Why does Britain detain so many asylum-seekers?

In little more than a decade, an system for detaining people who have committed no crime has sprung up almost unnoticed.

Omar*, an anti-corruption campaigner who worked for Afghanistan’s finance ministry, knew it was time to leave his home country when armed men visited his house at night. On arrival at Heathrow, the 37-year-old was met by two officials who took him to a windowless room, confiscated his documents and locked him in there. Later he was taken to a security van and transferred to what, to him at least, looked like a prison. It was a journey of only a few miles, but Omar spent eight hours in the van while the driver waited to pick up others.

On his arrival at the detention centre, the guards confiscated his remaining possessions and he was told he would be given a court hearing for his asylum claim. “You’re on the fast track,” they told him.

To Omar, this was a shock. “For a civilised nation like Britain, I did not expect this,” he told me. “I am not a criminal.” From the point of view of the system, however, everything was going to plan. “Fast-track” detention, which is distinct from the practice of keeping failed asylum-seekers and foreign offenders locked up immediately before they are deported, is Britain’s standard method for processing “straightforward” asylum claims.

Although most claimants live in the community while their applications are considered, asylum-seekers whose claims are deemed quick to decide – 2,118 people out of a total of 19,865 claimants in 2011 – are held at a detention centre during the process. It is one of the reasons why Britain holds more people in immigration detention – roughly 4,000 a year – than any other country except Australia. Yet a legal challenge that will be heard at the high court later this month could undermine this system.

Launched by the Blair government in 2000 and greatly expanded in 2003, fast-track detention exists largely for what is known euphemistically as “administrative convenience”. After they arrive in the UK, claimants are locked up in a high-security detention centre; they are interviewed, their case is heard, and they are supposed to get an initial decision within three days. Difficult cases – survivors of torture, families, pregnant women, people with physical or mental conditions, potential victims of trafficking – aren’t supposed to be processed in this way: the fast track was designed for single people, largely those coming from “white-list” countries (asylum claims originating from such countries are more likely to be false). The system’s 99 per cent “refusal rate” on decisions before appeal would suggest that it is operating to plan – quick and efficient.

And yet for Omar, as for many others, it hasn’t worked like that. First of all, he had to wait weeks for his hearing. He was introduced to his lawyer 15 minutes before the hearing began. The judge asked where the supporting evidence for his asylum claim was. It had been confiscated on arrival, he replied. Omar’s claim was rejected “for lack of supporting evidence”. He was given the right to appeal, which would allow him to stay in detention for weeks, if not months, longer.

As Jerome Phelps, the director of the charity Detention Action, explained to me, such delays – as well as a sense that the system is stacked against claimants – are typical. The purpose of fast-track detention, he says, has shifted away from processing people efficiently to being “a system to remove people quickly”.

Since 2005, the scheme has ceased to be reserved for asylum-seekers from “whitelist” countries. It is now used for anybody whose case is seen as “quick to determine”.

This approach was criticised by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2008, on the grounds that it did not identify complex cases or protect vulnerable people effectively. Survivors of torture, for instance, are expected to arrive in the UK with “independent evidence” of their abuse in order to avoid fast-track detention – an impossible task for many.

Detention Action has brought the legal challenge to the detention scheme at the high court, arguing that it does not protect vulnerable people and that the widespread delays in processing claims breach the right to liberty protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. Given that no political party is likely to support reform for fear of being seen as a “soft touch”, a battle through the courts is one of the few options open to asylum campaigners.

In just over a decade, an unprecedented system for detaining people who have committed no crime, and who pose no threat to public safety, has sprung up almost unnoticed. The high court will decide whether the fast track is legal. For the rest of us, perhaps it’s time to decide whether we are happy this system exists at all – and, if not, what we should do about it.

*Not his real name

Protestors outside the UK Border Agency demonstrating against the “Go Home” campaign in September 2013. Photo: Getty.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Burnout Britain

Photo: Getty Images
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Our treatment of today's refugees harks back to Europe's darkest hour

We mustn't forget the lessons of the Second World War in the face of today's refugee crisis, says Molly Scott Cato.

In the 1930s, thousands of persecuted people fled Europe. Our own press ignominiously reported these as "Stateless Jews pouring into this country" and various records exist from that time of public officials reassuring readers that no such thing would be allowed under their watch.

With the benefit of historical hindsight we now know what fate awaited many of those Jews who were turned away from sanctuary. Quite rightly, we now express horror about the Holocaust, an iconic example of the most shocking event of human history, and pledge ourselves to stop anything like it happening again. 

Yet as Europe faces its worst refugee crisis since the Second World War we are witnessing a deafening cacophony of xenophobic voices in response to people fleeing their own present-day horror. We must therefore reflect on whether there is an uncomfortable parallel in the language being used to describe those seeking asylum today and the language used to describe Jews seeking refuge in the 1930s.

Our response to the current refugee crisis suggests we feel fearful and threatened by the mass movement of desperate people; fearful not just of sharing what we have but also of the sense of disorganisation and chaos. Does the fact that these refugees are from Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, and so not part of our continent, provide an excuse to allow them to be bombed at home or drowned during their desperate journey to safety?

We are not helped by the poorly informed public debate which—perhaps intentionally—conflates three quite different movements of people: free movement within the EU, irregular or unauthorised migration and the plight of the Middle Eastern refugees. While our misguided foreign policy and unwillingness to tackle change may give us a moral responsibility for those fleeing famine and conflict, our responsibility towards refugees from war zones is clear under international law.

Due to our commitments to the UN Refugee Convention, the vast majority of Syrian refugees who reach our territory are given asylum but the UK has taken fewer Syrian refugees than many other European countries. While Germany admitted around 41,000 asylum-seekers in 2014 alone, the UK has taken in fewer than 7000.

The problem is that any sense of compassion we feel conflicts with our perception of the economic constraints we face. In spite of being the fifth largest economy in the world we feel poor and austerity makes us feel insecure. However, when actually confronted with people in crisis our humanity can come to the fore. A friend who spent her holiday in Greece told me that she saw local people who are themselves facing real poverty sharing what they had with the thousands of refugees arriving from Turkey.

A straightforward response to the growing sense of global crisis would be to restore the authority of the UN in managing global conflict, a role fatally undermined by Tony Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq. Our role should be to support UN efforts in bringing about strong governments in the region, not taking the misguided ‘coalition of the willing’ route and running foreign policy based on self-interest and driven by the demands of the oil and arms industries.

We also need EU policy-makers to show leadership in terms of solidarity: to co-operate over the acceptance of refugees and finding them safe routes into asylum, something the European Greens have consistently argued for. The EU Commission and Parliament are in clear agreement about the need for fixed quotas for member states, a plan that is being jeopardised by national government’s responding to right-wing rather than compassionate forces in their own countries.

Refugees from war-torn countries of the Middle East need asylum on a temporary basis, until the countries they call home can re-establish security and guarantee freedom from oppression.

The responsibility of protecting refugees is not being shared fairly and I would appeal to the British people to recall our proud history of offering asylum. Without the benefit of mass media, the excuse of ignorance that can help to explain our failure to act in the 1930s is not available today. We must not repeat the mistakes of that time in the context of today’s crisis, mistakes which led to the deaths of so many Jews in the Nazi death camps. 

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West of England.

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton.