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19 December 2005updated 24 Sep 2015 11:31am

Asylum betrayed

The Home Office asylum system is corrupt, with applications prejudged and lawyers prevented from pro

By Peter Tatchell

Britain’s asylum system is out of control and ministers preside over a regime of corrupt-ion and inhumanity. I know. Working with asylum applicants, I see the reality of an amoral, bungling policy at first hand. In the past few years, I have helped more than 100 would-be refugees, their cases a snapshot of a national disgrace.

In my experience, most assumptions about “failed” asylum-seekers are nonsense. Some cases may be bogus, but many fail because of poor or non-existent legal representation. None of the asylum applicants I have dealt with was fraudulent. All were eventually able to corroborate their harrowing accounts of imprisonment, torture, rape and the murder of their loved ones.

The majority of the asylum-seekers who contacted me had no legal help. Only one had a good lawyer, and that was because his family was well-off. The rest were dependent on legal aid solicitors, many of whom do a second-rate job, because they are incompetent, underfunded or overburdened. The Home Office has a list of solicitors it recommends to claimants: it just happens that most of these firms have a high failure rate – which is 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 provides easy pickings, with little competition. From my experience, it certainly looks that way. Cuts in legal aid funding mean that many reputable solicitors no longer take on such cases. The number of hours paid by legal aid to prepare each application is usually insufficient. The standard 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. Most times it is impossible.

This leaves the field open to unscrupulous firms which see these cases as cash cows and are prepared to submit poorly prepared claims. The solicitor for one Palestinian claimant represented her after only a 20-minute interview. This was not long enough even to document her 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. He was told that they did not “have time” to record his story of persecution and, anyway, it was “too complicated”.

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The asylum process is rigged to fail as many applicants as possible. Under the “fast-track” system, a solicitor assigned to a new claimant usually gets less than 24 hours’ notice of a client’s Home Office hearing. If the claim is refused, the appeal is often scheduled a week or so later – rarely enough time to gather sufficient supportive evidence.

Another inbuilt bias is the Country Information and Policy Unit (CIPU) at the Home Office, which produces reports on human rights violations in the countries from which asylum-seekers flee. These reports are used by adjudicators to determine whether a person has a well-founded fear of persecution and, in my experience, they are often overly optimistic. For example, I have helped several refugees who fled Islamist state repression in Algeria. The CIPU report on Algeria that was in use until September 2004 played down the abuses and the likelihood of returnees being victimised. It was eventually withdrawn in embarrassment, having been exposed as out-of-date and riddled with unverified information from dubious sources.

The notorious “white list” system is another ploy that allows the Home Office to declare that designated countries (currently there are 24) are free from serious human rights violations. The white list currently includes Sri Lanka, where a bloody civil war has led to widespread torture and assassination. Yet the Home Office says all asylum claims from Sri Lanka should be assumed to be bogus and the claimants deported.

Applicants who have committed no crimes are held in detention centres such as Colnbrook and Harmondsworth in Middlesex. These are prisons in all but name. People are mostly put there if the Home Office thinks their claims are unfounded and/or if they come from a white-list country 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 officials confiscated his original Home Office ID and issued him with a new one with a false date of birth, which made him 18, in order to permit his detention in Harmondsworth.

Within detention centres, asylum claimants are at the mercy of the guards. In cases brought to my attention, abuse happens in “blind” areas, where there are no CCTV cameras. It also occurs in the internal prisons – the high-security segregation units – where “troublemakers” 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 strip searches and internal genital examinations. There are no protections against these violations. Detainees are virtually powerless.

In theory, asylum detainees have access to legal representation. In practice, many don’t. Some claimants are deported illegally, without removal orders being served. Others get deported even though a judicial review is pending. I know of people served with deportation notices while waiting for medical examinations to confirm their claims of torture. One 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 no warning, perhaps an hour before asylum applicants are carted off to the airport. I know of detainees who have had phone access denied when they were due for removal, preventing them from contacting their solicitors. Last month, one applicant in a London detention centre was bussed to Scotland shortly before his order was served. His removal from English legal jurisdiction seemed designed to make it as difficult as possible for his solicitor to take 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 eyewitness accounts I have received. To stop them screaming en route to the plane, some escorts apply thumb pressure to the throat and twist handcuffs so tight that they pinch the wrist nerves and cut the flesh, leaving some victims with long-lasting nerve damage.

Many human rights advocates working with asylum claimants, such as the Bail Circle and the London Detainee Support Group, tell similar stories. So when the Home Office talks about “failed” asylum-seekers, what this often means is claimants who have not succeeded in surmounting the shameless, devious obstacles – legal and illegal – designed to ensure the deportation of as many applicants as possible. Ministers cannot blithely claim that they are unaware of these abuses. If they don’t know, they should. 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! Names and other identifying details are withheld. (www.petertatchell.net) and (www.outrage.org.uk)

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