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Lord Mishcon: My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will very kindly give way. In this House, we are used to hearing from the noble Lord with authenticated remarks. He is never reckless in his censure of others. In view of the very serious allegations that he has just made, would the noble Lord care to inform the House of the name of his informant?
When the hijack victims arrived at about 10 o'clock that night, there was a very heavy police presence with Group 4 security. No one smiled or showed any friendliness towards the people. They were given the statement to which I referred, as required by Mr Fleming, as they were transferred from the coaches to the dining area. As soon as anyone said that they wanted to go home, they were transferred to another part of the building and were allowed to go to bed early. The remainder were made to listen to the same lecture repeatedly until 2 a.m. The groups included women and children as young as a few months old. No one was told that he had a right to any legal assistance or advice, or that he had basic humanitarian rights in Britain. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that, when someone arrives in this way, it is imperative that he should be given a full statement in his own language of the rights that he possesses.
The next morning the IOM officials arrived and the passengers who said that they wanted to return were interviewed, one at a time. The IOM was not concerned with the manner in which the decisions had been reached, but merely whether passengers would simply declare that they were going home voluntarily. Of the 20 people for whom he interpreted with the IOM, Mr Fazel says that five said they had been pressured into going by the threat of indefinite detention, followed by compulsory return. The IOM officials said that they had no right to interfere with the
It was reported on February 16th that the Home Office had said that the applications on these cases would be made within 14 days. That deadline has passed, and the decisions have not yet been made. In the mean while, the Home Secretary has been trying frantically to get some other country--the United States, Russia and Pakistan have been mentioned--to accept the Afghans, regardless of whether or not they want to go there. He does not want to eat his own words about sending them packing, but he recognises that they cannot legally be sent back to Afghanistan. If he does refuse them, it will be glaringly inconsistent with the practice of the IND in recent years, as well as with our international obligations.
The Home Secretary does not have to adjust our asylum policy to the demands of the gutter tabloids and the would-be Jo rg Haiders on the extreme Right of the Tory Party. The Prime Minister said at the birthday party of the Labour Party on Sunday that the Labour Party had been a civilising force in the 20th century; and so it was. It always stood for the fair treatment of people arriving here and asking for asylum. It did not say, as Jack Straw seems to believe, that a person's application could somehow be contaminated by the manner of his arrival, still less that women and children--32 of them--should be locked up for something that was totally outside their control.
I hope that this episode will teach us something about the nature of the asylum process in Britain and that we shall never again have to endure the spectacle of people who have arrived from a foreign dictatorship being locked up and treated in this manner.
Lord Joffe: My Lords, I should like to begin by expressing my thanks for the friendly guidance and assistance so willingly provided to me by officials and Members of your Lordships' House as I have struggled to understand its procedures--and, I might add, its geography. It has made what I feared would be a daunting process into an enjoyable one. I am most appreciative.
It is with some diffidence that I presume to engage in a debate as early as the week following my Introduction. However, it did seem to me to be justified because I have some experience of the issues involved, if only because I came to this country in 1965 as a stateless political refugee having been deprived of my passport and citizenship by the then South African government.
While not exactly welcomed, I, unlike most refugees seeking political asylum, had the advantage of language, education, friends and of being white. As a lawyer, I was able to get a job in the life assurance industry and ultimately combined this career with work in the National Health Service and in the voluntary sector, where for many years I have been a trustee of Oxfam, which I now chair.
Based on my initial experience of waiting in immigration department queues, it is perhaps easier for me than for those who have the privilege of British citizenship by birthright to understand the bewilderment of asylum seekers who, often having survived torture, atrocity and persecution in their own country, are then faced with the unavoidable processes of establishing their right to political asylum in this country.
Naturally, I do not suggest that these processes are unnecessary. But to most asylum-seeking refugees unfamiliar with the language, confused by the process and faced with the uncertainty of exile and what is going to happen next, the process is a frightening ordeal during which they need advice, patience and understanding from the immigration officials. Unfortunately, however, these immigration officials are desperately seeking to make inroads into a massive backlog, and are being criticised for their failure to do so. The one thing they do not have is time to be patient and, indeed, often even the time to look as carefully and in depth as they would wish at every case for asylum. Almost inevitably under such pressures they often make incorrect decisions leading to appeals, which in turn inflate the backlog.
