Joint Committee On Human Rights Tenth Report

1  Introduction

The context of our inquiry

1. The majority of asylum seekers and refugees worldwide come from countries affected by conflict, violence and human rights abuses. Most stay in their region of origin and only a very small proportion of those who leave come to the UK. The numbers worldwide have been falling and the largest reduction in asylum seekers over recent years is associated with those countries that, for the most part, saw reductions in armed conflict, increasing stability, or changes in government that reduced domestic human rights violations. The number of applications for asylum in the UK rose from 32,505 in 1997 to 84,130 in 2002, but has since reduced each year, with 25,715 applications in 2005.[1]

2. Nonetheless, the issue of asylum has rarely been higher on the political and public agenda. There are many reasons for this, but also some inherent contradictions. On the one hand there is anxiety about rapid changes in our communities, about actual and perceived conflicts of interest over resources, and about the failure of the asylum system in particular (and the Home Office in general) to deliver effective systems of management and delivery. Yet at the same time, the UK is experiencing economic growth, the majority of people in our society are financially better off and many are benefiting - directly and indirectly - from the processes of globalization which inevitably result in increased international migration as they open up new horizons for work, travel and family life.

3. The Government's approach to asylum has, in large part, been based on the assumption that many of those who arrive in the UK and claim asylum are not genuinely in need of protection but rather are economic migrants seeking a better life for themselves and their families.[2] This has been reflected in the development of policies which aim to deter and prevent would-be asylum seekers from coming to the UK, for example, through a significant reduction in the welfare and health benefits to which asylum seekers, especially those whose applications have been refused, are eligible to access. These are policies on which we and our predecessor Committee have frequently commented in the course of our legislative scrutiny work, often expressing concerns about the risk of destitution, the impact on the children of asylum seekers and asylum seekers being treated less favourably than others without objective justification.[3]

4. In this context, and given the rapid succession of policy changes that have been introduced over the last few years, we considered it to be particularly timely to conduct an inquiry into the treatment of asylum seekers in the UK. The focus of our inquiry was entirely on the treatment of asylum seekers. We have made no comment on who is, is not, should be or should not be an asylum seeker.

5. We make one preliminary observation about an important issue which has arisen in relation to various aspects of this inquiry. In paragraph 97 we conclude that there is no evidence that the pilot of section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants etc) Act 2004 has encouraged more refused asylum-seeking families to leave the UK. In paragraph 110 we conclude that there is no evidence that the voucher system encourages refused asylum seekers to leave the UK. In paragraph 129 we regret the absence of evidence demonstrating the extent of what the Government describes as "health tourism" in the UK. In paragraphs 161 to 171, where we discuss charging for healthcare, we again draw attention to the lack of evidence underpinning Government policy. Finally, in his evidence the Home Office Minister Mr Liam Byrne MP stated that giving more asylum seekers the right to work would lead to a surge in abusive asylum claims,[4] although we received no evidence from the Government to support this assertion. We recommend that in the development of asylum policy the Government should proceed on the basis of evidence, rather than assertion, which evidence should wherever possible be published.

Terms of reference

6. We have considered human rights issues raised by the treatment of asylum seekers from the time they first make a claim for asylum until they are either granted asylum and integrated into the community, or until they are removed from the UK.

7. Our terms of reference called for evidence in particular on:

8. Since 1999, the Government has introduced a number of new measures to restrict the access of asylum seekers to support and healthcare. At the same time, there has been an increase in the use of detention and a significant amount of hostile media coverage of asylum seeker issues. We have commented adversely on a number of these measures in our previous legislative scrutiny Reports.

9. The human rights issues raised in asylum procedures and the determination of claims were outside the scope of our inquiry, except insofar as they directly affect the treatment of asylum seekers.

10. Many asylum seekers and refused asylum seekers are vulnerable individuals who are reliant on protection and support from others. When a person arrives in the UK and claims asylum, the Home Office considers whether they should be granted 'temporary admission' or detained until a decision is made on their claim. The majority are granted temporary admission, and although lawfully resident, they usually have no right to work and are dependent on the state for access to housing, health care, food and other necessities. Whilst resident in the UK, they, and their children if they have any, are entitled to the full protection of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and other international human rights instruments to which the UK is a party, including the Refugee Convention.

11. All asylum seekers - including those whose claims have been refused and the Home Office intends to remove from the UK - are still 'within the jurisdiction' and therefore beneficiaries of the rights set out in the panoply of international human rights treaties that the UK has adopted. They have simply asserted a fundamental right in seeking asylum. Regardless of their reasons for coming to the UK, asylum seekers must be treated with humanity before and after their applications have been decided. All are owed the human rights obligations successive Governments have assumed.

12. The treatment of asylum seekers is important for the men, women and children seeking asylum in the UK. But it is also important for those of us who are not asylum seekers. This is because the UK's approach to migration - and its treatment of asylum seekers in particular - says something about the society we live in and the kind of country we want to be. The human rights principles and values of democratic societies must guide the country's behaviour towards asylum seekers and its relationships with other countries from which asylum seekers originate.

