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Lord Dholakia rose to move, as an amendment to the above Motion, at end to insert "but this House regrets that the order has been introduced before the establishment of an Advisory Panel on Country Information under Section 142 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002".

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The noble Lord said: My Lords, I do not underestimate the Minister's task of dealing with a large number of applications from asylum seekers. I am aware that the Minister is closely involved with our European partners in examining how a Europe-wide policy on asylum matters can be established. The Minister need not have apologised. He has always shared his concerns with your Lordships' House, and I appreciate that.

It is in everyone's interest that asylum applications should be dealt with speedily and that those who qualify to remain should be settled into the community without much delay. Equally, the primary task of such a speedy system is to ensure that fairness is not sacrificed to speed. I am aware that a fast-track pilot scheme was announced. It appeared on the Immigration and Nationality Directorate website. It would be helpful if adequate consultation with the relevant non-departmental bodies, such as the Refugee Legal Centre, could be established prior to the project, which, I understand, is to be implemented on 7th April. We need information about the detail of procedures and timescales for the initial decision-making process.

There ought to be public confidence in the system. If that exists and the system is fair and just, that will alleviate many of the problems associated with the delays. Public confidence will be shaped by the quality of service and a decision-making process that can distinguish genuine asylum seekers from economic migrants. We have already supported the Government's action on managed migration and matters relating to seasonal workers. Those of us on these Benches and on the Conservative Benches supported the establishment of an advisory panel on country information under Section 142 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. We were motivated by the fact that, in some cases, a wrong decision at this end could have serious consequences for the applicant.

If an appeal is denied here, the next best option is to have up-to-date information about the country to which the applicant is to be deported. Why has it taken so long to proceed, when we have agencies such as Oxfam, the Save the Children Fund, Amnesty International and others at the coalface in those countries and have a wealth of information about what goes on there? The enlargement of the "white list" should go hand-in-hand with the work of the advisory panel.

I am delighted with the Minister's explanation of how such a panel would be set up shortly. However, I must explain what I regret about the order. The decision to extend the "white list" of 10 EU accession states in central and eastern Europe to include seven more countries will mean that applications from thousands more asylum seekers will officially be presumed to be unfounded. Ten states are listed in Section 94 and Section 115: Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, the Slovak Republic and the Republic of Slovenia. At the time of the passage of those sections, our criticism was

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deflected and, to some extent, we even accepted the explanation that those countries were EU applicant countries and met all the human rights requirements.

As Beverley Hughes stated on 5th November 2002, all those 10 countries are democracies. They have functioning criminal justice systems, a commitment to human rights and to targeting and eradicating elements of society that discriminate against minority groups. She also highlighted the fact that in those countries more than 90 per cent of those who appealed against a refusal to grant asylum had their appeals dismissed.

At a recent meeting in Luxembourg, as noble Lords will know, the Justice and Home Affairs Council adopted a declaration that member states should start from the presumption that any asylum application from a national of one of the 10 states was manifestly unfounded. That view is not universally shared. The order adds Albania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro, Jamaica, Macedonia and Romania. Can similar things be said about those seven countries as can be said about the existing "white list" countries?

According to the Guardian on 7th February 2003, Mr Blunkett intends to,

    "build upon the success by adding a further 7 countries—all democracies with effective criminal justice systems, in which it is frankly not credible to suggest people routinely fear for their lives".

According to the same Guardian article, the parliamentary Joint Committee published a report a year ago contending that the United Nations did not accept that any one of the seven countries to be added to the "white list" could be declared safe. The UNHCR says that, in its experience, it is impossible to exclude, as a matter of law, the possibility that an individual could have a well founded fear of persecution in any country, however great that country's commitment to human rights and the rule of law.

Safe country lists are at odds with the fundamental premise of refugee protection that everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy asylum from persecution and to be given access to fair and efficient asylum procedures. The UNHCR argues that a safe country list must never be used to bar asylum seekers from entering the asylum procedure altogether.

What is the common factor that binds these countries together? On what basis have they been chosen? Who has decided that they carry no risk of serious persecution?

Moreover, it is important to question why the Government are adding to the white lists when Section 94 is not yet in force and Section 115 has only just come into force. I propose that it is necessary to establish whether the lists function effectively before they are extended. According to the Immigration Advisory Service, the effect of these measures on the numbers will be small. It argues that,

    "the impact of adding these countries to the 'white list' is unlikely to be great . . . The figures for the last quarter of 2002 show that 270 Albanians, 565 Jamaicans and 380 Romanians claimed asylum. Moldova, Serbia and Montenegro (including Kosovo) were not even listed separately but came within the total for 'Europe Other' amounting to 65 or 'Other Former Yugoslavia'

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    amounting to 30. On an annualized basis this is less than 5,000 individuals—some 5 per cent of applicants. The Minister should be asked how many asylum seekers came from Moldova, Serbia and Montenegro (including Kosovo). Is this worth the effort and expense to the taxpayers"?

