform Parliament and the public
of its findings and recommendations.
9. The Human Rights Commission may also
wish to investigate the detention of asylum seekers. Asylum seekers
are currently unable to challenge the lawfulness of their detention
before a court and the many of those detained are in prisons,
sometimes amongst convicted prisoners.
10. The Refugee Council believes creation
of a Human Rights Commission would be particularly beneficial
to efforts to promote public awareness and understanding of human
rights issues, including our responsibility to protect the human
rights of others. On this last point in particular, the Refugee
Council is aware there exists hostility in the media and in many
members of the public towards asylum seekers and refugees. Despite
the fact that asylum has been high on the political agenda, much
of this intolerance is based on ignorance of even the most basic
11. For example, a Mori poll in the Reader's
Digest magazine (November 2000) found that although a majority
of respondents believed that refugees come to the UK because they
regard is as a "soft touch", many based their views
on incorrect assumptions on how much support asylum seekers receive.
Respondents, on average, believed that asylum seekers receive
£113 a week to meet their essential living needs. The real
figure is £36.54 a week for a single adult.
12. The Joint Committee may also wish to
examine recent reports by the UN Committee on the Elimination
of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Council of Europe's
European Commission against Racism and Intolerance. Both bodies
criticised politicians for failing to educate public opinion on
13. It is likely that the people most in
need of a body like the Human Rights Commission to help safeguard
their human rights will also be those, such as asylum seekers,
least able to access it due to a range of information and resource
barriers. It is therefore essential that the Human Rights Commission
be mandated to pay particular attention to the needs of such groups.
14. It is necessary for the success of the
Human Rights Commission that it is resourced fully to carry out
its functions. We would expect it to be empowered to conduct investigations;
to require people to provide information; to require people to
cease conduct which the Commission considers to be unlawful; to
conduct legal proceedings; to issue Codes of Practice; to conduct
research; to engage in a range of activities designed to heighten
awareness within their remits and other such activities deemed
15. For the reasons outlined above, the
Refugee Council welcomes the Joint Committee's consideration of
this important question and believes there is an overwhelming
argument for the establishment of a Human Rights Commission.
29 June 2001