13. In focusing on asylum as 'a problem' (and on the legal, technical and policy solutions for improving the asylum system, reducing the number of applications and removing those at the end of the process) it is essential that the Government, and those responsible for providing services and support to the most vulnerable in our society, do not lose sight of the fact that asylum seekers, regardless of their immigration status, are human beings, with fundamental and basic human rights, needs and aspirations. Asylum seekers are hugely diverse in their backgrounds and experiences and include children, young single parents, young single men and women, middle-aged couples with children, and older men and women whose families have been left behind. We wanted our inquiry to examine the treatment and experiences of asylum seekers living in a wide range of different circumstances and to capture the human experience of being an asylum seeker in the UK.

Evidence and visits

14. We received written evidence from many organisations and individuals. All of this information was used to inform our inquiry. It is not possible for us to refer individually to every submission but we are grateful to all of those who assisted us in this way. With the exception of a small amount of evidence which we were asked to keep confidential, or to anonymise, this evidence is published in full in a separate volume to this Report. The transcripts of the oral evidence sessions are also published in a separate volume.

15. In January 2007 we visited Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre where we met and talked to staff and to families and individuals being detained there. We are grateful to the staff from the Immigration Nationality Directorate and from GSL, the contractor responsible for managing operations at the centre, for making the arrangements for our visit and for helping to make it such a productive day.

Structure of this report

16. In Chapter 2 we review the human rights principles relevant to the treatment of asylum seekers. In Chapter 3 we consider the provision of financial support and accommodation for asylum seekers and refused asylum seekers who cannot leave the UK. We have previously expressed our particular concerns about the operation of section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 which provides for the withdrawal of all welfare benefits from asylum seekers (with the exception of children) who have failed to claim asylum as soon as reasonably practicable after arrival in the UK;[5] and about section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants etc.) Act 2004 which provides that refused asylum seekers with families will be ineligible for support following a certification by the Secretary of State that they have failed to leave the UK voluntarily.[6] In this inquiry, we review these concerns in the light of evidence about the operation of these provisions in practice.

17. We have also previously expressed concerns about section 10 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act 2004 which allows the Secretary of State to make provision of section 4 "hard case" support dependent on participation in community activities;[7] we have not given this matter any further consideration because the Home Office told us that the performance of community activities has not been made a condition of support to date.[8] However we remain of the view that there is a significant risk that making the provision of accommodation to refused asylum seekers conditional on their performance of community work would be in breach of the prohibition of forced labour or compulsory labour in Article 4(2) ECHR, and that any refusal to provide accommodation on the grounds that a refused asylum seeker would not perform community work would be in breach of Article 3 ECHR.

18. In Chapter 4 we consider the provision of healthcare, particularly within the context of regulations introduced in April 2004 to make people not lawfully resident in the UK liable for NHS hospital charges, and proposals from the Department of Health to exclude overseas visitors from eligibility for free NHS primary healthcare. In Chapter 5 we discuss the particular human rights problems faced by asylum seeking children. We have criticised on several occasions the reservation entered by the Government to Article 22 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,[9] and in this inquiry we review the impact of this reservation on asylum seeking children, together with other matters affecting children such as age assessment procedures for age-disputed asylum seekers.

19. The treatment of asylum seekers in detention engages the State's positive obligations to protect a range of Convention rights, including the right to liberty and to freedom from unjustified discriminatory treatment. Chapter 6 deals with the use of detention and the methods of removal of refused asylum seekers. In Chapter 7, we consider the treatment of asylum seekers by the media and consider whether the State is fulfilling its positive obligations to protect asylum seekers from unjustified interference with their right to respect for their dignity, private life, and physical integrity and to secure their enjoyment of Convention rights without discrimination, consistently with the right to freedom of expression.

Specialist advisers

20. We record our particular thanks to our three specialist advisers in the inquiry, Dr Heaven Crawley of Swansea University, Professor Geoff Gilbert of Essex University and Sue Willman.

1   Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Asylum Statistics in the UK 2005, August 2006. Back

2   Home Office 5 year strategy for asylum and immigration, Controlling our Borders: Making Migration Work for Britain, 2004, paras 26 and 27. Back

3   For example, Twenty-sixth Report of Session 2005-06, Human Trafficking, HL Paper 247/HC 1626, Fifth Report of Session 2003-04, Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill, HL Paper 35/HC 304, Fourteenth Report of Session 2003-04, Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill: New Clauses, HL Paper 130/HC 828 and Twenty-third of Session of Session 2001-02, Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill: Further Report, HL Paper 176/HC 1255. Back

4   Q 477 Back

5   Twenty-third Report of Session 2001-02, op. citBack

6   Fifth Report of Session 2003-04, op. citBack

7   Fourteenth Report of Session 2003-04, op. citBack

8   Appendix 69. Back

9   Most recently, see Twenty-sixth Report of Session 2005-06, op. citBack

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