We have many specific concerns about each of these countries as potential safe havens for asylum seekers. Organised crime is a major problem across some of the central and eastern European countries, such as Albania and Moldova, where there are high levels of violent crime associated with gang operations.

According to the US Department of State, police officers in Albania are largely untrained, ill paid and often unreliable—a fact that is regarded as a major hindrance to public order and internal security. There is widespread police corruption. There are credible accounts of judges being intimidated or bribed by powerful criminals. Albania is a major point of origin and transit in the trafficking of women and children.

Although the Albanian Government have an anti-trafficking strategy, the police force and judiciary are generally reluctant to view trafficking as a serious human rights violation. Indeed, the US Department of State has also reported that Albanian police are frequently involved, directly or indirectly, in the trafficking of women for prostitution. This is a huge concern for the organisation Women Against Rape which works with individuals who have suffered physical abuse due to their ethnic origins.

The Immigration Advisory Service is concerned that the police may fail to offer sufficient protection for those who are targeted by criminal gangs. The case, Albert Shperdheja v The Secretary of State for the Home Department, UKIATO3127, is a clear example that it was held that,

    "the authorities in Albania will not be able to offer this particular Appellant the protection that he needs in the lights of their unreliability, ineptitude and widespread corruption".

Although there is no evidence of the systematic abuse of human rights as a matter of state policy, Albania faces a number of human right challenges. According to the FCO these are exacerbated by institutional weakness, endemic corruption and poorly developed democratic and civic culture. It argues that the implementation of human rights legislation has been flawed and that Government attention has been diverted by a series of political and economic crises.

Similar problems exist in several of the other seven countries to be added to the white list. In Jamaica, the Immigration Advisory Service remains concerned about police brutality and impunity, arbitrary arrests and detention, an over-burdened judiciary, poor prison conditions, violence and discrimination against women and homosexuals, cases of social discrimination against persons with disability and members of the Rastafarian religion.

Furthermore, Jamaica is reported to have one of the highest crime and murder rates in the world. It has a history of violence by gangs and rival political parties. Statistics show that more than 920 people were murdered in 2002 due to rising levels of crime and violence. This problem is exacerbated by the negative

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influence that the police have on the community. They are not seen to be committed to their responsibility to provide protection to the public.

In addition to these widespread problems, there is concern about the welfare of specific communities who are targeted and discriminated against in these countries. Ethnic minority groups, such as Roma and Egyptians, are targeted in Albania, Serbia and Montenegro. UNHCR reports from January 2003 state that these groups in particular should,

    "continue to benefit from international protection in countries of asylum".

In this vein, the Immigration Advisory Service has grave reservations about the IND failing to take UNHCR's opinion into account with regard to these groups.

As a further example, I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that the legal status and protection on the ground in Kosovo remain unstable. On one hand, ethnic Albanians continue to call for independence and have complained that UNMIK is taking too long to hand over authority. On the other hand, the Serbian President wrote to NATO and the Security Council requesting permission for Serbian police and military forces to return to Kosovo. According to the BBC, Kosovo was supposed to get 4,700 international police to establish law and order, but as of February 2002 there were fewer than 2,400 police. K-FOR is therefore involved in policing, which indicates that there is serious doubt as to whether protection will ever be made available to ethnic minority groups.

Adequate protection is not available in Kosovo for the groups of people mentioned above. Adding them to the Section 115 white list could put individuals at serious risk of a return to persecution and treatment contrary to Article 3 of the Human Rights Act.

A further point of concern is procedural. I should like to draw attention to the fast-track Oakington reception centre near Cambridge, where the asylum seekers will be sent first and where applications will be assessed within 10 days. On 7th February 2003, the Guardian reported that it is here that those who cannot,

    "rebut the presumption that their asylum or human rights claim is clearly unfounded"

will be rejected.

It is important to underscore that this announcement comes shortly after the disclosure that the 4.5 million Oakington centre is so underused that on one day in January only 32 of its 250 places were in use. Is this an attempt by the Government to find an appropriate use for the centre?

I should like to highlight that the Government promised that they would create an independent advisory panel on country-specific information. Now that we have that information, it is to be hoped that they will continue to make and influence the decision-making process in relation to individual applicants. Beverley Hughes has vaguely stipulated that the Government expect to establish an advisory panel on country

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information "in the coming months" and I am delighted that the Minister is going to invite the appropriate people with qualifications to comment.

We have always been against the concept of a white list and, as we recall, even the Labour Party was against one when it was in opposition. We continue to believe that each case should be judged according to its own merits and should consider the particular facts of each individual case. That will not undermine the quality of decision-making, especially when one takes into account the quality of information available to the Home Office with regard to a specific country, in particular since situations in a country abroad can change quickly.

It was not my intention in any way to try to hinder the process that the Minister is trying to establish under the order. I want simply to show my regret that so many other factors need to be taken into account when adding to the list. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the above Motion, at the end insert "but this House regrets that the order has been introduced before the establishment of an Advisory Panel on Country Information under Section 142 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002.—(Lord Dholakia.)

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