So it is hardly surprising that there is a great deal of anger and frustration on all sides. All sides--the Government, the refugees, their representatives and the immigration officials--share a common interest that decisions on refugee status are made speedily and fairly. Yet until the backlog is eliminated, this will not happen. Recognising this, the Government have introduced two-way streaming whereby resources are allocated to processing all new applications speedily while, at the same time, other resources are applied to backlog cases.
While this approach is clearly to be commended, it requires significant additional resources in the short term to succeed. Although some additional resources have been provided, they seem far from sufficient as the statistics do not show that the pipeline is decreasing. By itself, throwing resources at problems does not necessarily solve them. There must be the right level and quality of resources, careful planning and intensive training, all of which take time. But as I found in tackling waiting lists in the NHS, and in the financial services industry, backlogs are impossible to eliminate unless sufficient funding is provided.
There is, of course, one other solution to the backlog problem. In raising it, I recognise that it will not be popular with certain sectors in the media and elsewhere. That solution would be, on a one-off basis, to lower the criteria for backlog applicants only in a way similar to the approach already adopted by government in relation to asylum seekers who had applied before July 1993.
While this would inevitably lead to a number of so-called "economic migrants" being allowed to remain, government might decide it is a price worth paying. In this regard it must be questioned whether allowing a number of economic migrants to remain in the UK would necessarily be a bad thing, for it must be
There has been support for this approach from an unexpected source. No less an authority than Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman, was quoted in the Financial Times last week as saying that if economic growth is to be sustained at its present pace in the USA, immigration policies would have to be relaxed, and that to restrain inflation would require either more imports or more immigration. He added that he was satisfied that immigrants wanted to work, thereby rejecting the myth that their aim was to sponge on welfare benefits, a myth so often peddled in the USA and in this country.
I move from solutions to implementation of the Immigration and Asylum Act. I wish to add to the points about the plight of unaccompanied children which were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Elton. Because government wished to treat these children in exactly the same way as other deprived children, they were excluded from the new Home Office support scheme and they are governed by the provisions of the Children Act.
Many of these children have not been given full assessment of their needs under the Act and some have even been placed in adult single accommodation, in some cases hundreds of miles from the authority which has responsibility for them. A recent example is that of a child placed by a London authority in Leeds, without even reference to the Leeds social services, leaving the child very vulnerable. New guidelines issued this month to local authorities are to be welcomed but appropriate action needs to be taken to ensure that the guidelines are followed.
It also appears that the Home Office does not have procedural guidelines for its staff to follow when handling the asylum applications of unaccompanied children. There is a consensus that children should be treated first and foremost as children and I would suggest this requires special guidelines for their special needs to be prepared by the Home Office, probably in co-operation with the Department of Health, refugee community groups and voluntary organisations.
I end on a personal note. When I arrived in this country in 1965 as yet another anonymous refugee, the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, came to Heathrow airport and persuaded the immigration authorities to allow me entry. I have not met or talked with the noble Lord since then. I am sure that he has quite forgotten the incident as he must have helped many other similarly anonymous refugees. Acts of kindness such as this to refugees seeking asylum have the potential to transform the lives of refugees in the same way as it has transformed my life. After 35 years in this country, now a British citizen and very proud of that, I welcome the opportunity to thank the noble Lord again.
Lord Judd: My Lords, like others, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for the opportunity to debate this important subject today. I know that the whole House will want to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, on his moving, challenging, honest and yet characteristically modest maiden speech. I have known the noble Lord for many years as he was my long-suffering chair during my time as director of Oxfam. His arrival in this House is overdue. He brings to our proceedings deep experience from his time as a courageous human rights lawyer in South Africa in the grimmest years, his important role in the legal team defending Nelson Mandela and others in the Rivonia trial, through his outstanding business career in the United Kingdom, and his committed and effective chairing of Oxfam, not to mention his wider work with an impressive range of voluntary organisations with a cutting edge. Throughout his life the noble Lord has been a man determined to see justice and human rights turned into practical realities. It is therefore altogether appropriate that he has chosen to make his maiden speech in this debate. He will without doubt play a significant part in the work of our second Chamber.
