Peter Tatchell exposes the Home Office’s shameless, devious methods – legal and illegal – which are designed to ensure the deportation of as many asylum applicants as possible.
Britain ‘s asylum system is out of control. Home Office ministers preside over a regime of corruption, lawlessness and inhumanity. I know. Working with asylum applicants, I see firsthand the reality of an amoral, bungling policy.
In the last couple of years, I have helped over 100 would-be refugees. Their cases are just the tip of the iceberg – a snapshot of a national disgrace.
In my experience, most talk of ‘failed’ asylum seekers is nonsense. While some may be bogus, many fail because of poor or non-existent legal representation, not because their claims are unfounded.
None of the asylum applicants I have dealt with was fraudulent. All were eventually able to corroborate their harrowing accounts of brut ali ties such as imprisonment, torture, rape and the murder of their loved ones.
A majority of the asylum seekers who contacted me had no legal representation. Only one had a good lawyer, and that was because his family was well-off. The rest were dependent on legal aid asylum solicitors, many of whom do a second rate job – either because they are incompetent or because they are under-funded or over-burdened with asylum claims.
The Home Office has a list of solicitors it recommends to asylum claimants. It just so happens that most of these firms have a high failure rate, which is very convenient for a government hell-bent on slashing asylum numbers.
The talk on the asylum street is that shoddy solicitors gravitate to asylum work because it is easy pickings, with little competition from first-rate lawyers. It certainly looks that way from my experience.
In a case this year, one Home Office-approved legal representative acting for ex-Soviet bloc asylum applicants was so incompetent that I had to advise him on basic points of law.
Cuts in legal aid funding mean that many reputable solicitors no longer take on asylum cases. The number of hours paid by legal aid for the preparation of each asylum application is usually insufficient. The standard legal aid contract gives solicitors a mere £286 per asylum client, which covers five hours work at minimum rates. In five hours, lawyers are expected to take a statement from the applicant, get corroborating affidavits from witnesses (often on the other side of the world), obtain reports from human rights groups, organise medical examinations to confirm torture, and research the legal basis of the claim. In most cases it is impossible.
This leaves the field open to unscrupulous firms who see asylum applicants as cash cows and are prepared to submit poorly prepared claims. The solicitor for one of my Palestinian claimants represented her at an asylum hearing based on a 20 minute interview. This was not long enough to document her full story. At the hearing, key aspects of her persecution were never heard and no corroborating evidence was presented. No wonder she failed.
One Iranian I am assisting was represented by a firm of solicitors recommended by the Home Office. They told him they did not “have time” to record his story of persecution and, anyway, it was “too complicated”. Without the applicant’s approval, they presented an asylum tribunal with a plausible – but entirely fictitious – story, which had nothing to do with his actual experience of human rights abuses in Iran. I can only assume that this firm also presents bogus evidence in other “complicated” cases. The Home Office under-funding of legal aid encourages such abuses.
The whole asylum process is rigged to fail as many applicants as possible. The Fast-Track system is designed to speed up the processing of claims and expedite the removal of failed asylum seekers. A solicitor assigned to a new claimant usually gets less than 24 hours notice of their client’s Home Office hearing. Unsurprisingly, the failure rate is high. If the claim is refused, the appeal is often scheduled a week or so later – which is rarely enough time to get sufficient supportive evidence.
Another inbuilt bias is the Country Information Policy Unit (CIPU) at the Home Office. It produces reports on human rights violations in the countries from which asylum seekers flee. These reports are used by asylum adjudicators to determine whether a person has a well founded fear of persecution and should be granted asylum. In my experience, CIPU reports are often overly optimistic.
I have helped several refugees who fled Islamist terrorism and state repression in Algeria. The old CIPU report downplayed the seriousness of Algerian human rights abuses and the likelihood of returnees being victimised. It was eventually withdrawn in embarrassment by the Home Office in September 2004, after having been exposed as out-of-date, incomplete and riddled with unverified information from dubious sources. Before it was pulled, this flawed CIPU information was cited in the cases of 550 Algerians who applied for asylum in 2003. Only five were successful.
Last year, the Immigration Advisory Service (IAS) published a damning analysis of CIPU reports. It expressed “serious doubts” about their validity; criticising them for “unbalanced representation, serious breach of objectivity, inclusion of blatant political opinion and unattributed statements”.
According to a report by Guardian journ ali st Melanie MacFadyean: “IAS blasted the reports for excluding information that might help asylum seekers, and for putting a positive ‘spin’ on reports by NGOs that are actually critical of the countries concerned. ‘We looked at 23 of the 35 reports and they seemed to be written with a view to rejecting asylum seekers,’ said Colin Yeo, a senior immigration lawyer at IAS.”
