`It's impossible to get asylum in Britain'
The process of claiming asylum in Britain puts many obstacles in the way of refugees fleeing persecution. Most asylum-seekers don't even get as far as Britain, and those who do are finding out that the government's main priority is to either deport them, detain them, or starve them out.
The British government signed the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. It defines refugees as those with `a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion' (Article 1). The main aim of the convention was to draw up a binding code of practice among states that meant that refugees would be treated humanely, and given protection.
Most asylum-seekers don't get as far as Britain
Article 1 of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees defines refugees as being outside their country of origin, and under British immigration rules you can't apply for refugee status if you are still in your own country. This means that the first hurdle facing asylum-seekers is the need to get out of their own country before they can apply for refugee status. If they apply from a country that is considered a `safe' third country, the application may be turned down - see the section on `safe' third countries below.
These are some of the other strategies the British government has used to prevent refugees from arriving in Britain.
We believe there is a link between all of these practices and the fact that Britain takes a tiny number of the world's refugees. In The State of the World's Refugees: in Search of Solutions (1995) the UNHCR noted that there were 14 million refugees in the world. In 1994, fifteen European nations granted refugee status to a mere 47,000 people. As one of those countries, the UK granted refugee status to just 1,295 people in 1995.
What happens when you arrive
If you have arrived at a UK port of entry and you want to claim asylum, you are first interviewed by a relatively junior immigration official, sometimes with the assistance of an interpreter appointed by the Home Office. Later, a questionnaire is completed during a separate interview with a Home Office official and this forms the basis of your claim to asylum. There are a number of problems with this system:
1. Responses may be misinterpreted or even misrepresented at either one of these interviews, and when this happens it appears to the Home Office that the asylum-seeker is being inconsistent, and that therefore they are not credible. Nine out of ten asylum-seekers cannot speak English to the level required to complete the questionnaire properly but interpreters only need the equivalent of an `A' Level qualification in the language to be appointed, and the tests carried out on their suitability by the Home Office are basic. The Nuffield Interpreter Project set up in 1991 has found `serious miscarriages of justice' caused by misinterpretation. Examples quoted in the Independent (17/1/96) included apolitique translated as `a politician' rather than `apolitical'. Other complaints include the insensitive use of interpreters, for instance the use of Turkish translators interpreting for Kurds who also speak Turkish.
2. There is no automatic right to legal representation at this interview stage, although it forms the basis of an asylum-seeker's case. We believe that many genuine refugees are persuaded that they have no chance of getting asylum, and that they should agree to a supervised deportation. There is no attempt to provide even a written explanation of the person's legal rights; the airport authorities even initially banned the display of posters warning asylum-seekers what to expect.
3. Refugees who have fled from traumatic experiences are likely to have a fear of officials. They do not know their rights and they will probably be confused and disorientated. Sometimes they don't want to, or can't, for psychological or cultural reasons, describe their traumatic experiences to unknown officials. In this respect these interviews are extremely insensitive to refugees' needs. Yet, the statements given at this stage form the basis for assessing an application.
Fear of officials, of being deported, not knowing how to apply, or waiting for advice from friends or family already in the UK are all reasons why most asylum-seekers (67%) wait until after they have entered the UK before applying for asylum. Over 80% of these `in-country' applicants apply within one week of entering the UK (Refugee Council briefing document, November 1995).
For those who do apply at the port of entry, and who don't hold entry visas, the duty immigration officer will decide after the interview whether to give the asylum-seeker permission to enter the country (`Temporary Admission') or whether to recommend to the Chief Immigration Officer that the person should be detained until a more permanent decision is made. If a person is detained it becomes much harder to pursue his or her claim for political asylum. This is because:
1. They are physically separated from any family, friends and advice agencies who could help and support them.
2. They require the assistance of other people to find out the information they need to pursue their claim. It's impossible to request documents from libraries, or research the existence of supporting evidence.
3. There are only limited facilities in detention centres for communicating with the outside world. Detainees cannot use fax machines, send e-mail, or use computers to write letters. At Campsfield House, the main way detainees can communicate with the outside world is by using payphones. These are totally inadequate when it comes to contacting people internationally.