In January, the Council of Europe, where I serve as a member of the British parliamentary delegation, adopted a well researched and argued report on asylum. It made a number of specific recommendations to member governments. The report noted that at its 50th anniversary the Council and its member governments had last year reaffirmed their commitment to the generous vision and values that inspired its creation, not least the right to freedom from persecution. It nevertheless expressed deep concern that those principles are in danger of being undermined by a climate of hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers in Europe. It noted that member governments themselves had been introducing restrictions with a view to reducing the number of refugees and asylum seekers in their countries. It underlined that the increasing determination of the European Union to harmonise the asylum and immigration policies of its members inevitably has significant consequences in terms of additional burdens for European countries which are not members of the European Union. It therefore called for a European-wide convention on the protection of refugees and asylum seekers to be drawn up by member and non-member countries of the European Union alike. I hope that the Government will treat this proposal seriously. If any issue demands maximum international co-operation, not only in Europe but across the world, it is the issue of migration and refugees.
The report also called for the right of asylum to be incorporated into the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. It is really not convincing to argue against this that there is no need as it is already enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So are other rights covered by the European convention. The continued omission of this particular right unavoidably lends credence to the anxieties about
Humane asylum policy will not be built on aspirations alone. It is in the detail of its administration and implementation that the humanity will be found. I should perhaps here declare an interest as national president of the YMCA which works increasingly in this sphere. With all its practical experience, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux advocates--the noble Lord, Lord Elton, has drawn attention to this--the introduction of a series of statements of rights with the appropriate statement to be handed out at port of entry or sent whenever immigration status is being varied. Rights to stay or to work would be explicitly covered. Would this not only help applicants but also greatly improve efficiency and administration thereby saving a lot of time and money? How do the Government see this proposal?
Does my noble friend not agree that great care must always be taken about fast-track procedures? Is it not the case that much of the backlog has been caused by appeals against inadequate handling in the fast track? Does he not also agree that it is difficult to reconcile the obligation to consider all applications fully and fairly on their individual merits with so-called "white lists" of countries and the presumption that applications from such countries will be without substance? Can my noble friend enlighten the House on the real role of the so-called "reception" centre at Oakington in this respect? I hope that it is not related to presumptions of the white list variety.
The issue of dispersal--already far advanced in the case of certain London boroughs--raises many issues. Let me mention just three. Are we certain that the religious, dietary and cultural needs of the dispersed can always be met at their destination? Are adequate specialist legal services always available? If not, why should funds not be provided to enable people to travel to where they can gain access to such services? Is it not extraordinary that people who want to support themselves can be prevented from expediting this by being unable to afford to travel to Croydon to chase their work permits, especially when, to have any chance in the daily Croydon queue, they may have to find accommodation overnight?
The charities and voluntary organisations trying to meet the human needs in this complicated story are frequently appalled that applicants and their families can be expected to survive on less than the absolute basic minimum income regarded as essential for our own citizens. They raise with me the issue of our responsibilities under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in this respect. Frankly, they
No one denies that there is abuse or, worse, that there is cruel, cynical trafficking in people. Such trafficking should never be tolerated and must be dealt with severely. But the issue is whether or not we are sincere about the rights of the persecuted to asylum. If we are, deterrence and preoccupation with abuse must never be allowed to obscure our commitment to be a beacon of hope for those at dreadful risk. If we mean what we like to say about Britain being an example of freedom and justice, these are not principles divisible by national frontiers. There will be costs--but by convincingly shouldering those costs we shall strengthen the foundations of our own society.
The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, I, too, should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, on his fine maiden speech, in which he described his own experience of asylum seeking. I understand from a recent interview with Mr F.W. de Klerk that there are approximately 300,000 people from South Africa now living in London. I am sure that they are making a significant contribution to life here. I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for initiating this debate on a subject of great importance, sensitivity and complexity. His speech reflected those qualities.
The noble Lord seeks to argue the case for policies which are both effective and humane. This, of course, precisely illustrates the challenge. As we know, statistics can support almost any argument. The people of Britain, perhaps wrongly, suspect that Britain has become, in the words of the noble Lord, "a worryingly attractive destination" for those simply wishing to better themselves, and parts of the media feed that anxiety.
