Read this Guardian article: it describes the UK asylum process at its most crucial point (the asylum interview, when individuals are given their main chance to explain why they are seeking asylum). It says that “many asylum interviews are rushed, biased and resolved by ‘cut and paste’ decisions.”
The article contains little that wasn’t known before – but these facts don’t often get publicly aired. The research I did between 2004 and 2009 on the treatment of asylum seekers is now out of date in many ways: it couldn’t have taken into account the upsurge in migration of more recent years, when people struggled across continents, many drowning in the Mediterranean. So to that extent it is out of date. But the story that emerges from this article of how asylum decisions are made today hasn’t changed since I wrote. The treatment of asylum seekers by the Home Office is cynical, ignorant, cruel and shameful. I will focus on just a few of the points raised in the article.
Because of the pressure from Home Office targets (“225 interviews or decision reports a year”), one former caseworker says: “You would have your own stock paragraphs that you put into refusal minutes.” Caseworkers say to themselves, “I’ll just sort of cut and paste the decision I did last week.” This is certainly common practice. But I see it not just as a desperate attempt by the caseworker to “get the job done”, but also as part of the structure of the asylum system. The Home Office gives this cut-and-paste approach official encouragement with its own stockpile of paragraphs which caseworkers are encouraged to use routinely when compiling their reports. So it is not enough for us to find fault with individual caseworkers or for caseworkers to blame themselves. Here is one of the Home Office’s ready-made paragraphs intended to help caseworkers in their task of refusing claims:
Further doubts as to your alleged fear of persecution can be drawn from the fact that you did not leave [COUNTRY] until [DATE]. The Secretary of State holds the view that if your fear of persecution by the [COUNTRY] authorities was genuine you would have left [COUNTRY] at the earliest opportunity and the fact that you did not casts doubt on your credibility.
Of course, many reasons may govern the timing of a refugee‘s departure: the need to find an agent, raise funds to pay the agent (e.g. by selling property), obtain false documents. Even if the journey is through normal channels there will be family concerns which cause delay. Moreover, members of opposition groups committed to political change do not tend to give up their cause easily and may maintain their activism until the last moment. But the cut-and-paste approach discourages any attempt to take these considerations seriously and tends to assume the asylum seeker’s guilt. So an Ethiopian asylum seeker was told that because he had been arrested in January but didn’t leave until May, this delay “detracts from the truthfulness of your claim to be a genuine asylum seeker.”
I met an asylum seeker from Iran who was treated in a similar way. Reza (not his real name) was a member of a political party whose members suffered persecution. After a demonstration in July 2000, during which one of his friends was killed and another went missing, his house was raided by the police and his father-in-law taken in for questioning, Reza and his wife Maryam went into hiding and a senior party member “advised me to get out of Iran if I could”. Even then he hesitated: “I had a family in Iran, I had a lot of property in Iran, I did not want to leave. But I was frightened for my safety.” None of this was unreasonable or slow. In the event he made the arrangements quite quickly – financial and travel arrangements, false passports – and left in September. Unfortunately, none of this impressed his caseworker, who insisted that his departure was tardy: “The Secretary of State holds the view that if your fear of persecution by the Iranian authorities were genuine, you would have left Iran at the earliest opportunity, and the fact that you did not do so casts doubt upon your credibility”, which happens to match exactly the wording of the prepared paragraph from the Home Office stockpile quoted above.
The article mentions transcripts of asylum interviews where “it was evident the caseworker knew very little about the case”, in the context of the pressure to meet the targets, and that was no surprise to me. But pressure to meet targets is not the only worry we should have here: I found that the ignorance of the caseworker often stemmed from Home Office Country Information reports which frequently lacked certain kinds of information entirely or were out of date. Ignorance is a feature of the system. What happens if an asylum seeker claims persecution because of membership of a political party but the party is not mentioned in the Country Report? One caseworker told researchers in 2003:
We need to know whether particular groups or political parties exist, but instead we are told to say that the Secretary of State is not aware of this group so therefore it is unlikely to be of interest to the authorities. But really they have no information on whether the group existed.
This ignorance is then turned into a denial of the asylum seeker’s credibility. A Kurd from Syria was told in his refusal letter:
The basis of your claim is that you fear persecution in Syria because of your political beliefs. You are a member of the Hergirtin. The Secretary of State is not aware that this party actually exists.
Asylum application refused. But, on appeal, the adjudicator discovered that Amnesty International knew of the party’s existence and its long history. Appeal allowed. The Syrian Kurd probably had a good solicitor who had done the necessary research. Not everyone is as lucky by any means and the caseworker (quoted in the article) was right to call the asylum process a “lottery”.
The article says there is a “culture of disrespect” among caseworkers and describes a culture in which jokes are made about asylum applicants, even going so far as to joke about them being tortured. I came across an early example of canteen culture in my research, where an Afghan asylum seeker had clearly been the butt of cynical jokes about his claim, ending in a spoof letter which declared his asylum claim “a pile of pants”. This version of the refusal letter was accidentally sent to his solicitor. According to The Guardian,
Naomi Nicholson, a case worker with the Refugee Legal Centre … had to explain the meaning of the letter to her client … “I was trying to paraphrase the letter starting from the top, but when I got to the fourth paragraph I didn’t know what to say, I was so shocked,” Ms Nicholson said. “I was very embarrassed. It was my country that was saying this to him.” Immigration staff tried to replace the letter with a hurriedly amended one that merely states “the Secretary of State is not satisfied that you have established that you are an Afghan national.”
I could go on, but this is enough. But just to end: anyone who gets frustrated with the sight and sound of Theresa May or Jeremy Hunt answering every question about the NHS with the mantra: “This government has provided more money, more doctors, more nurses, more everything than any previous government …” will understand my frustration at seeing another worn-out phrase near the end of the article: “The UK has a proud history”, says the Home Office, “of providing protection to those who need it.” I have seen and heard this phrase more times than I’ve had hot dinners. It does not reflect the reality of many an asylum seeker’s experience. Neither does the other phrase deployed by Her Majesty’s civil servants in the name, and with the permission, of their Secretaries of State: all asylum claims are “dealt with on their merits”. That was the title of my thesis when I finished my research. But I put a question mark at the end.
Read the article.