Once you have applied, you have to wait for an initial decision on your claim. This can literally take years. Latest figures show that the average time an asylum-seeker waits for a decision is eight months. For those in detention, that means months of waiting without knowing when a decision is going to be made. In some instances people have waited in detention for eighteen months, and one person has been detained for five years pending a decision. In the majority of cases, the claim is turned down.
A climate of disbelief
Currently only 21% of asylum-seekers are allowed to stay, with 4% given full refugee status and 16% granted `Exceptional Leave to Remain'. This compares with a figure of 65% in the six months preceding the introduction of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act in 1993. Why is this? Refugee agencies have confirmed that there hasn't been any change in the claims made by their clients. We believe that the reason why more applications fail is because there is a climate of disbelief in the Home Office.
The Home Office make their decisions based on country reports prepared by the Foreign Office . These reports are not generally available for independent comment, but it is clear from them that they downplay human rights abuses. In turning down a claim from a Nigerian in 1994, the Home Office noted that `there have been no reports of persecution or atrocities against the civilian population' at a time when Human Rights Watch Africa described human rights abuses in Nigeria as `rampant'.
Similarly, India, with a 98% refusal rate, has been placed on a proposed `white list' of safe countries from which it will be difficult to claim asylum. Yet Amnesty International's 1995 report on India noted that `Thousands of political prisoners were held without charge or trial. Torture and ill-treatment of detainees were routine, resulting in hundreds of deaths in police and military custody.' And the US State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 1994 the section about India records `torture, rape and deaths of suspects in police custody throughout India'.
Another reason why more cases fail now is the standard of evidence needed by the Home Office. In one letter of refusal the Home Office stated that:
Often evidence is misused in order to turn down applications: No reason at all provides many examples from letters of refusal:
If asylum-seekers pass through third countries which the Secretary of State considers safe, their applications can be turned down on the basis that they should have applied there. The UNHCR has stated that `none of the sources of international rules and principles relating to asylum suggest - much less prescribe - that the right to seek asylum has to be exercised in any particular country, or that a person...would forfeit his right to seek asylum if he does not exercise it in the first country whose territory he has entered.' We cannot find any evidence that the government has obtained guarantees that these `safe' countries will not themselves deport refugees to the country from where they have fled. This has happened in the case of Iranians deported back to Turkey, in the case of Zaireans returned from Belgium, and Somalians from Italy. The 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act effectively removes the right of appeal against decisions to return asylum-seekers to these `safe third countries'.
`Fast track' procedures are in use for those claims judged to be `without foundation' at the initial interview. This procedure means that these asylum-seekers have only got two days to appeal against a decision to deport, and the appeal is heard within ten days. Most asylum-seekers who apply at a port of entry and whose case is judged to be `without foundation' are detained, and they find it very difficult to get legal advice and complete the forms within these two days. The 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act extends these fast-track procedures to a `white list' of countries mentioned above, which the Secretary of State considers `safe'. Once this list is established, the Secretary of State has the power to add or delete countries from it without the need for parliamentary approval. Nigeria and Algeria have both been candidates for the `white list' in the past, and the current list includes (for example) Pakistan, India and Ghana, all of which suffer problems of human rights abuses.
Appealing against decisions
Under the 1993 Asylum and Immigration Act a system of appeals was brought in, set up by the Home Office under the Immigration Appeals Authority. There is some provision of legal aid and this helps asylum-seekers to understand the processes of appeal. However, legal aid does not cover the cost or effort involved in obtaining supporting evidence from the asylum-seeker's own country, and, given the level of proof the Home Office is now demanding, this is a big disadvantage. Neither does legal aid cover representation at Immigration Appeals Tribunal hearings, and the vast majority of asylum-seekers can't afford to pay for it themselves. Additionally these hearings are often called at short notice, and they are frequently postponed on the day itself if the Home Office representative fails to attend. Clearly the assumption is that asylum-seekers will not be represented.
The tribunals are conducted by single adjudicators, who are appointed by the Immigration Appeals Authority. They are not given any detailed training, and we believe this makes them heavily dependent on the advice of the Home Office representative at hearings. Of the cases brought to the Immigration Appeals Tribunal, 267 were successful in 1995.
We believe that the current arrangements for legal advice and fair hearings are totally inadequate and tokenistic.