On the other hand, with conflict in places such as Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and the Horn of Africa, sadly there are a great number of genuine asylum seekers shuffling around the world. Statistics would also indicate that they are not reaching Britain in disproportionate numbers. Nevertheless, with the backlog of asylum applications and with the fracas at Dover still fresh in public minds, it is necessary to continue to seek effective policies and practices in order that this country can live up to its long tradition of welcoming those fleeing oppression. It would be dreadful if asylum seekers became a political football
The noble Lord, Lord Judd--I agreed with practically every word of his speech--referred to the work of the YMCA. Last week, I visited several YMCA hostels in south London. In each case, a good proportion of the guests comprised young men seeking asylum from places such as Kosovo. They know themselves to be lucky to be alive after fleeing from the war zone shortly before the ethnic cleansing of young men began. Most of them have not been idle while they have been here. Brushing up their language skills has been a first priority, and then getting access to educational courses. Indeed, I met one young man who was already involved in medical studies. He seemed also to be the unofficial leader of a network of do-it-yourself support for other young Kosovans throughout south London. I see the same support networks operating out of ethnic cafes in Streatham, where I live, where refugees from Somalia congregate and share streetwise information. Such information and support can be life-giving to those newly arrived in a strange country. It can, for them, indicate whether or not asylum policies are humane.
I can understand why the Government wish to spread the load of care of asylum seekers around the country, but it is impossible to create precisely this network of self-help support without a critical mass of people from a similar background. I am afraid that there is evidence that what some of us feared about the dispersal policy for asylum seekers is already happening. Rather than being isolated in the Midlands or in the north, people are quietly moving to where their fellow countrymen and countrywomen can be found, even if it means a loss of housing and voucher support. The consortium of London local authorities currently handling arrangements for dispersal to other parts of the country has found that up to 15 per cent of people simply disappear rather than be dispersed.
But on this day, when the Government have issued a new challenge to so-called "failing" schools, I should like to focus on the asylum-seeking children who are now appearing in significant numbers in London schools, a matter to which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, briefly referred in his speech. Not surprisingly, those children are being admitted to schools having vacancies. More often than not, that means that such schools are set in areas of social deprivation and are already over-challenged to meet the needs of their existing pupils.
Let me tell the stories of some children at a single London school. One child had walked north with his family from religious persecution in Iran. They walked for eight months, arrived in Siberia, and then somehow found their way to Britain. He is in that school. There is an 11 year-old boy from Somalia who is so traumatised that he has no memory at all of what happened to him before the age of 10. He is in that school.
Children like these, coming from war zones, are often traumatised by what they have witnessed. It is not unusual for a child simply to sit in a corner and sob for days on end. When life has been cheap and death near, the rules and regulations of a British school can seem trivial by comparison. When they do overcome their trauma, because they have never known what it is to play, teenagers can revert to behaviour more appropriate to a six year-old. This means that behavioural problems can be a challenge to an already over-stretched school.
The main factor determining whether or not such children are going to survive and prosper in the British education system is language skill. Without a grasp of English, immigrant children are marginalised and fall ever further behind in their studies. The provision of specialised teachers of English as a second language is absolutely vital. Yet, at that very school, where the children to whom I have referred are being cared for, the very same teachers who keep them sane and give them day in, day out support were given their notice last month--all of them. Why? I am no expert on the machinations of educational reform or government joined-up thinking, but it seems that until April 1999 Section 11 money came from the Home Office to fund teachers of English as a second language at schools where immigrant children are to be found. Last April, EMAG (Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant) replaced the Section 11 money and fell within a DfEE grant called the "Standards Fund". The EMAG money is to be used not only for teaching English as a second language (ESL), but to raise the standards of achievement for children from ethnic minority groups who are under-achieving. So far, so good, for our asylum-seeking children certainly fall within the group.
However, there is a snag. For the full EMAG funding to be available, the local authority must match the central government grant. It will not surprise your Lordships to learn that the very boroughs needing the grants find it difficult to find the matching money. There is another change. The ESL teachers previously employed by the local educational authority are now to be employed by the schools in which they were set.