Another government ploy to thwart asylum applicants is the notorious “white list” system. Introduced under the Nation ali ty, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, this allows the Home Office to declare that designated countries (currently there are 24 of them) are safe and free from serious human rights violations. Asylum adjudicators are expected to presume that applications from these countries are unfounded, and to therefore reject them. The white list countries include Sri Lanka, where a bloody civil war has led to widespread torture and assassination. The Sri Lankan government is powerless to stop the violence and protect the victims. Yet the Home Office says all asylum claims from Sri Lanka should be assumed to be bogus and the claimants deported.
Asylum applicants who have committed no crimes are held in detention centres like Colnbrook and Harmondsworth in west London. They are prisons in all but name. People mostly get put in detention if the Home Office thinks their claims are unfounded and or if they come from a white list country which is deemed to be safe. In other words, the Home Office prejudges their application.
Minors sometimes get incarcerated too. And not by accident. One 17 year old told me that asylum officials confiscated his original Home Office ID and issued him with a new one with a false date of birth, designating him as being 18, in order to permit his detention in Harmondsworth.
I know of asylum claimants who have been detained for 18 months – the equivalent of a three year jail sentence. For what? Victims of torture are held without charge or trial, with fewer legal rights than people arrested for murder and rape.
MPs recently defeated the government’s bid to detain terror suspects for 90 days. When will these noble defenders of freedom vote to overturn the even worse abuses inflicted on innocent asylum seekers?
Within detention centres, asylum claimants are at the whim and mercy of the guards. In cases bought to my attention, abuse happens in the ‘blind’ areas, where there are no CCTV cameras. It also occurs in the internal prisons – the high security segregation units – where ‘trouble-makers’ who try to assert their legal rights are sometimes punished. This abuse echoes the humiliations inflicted in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. As well as racist and homophobic insults, it includes unjustified strip-searches and internal genital examinations. There are no checks and balances to protect against these violations. Detainees are virtually powerless.
In theory, asylum detainees have access to legal representation. In practice, many don’t. One Ugandan detainee I know has just been forced through the asylum system without a solicitor. Not surprisingly, he failed to get refuge.
Legal representation is no guarantee of anything. Some claimants are deported illegally, without removal orders being served. Others get deported, even though they have a pending judicial review of the decision to refuse them asylum. Having an upcoming case in the High Court is no bar to the Home Office forcibly removing someone from the UK.
I have experienced people being served with deportation notices while awaiting medical examinations to confirm their claims of torture. Their removal looks like a deliberate attempt to thwart medical corroboration. Even those who have their claims of torture confirmed by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture are not safe. Some still get deported, without any court ever being allowed to consider the medical evidence.
A torture and rape victim I am supporting was until recently held in detention for six months, without receiving any treatment or counselling. He says requests for medical treatment are frequently ignored and people suffering severe trauma are sometimes fobbed off with aspirin.
It is not unknown for the Home Office to serve removal notices with little or no warning, perhaps just an hour before asylum applicants are carted off to the airport. This leaves lawyers insufficient time to challenge the deportation.
I am also aware of detainees who have had phone access confiscated when they are due for removal. This means they cannot contact their solicitors. They end up on the next plane out of Heathrow.
Last month, one of my asylum applicants in a London detention centre was bussed to Scotland shortly before his deportation order was served. His removal from English legal jurisdiction seems to have been calculated to make it as difficult as possible for his solicitor to take last minute action to halt him being sent back to Uganda.
‘Failed’ asylum seekers scheduled for deportation can be shackled, bound and forcibly injected with sedating medication, according to eye-witness accounts I have received. To stop them screaming en route to the plane, some escorts apply semi-strangulating thumb pressure to the throat and twist handcuffs so tight that they pinch the wrist nerves and cut the flesh, leaving some victims with semi-permanent nerve damage.
My experience is not untypical. Similar maltreatment is reported by other organisations working with asylum applicants, such as the Bail Circle and the London Detainees Support Group.
Home Office ministers cannot blithely claim they are unaware of these abuses. If they don’t know, they should. It is their responsibility. If they do know, why are they allowing it to continue?
* The abuses cited in this article are taken from the experiences of asylum applicants supported by Peter Tatchell and his human rights group OutRage! Their names and other identifying details are withheld because of the risk of Home Office retribution.
* An edited version of this article appeared in the New Statesman on 19 December 2005.