The last of a series of public hearings examining asylum policy in Britain was held in London yesterday. The event, which took place at Lambeth Town Hall, heard testimony from a range of speakers, including representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), The Institute for Public Policy research (IPPR), and the director of a centre-right think tank, the Centre for Social Cohesion, Dr Douglas Murray.
Dr Murray was criticised by one of the Commissioners for using the platform to ‘have a go at Muslims’, in a lively and wide-ranging hearing, covering issues from the 1951 Refugee Convention, to public attitudes on asylum, terrorism and immigration.
In his presentation, Dr Murray argued that terrorists claiming asylum was leading to a lack of public confidence in the system. Parallel societies, he argued, were springing up across the country, as asylum seekers and other immigrants were being housed with others from their own countries. He spoke at length about forced marriages and import brides, suggesting the UK needed to be much tougher on the age women had to be before coming to the UK to settle with their husbands. And he offered two solutions to better communication with the Muslim community: don’t speak to them through the clergy, and improve contact with women.
The UK Deputy Representative for UNHCR, Jacqueline Parlevliet, laid out a cogent argument for the retention and relevance of the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention. She stressed the importance of recognising the spirit as well as the principles of the Convention, and expressed concern about the increasingly restrictive interpretation of it by the UK.
Jill Rutter then spoke on behalf of IPPR, covering a wide range of issues. She criticised the quality of Home Office decision-making on asylum claims, and talked at length about the ‘culture of disbelief’ that exists within the Home Office. She gave the example of a Somali woman whose case was turned down because the caseworker considered the colour of her skin too dark for her to be from Somalia.
Destitution, access to legal aid and restrictions to health care were all raised as concerns. She also argued for the need to change public attitudes on asylum as the way to influence and change policy.
The Commission will now assess its findings, and initial findings are due to be published in early spring 2008. In the meantime, they will be carrying out some regional campaigning – further details can be found at: www.independentasylumcommission.org.uk.