The Refugee Council believes the public wants an asylum system that helps refugees in fear of their lives and deals effectively with those who have been fairly rejected.
We believe the best way to establish such a system is to get more decisions right first time. Doing this will lead to fewer appeals, speedier results, lower costs and greater public confidence in the system.
Despite clear conclusions from many different reports—including from the Home Affairs select committee and the National Audit Office—supporting the call for an improvement in the quality of initial decisions, the Government’s package of new asylum measures does not tackle this problem.
Nor has the Government set out how it intends to improve the quality of the asylum debate. Much of the public concern and confusion on the issue can be attributed to the way that myths and scare-stories, rather than facts and figures, dominate discussions.
- The bill helps to implement the Government’s 5-year plan
- The new decision-making process, outlined in the plan, risks prejudging claims
- Successful applicants will be left in limbo for up to five years (clause 1)
- The bill must allow asylum seekers the right to work (clauses 11-22)
- Further tightening of UK borders may block refugees seeking safety (clauses 23-36)
- Refugees should receive an integration grant, not a loan (clause 38)
In February 2005, the Government announced a new five-year plan on asylum and immigration entitled ‘Controlling our borders: Making migration work for Britain’. The Refugee Council welcomed the plan’s firm commitment to the 1951 Refugee Convention, as well as the Prime Minister’s promise that the UK will never close its door to refugees fleeing death and persecution.
However, the 5-year plan contains measures to toughen the UK’s borders, fast-track applications, and to control and detain asylum seekers without addressing the more fundamental issues of poor quality decision making.
The New Asylum Model
As part of this approach the Government is now implementing its ‘New Asylum Model’ (NAM). This consists of a series of largely procedural changes that will fundamentally alter how the Home Office processes asylum claims.
The Refugee Council is concerned that the new system, which has had no parliamentary scrutiny, will lead to many cases effectively being pre-judged rather than being assessed on their merits. For example, soon after making their application applicants will be placed in one of nine streams for assessment and decision. Two of these streams are labelled as’ Late and Opportunistic’—this is clearly pejorative and anyone placed in these streams will have little confidence that they will receive a fair hearing.
2. The Immigration, Asylum & Nationality Bill
The bill aims to provide the necessary new legal powers for the Government to implement its five-year plan.
It is split into four main parts:
- Claimants and Applicants
As the bill stands, every measure contained will need a commencement order before it comes into force. The Refugee Council has key concerns with clauses in each of these parts of the bill.
Equally significant to the Refugee Council is the absence in the bill of measures to tackle the fundamental problems of the asylum process, such as poor initial decision-making.
In calling for amendments to improve the bill, the Refugee Council is also acutely aware that many of the most ill considered measures in asylum policy in recent years were introduced to Parliament as late Government amendments to bills. The Refugee Council seeks assurances from the Government that no new controversial measure will be introduced after the bill has passed its substantive Commons stages.
For example, the controversial section 55 policy, which removed the right to asylum support from in-country applicants, was added to the 2002 bill only at Lords Committee stage. MPs were then restricted to 30 minutes to debate the measure, half of which was taken up by the Government explaining its purpose. The Refugee Council believes that the well-documented hardship and the successive court hearings (the latest case has now reached the House of Lords) that forced the Government to dismantle its operation of the policy could have been avoided had MPs been provided with an opportunity to scrutinise it in a considered way.
3. Successful applicants will be left in limbo for up to five years (Clause 1)
The Refugee Council believes that the proposal, outlined in the five-year plan, to initially only issue successful refugees with a temporary right to remain in the UK for five years, revocable at any moment is flawed. It is unacceptable that someone who has been accepted as a refugee has to live through five years of uncertainty until the UK Government confirms they can remain here permanently.
Although the Government already has the legal powers to implement this change in policy, the bill does amend previous legislation so that refugees can appeal against a revocation or non-extension of their right to remain in the UK. So, while clause 1(4) of the bill is to be welcomed as an important damage-limitation measure, the Refugee Council is firmly of the view that it would not be needed if the Government continued to provide successful refugees with Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) with the grant of refugee status, as we believe it should.
In 1998 the Government abolished the then four-year ILR qualifying period for successful refugees, arguing in its ‘Fairer, Faster and Firmer’ white paper that it was fairer and would help successful integration:
These measures will help refugees and others granted leave to remain to integrate more easily and quickly into society, to the benefit of the whole community into which they have been accepted ..The revised policy is wholly consistent with the Government’s commitment to a more humanitarian approach to the UK’s obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, and to faster identification of those in genuine need of protection through fairer procedures.(paragraph 9.1)
The Government has stated its commitment to helping refugees integrate successfully in the UK after being granted refugee status. The Refugee Council and other local and national organisations working with its National Integration Forum were therefore surprised and disappointed that the Government has chosen to no longer issue ILR with the grant of refugee status.