I do not know the economic or educational reasons for making all of these changes. They must have made sense to someone. I do know that it is difficult to talk here about humane policies for asylum seekers when battered, bewildered, traumatised children risk having the most basic of support--the provision of EMAG teachers--gravely weakened.
Whatever else comes out of this debate, I hope that someone in some government department will revisit this issue. Rightly, as we have heard, asylum-seeking children are rarely turned away from British ports of entry. Having admitted them, surely we have a duty to house and educate them in the most humane way possible. A largish hole is developing in that net of support. It needs mending.
Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, I add my gratitude to my noble friend for giving us the opportunity to debate what must be one of the most difficult dilemmas facing this country today. I believe that we are one of the most generous and compassionate of peoples and that we can be very proud of our past history in receiving those who have fled their homes fearing for their lives.
At the time of the persecution of many Asians by Idi Amin, thousands of people arrived here just before Christmas. They were sent to centres around the country. I marvelled at the many offers that flooded in as people felt unable to enjoy their own celebrations without sharing it with those whose lives were in turmoil as a result of the evil tactics of a dreadful regime. I also remember hearing at first hand the heartrending stories of mothers who, at a moment's notice, had to gather together all they could and flee. They deserved our love and compassion. I believe that we gave it.
Let me say also that I believe we gained considerably from the people who came here at that time. Indeed, it was with great joy that we were able to welcome into your Lordships' House the third noble Lord to have become a British citizen as a result of Idi Amin's rule. We can hold our heads high in the world in our response to those who are in real trouble with repressive regimes.
However, there is an equally important issue concerning our own people who also have great need. I remember having this demonstrated to me while canvassing in Newham during an election. I climbed an outside staircase to a flat that was obviously run down and seriously in need of repair. An elderly lady came to the door. I could see that she was having difficulty in moving. She told me a haunting story. As a result of her physical disability, she had been on the list for transfer to more accessible accommodation for some considerable time. She pointed to some purpose built flats on the opposite side of the road, one of
The situation has changed over the years and action is now essential. Otherwise it will spiral out of control. The number of applications has increased dramatically from 32,500 in 1997 to 71,160 in 1999. The number of decisions has fallen under this Government from 36,000 to 32,000 with a consequential more than doubling of the number of people--51,795 to 103,000--waiting for a decision. This is unacceptable. May I be so bold as to suggest that it would be helpful if the Minister got to grips with the figures rather than casting them on one side as fanciful and fictional? It does seem that today we are seen as a soft touch--and I do use that word--around the world so that, in addition to real refugees, we are experiencing a massive influx of economic migrants who try to get around the regulations by devious means such as entering the country in the backs of lorries. This is quite unacceptable. A strong message must continue to go out to the effect that this is unacceptable. Illegal immigrants are causing those who are in genuine need to wait longer for their applications to be heard, if they are ever reached.
I wish I could suggest one, but of course there is no easy solution. One major problem is the time factor. I was horrified to read that the average time for reaching a decision is 13 months. During that time applicants have settled into the community and naturally will go through every known process to stay. It seems to me that the greatest attention should be given to the arrival of applicants and if they have arrived via a third country, they should be returned immediately.
I was most interested to hear my right honourable friend in another place, Michael Howard, say over the weekend that the refugees from Kosovo should be encouraged to return to their homeland. We have troops there to keep law and order, so their fears of persecution should diminish. I warm to the idea and feel that such initiatives must be fed into the urgent debate that is necessary to avoid chaos. If applicants are living here for years, getting married and having children, it is almost impossible to come to a logical, clearly thought out decision. I feel also that, at the end of the process, to ask a judge to assess whether a person would be under threat if returned is asking almost the impossible. After all, how can anyone in this country, with scant knowledge of the applicant's country, know what the outcome would be for that particular person?
We have an escalating problem with huge numbers of people making legal applications and, in addition, many going to ground once here. Also, as I have said, some come in undetected. So it is impossible to assess
The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, who is the very model of a modern moderator and, like the noble Lord, Lord Renton, has been a respected authority on home affairs for many years. It is a pity that there are not more Conservatives like them in another place who can debate and criticise constructively instead of playing to the tabloid gallery, as so many do.
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