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House of Lords

Tuesday, 10th July 2001.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Manchester.

Lord Ouseley

Sir Herman George Ouseley, Knight, having been created Baron Ouseley, of Peckham Rye in the London Borough of Southwark, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Rix and the Lord Dholakia.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff

Ilora Gillian Finlay, having been created Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, of Llandaff in the County of South Glamorgan, for life--Was, in her robes, introduced between the Lord Walton of Detchant and the Lord McColl of Dulwich.

Several Lords--Took the Oath.

Lord Chancellor: Leave of Absence

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, before business begins, I take the opportunity to inform the House that I am to accompany Her Majesty the Queen on the state visit to the Channel Islands on Thursday, 12th July, when the House will sit. Accordingly, I trust that the House will grant me leave of absence.

Asylum Seekers: Female Persecution

2.50 p.m.

Baroness Rendell of Babergh asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is their response to reports that some asylum seekers have left their home countries to escape female genital mutilation, and that some of their claims for asylum have been rejected on the ground that they are victims of persecution from individuals, not from the state.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Rooker): My Lords, the United Kingdom is quite ready to recognise as refugees those who have been persecuted by non-state agents as well as those persecuted by the state. In order to qualify for asylum, an applicant would have to show that female genital mutilation (FGM) is knowingly tolerated by her government or that the authorities are unable to offer effective protection.

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Baroness Rendell of Babergh: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Does he agree that the threat of female genital mutilation should be a ground for asylum in that it constitutes torture and therefore breaches Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights? Is he aware that asylum has been granted by both the United States and Sweden to women who were threatened by female genital mutilation in their own countries?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, we are satisfied that the issue of FGM constitutes torture under the Human Rights Act and Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. There is no question about that in our mind as there was no question in the mind of the previous government in that respect. I am aware that the United States and other countries have granted asylum to women based on their claim of the threat of FGM. In the UK we see very few cases based solely on such a threat; usually other factors are also taken into account. However, if noble Lords are aware of any specific cases of persons fleeing persecution with which the authorities are not dealing--it is a criminal offence in this country to carry out such barbaric practices--I hope that they will draw them to my attention.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, can the Minister say how many African countries have banned female circumcision? If there are some who have not banned that loathsome practice, surely women have a case that those states are persecuting them?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, there is no question about that if the government have not outlawed it. On the other hand, all the states in the United Nations, except for Somalia and the United States, signed up to the convention in respect of children. Whether they have incorporated it into their domestic law is another matter. Among certain sections of the community in some countries in central, eastern and western Africa, including Egypt in the north of Africa, that barbaric practice still takes place. However, it is not necessarily done with the connivance or acceptance of the government. That is an issue that would be raised in any asylum application. Each case has to be taken in the round. There is no doubt that it is a barbaric practice which ought to be outlawed across the planet by every country and we will do what we can to assist women who seek refuge in this country.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his strong statement on FGM, which is welcome. However, repeatedly during the passage of the legislation, we on these Benches were assured that those who were subject to torture, whether FGM or other kinds, would be treated with particular care with regard to detention. Is the Minister aware that there are still some proven victims of torture who have spent many months in detention and will he be kind enough to look into the matter?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I certainly accept what the noble Baroness says. If she will give me the details of

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particular cases to which she is referring, I shall have them investigated immediately. Besides FGM, forced abortions also constitute torture. We recognise that there are such practices. The independent appellate authorities in relation to immigration in this country have accepted that it is important to categorise women who apply for refuge on that basis.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I support and welcome the strong words that the Minister has spoken on this subject. If possible, can he tell the House how many claims have been rejected recently on the ground set out in the Question? I believe that they number few, if any.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am not aware of a specific figure. I have looked into the matter. Applications for asylum are not specific; they are not categorised in relation to a particular reason. Many reasons are given. FGM would be part and parcel of a normal asylum application in terms of fleeing persecution, but there may be other matters to be taken into account. However, if FGM does not fit within the specific rules of the 1951 convention, and it was proved that it was taking place, we would grant exceptional leave to remain, even if refugee status were not granted.

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that when a country is in civil war, like many in Africa, there is no effective government to protect victims of FGM, whatever the laws may be on paper? Would such victims then be given consideration for asylum?

Lord Rooker: Yes, my Lords, that is most certainly the case. Where there is a civil war in a country, it is difficult for anyone to argue that there are safe areas in the country. The nature of this barbaric practice may be that it does not take place across a whole country, but simply in an isolated pocket of a community. It may be argued that a woman, or usually a very young female, could be returned to another area of a country; but if the country is racked with civil war, it would be extremely unwise and inhuman to return a person to such a country.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, is there any way of protecting girls who are taken from this country to African countries for this horrible mutilation?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the honest answer is no. Girls are removed from this country for forcible marriage and other practices under the guise of a holiday. A girl may find out the real reason for her visit only on arrival in another country. Passports are removed from girls and effectively they are locked away. Access to consular facilities is virtually non-existent and, of course, it is not practical for them to visit such facilities. One cannot sugar-coat this. The answer is no. If a young girl is removed from this country, she is removed from the protection of the UK authorities.

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Baroness Sharples: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how many countries are involved in this appalling practice?

Lord Rooker: No, my Lords, I cannot. I believe that it takes place in regions of eastern, central and western African countries and in a north-African country, Egypt. I do not believe that the practice exists all across those countries, but it usually takes place in isolated pockets of small communities. Africa is not the only place where it happens; it takes place in other parts of the world. The Government, through the Department of Health, are working with at least one NGO in this country to help and to facilitate a wider dispersal of information among professionals about this barbaric practice so that we can pick up the problem when people come into this country.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, does the Minister agree that in the countries where FGM is practised it is usual for a girl to be pursued from her home village or town to other parts of the country by relatives determined to inflict this frightful torture on her? Therefore, in such cases, it would not be satisfactory to send a woman back to another part of the country from where she hailed originally. Does the Minister also agree that it is necessary to put on the Home Office country reports the fact that a country is not able to afford adequate protection so that that information is available to entry certificate officers and to others in the IND?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I shall take on board, in a positive way, the noble Lord's suggestion about the in-country reports. However, it is true that young females sometimes flee their villages, with the protection of their parents who do not want FGM to take place, when people in the community seek them out for that purpose. Each case and each claim will have to be judged on its individual circumstances and merits. It is not possible to give a blanket, global reply. However, I take on board the latter part of the suggestion made by the noble Lord.

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