The Refugee Council believes it is reasonable and fair to allow traumatised refugees to be able to get on with their new lives and not be left in limbo, unable to rebuild their lives for fear of having their refugee status withdrawn.
This measure will also undermine the government’s own integration strategy because it may act as a disincentive to employers to employ a refugee if he or she is subject to be being removed from the UK. This particularly applies to refugees from professional backgrounds, such as doctors and teachers.
The Government has provided no information about the criteria that will be used to decide whether a country is safe enough for a refugee’s status to be revoked. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in expressing its concerns about these measures pointed out that “the change which has taken place in the country must be fundamental—not a mere transitory change in the facts surrounding the individual refugee’s fear.” The UNHCR also referred to concerns about misinformation in the UK immigration debate and the need to improve initial decision making.
4. Asylum seekers should be allowed to work (Clauses 11 – 22)
The Refugee Council had hoped that the Government would allow asylum seekers to work and so is disappointed that this reform is not in the Government’s plans.
The new employment provisions in the bill reinforce existing government powers to prosecute and penalise employers for employing people without permission to work. These powers were contained in section 8 of the 1996 Act, which is repealed and replaced by more robust powers. These new powers include a civil penalty for employers of up to £2000 for each illegal worker employed.
The Refugee Council is concerned that these wide-ranging powers to fine and prosecute employers may end up damaging employment opportunities for refugees, who are allowed to work, because some employers will wrongly understand the law or will ‘play safe’ and be reluctant to employ foreign-born workers.
5. Further tightening of UK borders may block refugees seeking safety (Clauses 23-36)
The Refugee Council believes that measures to deter or detect illegal immigration must recognise and honour the UK’s commitment to the right of asylum and accept that many refugees have to resort to irregular methods of entry to reach the UK. UNHCR has in the past warned that the protection which is owed to refugees under the 1951 Convention may be ‘rendered meaningless’ if refugees are unable to reach, and then claim asylum in, states party to the Convention.
Clauses in this part of the bill extend Government powers to obtain information about passengers, crew and freight on ships and flights before they arrive in the UK. New powers will be created to allow for this passenger information to be shared between police, the immigration service and HM Revenue and Customs. There will also be powers to share this information with foreign law enforcement agencies.
The Government intends these measures to further strengthen border security and to contribute to the roll-out of the e-Borders programme. While the Refugee Council recognises that the Government has the right to control the UK’s borders and decide who enters the territory, we are concerned that increasingly stringent border controls are preventing refugees at risk of persecution from reaching safety and obtaining asylum in another country.
We believe that the Government must introduce safeguards to ensure that refugees fleeing persecution are not prevented from reaching the UK and instead forced to remain in a country where their life is at risk. Measures to combat illegal migration must be accompanied by measures to ensure that refugees are protected.
6. Refugees should receive an integration grant, not a loan (clause 38)
Persons who have been recognised as refugees in accordance with the 1951 Refugee Convention and granted temporary leave will now be eligible for a refugee integration loan. Integration loans are a retrograde step which replace the former system which provided refugees with backdated payments, accrued while their application was determined. Integration loans indebt people who need unencumbered help to rebuild their lives.
While the New Asylum Model may reduce determination times, it remains the case that thousands of people who have waited months and years for their status to be determined will be placed in debt, rather than provided wi
th practical help. The Refugee Council urges the Government to provide an integration grant rather than a loan. Furthermore, such a grant should also be provided to people with humanitarian protection and discretionary leave.
7. Other measures
Clause 37 – Local authorities to have powers to provide accommodation to end of process applicants
Local authorities may now provide section 95, 98 and section 4 support. This is a welcome initiative, which provides additional support to the increasing numbers of people in the UK asylum system whose claims have failed but are unable to return to their country of origin. The Refugee Council believes that failed applicants who cannot be returned in the immediate future should have this reality recognised and receive a temporary status, which would also allow them to work.
Clause 39 – Detention inspection regime extended to cover escort arrangements
Detention centre and prison system inspection regimes are to be aligned so that the Chief Inspector of Prisons powers to investigate short term holding facilities and escort arrangements are placed on a statutory footing. Given the concerns expressed by visitors groups about detainees being mistreated, the Refugee Council welcomes this move and calls for greater safeguards to ensure detainees are not mistreated.
The new Immigration, Asylum & Nationality Bill will receive a second reading in the House of Commons on 5 July 2005.