Blogs

Peter Tatchell / Human Rights Activist News Wire


Figures of disgrace

The government's 'success' in cutting asylum numbers is down to its
shameless rigging of the system to ensure many applicants fail

Originally in the Guardian, at http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/peter_tatchell/2007/08/figures_of_disgrace.html

In order to appease the anti-asylum vote and attempt to meet its
asylum reduction targets, the UK government has deliberately erected
so many obstacles to claiming asylum that even genuine refugees are
nowadays labelled as bogus and deported.

Home Office Minister Tony McNulty
(http://www.theyworkforyou.com/mp/tony_mcnulty/harrow_east)
has announced, with a fanfare of pride and publicity, that in 2006 the
government cut the number of asylum applications and increased the
number of deportations.

Asylum applications have dropped to the lowest level for 14 years,
with the number of people applying for refugee status in the UK
falling to 23,610 in 2006. Statistics show deportations in the second
quarter of 2007 fell by 6% compared with the same period last year.
But the overall trend of the last year is that the number of asylum
seekers deported from the UK rose by 17% in 2006; with deportations
totalling 18,280.

Labour and the Daily Mail are jumping for joy. For the many genuine
refugees who are wrongly branded by the Home Office as "failed" asylum
seekers, this get tough policy is a humanitarian disaster. Some are
being sent back to countries where they are at risk of arrest, jail,
torture, vigilante attacks, death squads and worse.

The truth is that much of the government's "success" in cutting asylum
numbers and hiking deportations is because it has shamelessly rigged
the asylum system to ensure the failure of as many applicants as
possible.

This is a cynical, ruthless, immoral policy – devoid of compassion and
humanity. Labour's pride in its rigged asylum system is one reason why
so many people, like me, have left Labour in droves. We can no longer
stomach this heartless, dishonest government, which brags that it
deports one asylum seeker "every eight minutes."

I have no objection to the removal of people who make false,
fraudulent claims. There are some bogus claimants who abuse the
system. Their applications should be rejected. But I know from
firsthand experience that many genuine refugees get labelled by the
Home Office as crooks and charlatans.

I have assisted asylum applicants for over 20 years – not only gays
and lesbians, but also people who have suffered political and
religious persecution. In the last couple of years alone, I have
helped over 100 refugees who were declared by the government to be
"not genuine." With my help, and the assistance of others, all but two
of these applicants were eventually able to corroborate their
harrowing accounts of brutalities such as imprisonment, torture, rape
and the murder of their loved ones.

The fact is that many, if not most, asylum applications "fail" because
of poor or non-existent legal representation, not because the claims
are unfounded.

A majority of the asylum seekers who contacted me had no solicitors.
They had been abandoned. A few never had solicitors in the first
place. With no legal representation, and often speaking little or no
English, no wonder they failed at their first attempt to get asylum.

Apart from two claimants, all the asylum applicants I have supported
had no income and were dependent on legal aid. A dwindling number of
legal aid solicitors do a good job. Many let down their clients. Some
are third rate and incompetent or, more usually, they are under-funded
and over-burdened with asylum claims.

The Home Office has a list of legal aid solicitors it recommends to
asylum claimants. It just so happens that most of these firms have a
high failure rate, which is very 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 is easy pickings, with little competition from
first-rate lawyers. It certainly looks that way from my experience.

In one case with which I was involved, a Home Office-approved legal
aid practitioner acting for ex-Soviet bloc asylum applicants was so
incompetent that I had to advise him on basic points of law.

Cuts in legal aid funding mean that many reputable solicitors no
longer take on asylum cases. They say it is impossible to do a decent
job representing asylum applicants with such miserable levels of
funding.

All the solicitors I have spoken to agree that the number of hours
paid by legal aid for the preparation of each asylum application is
insufficient. It does not cover all the work required to produce a
professional application or appeal.

The preparation of a proper asylum case involves a solicitor taking a
detailed statement from the applicant, which can be especially slow
and laborious because many applicants do not speak English and are
deeply traumatised due to torture or to the murder of their friends
and family.

Case preparation also involves securing corroborating affidavits from
witnesses and family members in far-flung countries, obtaining expert
reports from academics and human rights groups, organising medical
examinations and documentation to confirm assault and torture, and
researching the legal basis of the claim and the relevant case law.

The government expects legal aid solicitors to be able to do all this
with a mere few hours work. In most cases, this is impossible. The
wholly inadequate legal aid fees mean that most asylum applicants
never have their case adequately presented to the Home Office – which
is the way the government likes it, because it increases the "fail"
rate and boosts deportations.

The under-funding of legal aid asylum cases means that many reputable
law firms have pulled out of asylum work. A few firms struggle on
heroically, doing good quality legal aid asylum work at a financial
loss.

This leaves the field open to less scrupulous solicitors. Some see
asylum applicants as cash cows. They know the legal aid money is
inadequate. They realise they won't be able to prepare a proper claim.
But they just take the money and a present half-baked submission on
behalf of their client.

The legal aid solicitor for one of my Palestinian claimants
represented her at an asylum hearing based on a 20 minute interview
conducted one hour before the case began. This was not long enough to
document her full story, let alone get any supportive evidence. At the
hearing, key aspects of her persecution as a Muslim woman were never
heard and no corroborating documentation was presented. No wonder she
"failed."

One Iranian I am assisting is represented by a firm of legal aid
solicitors recommended by the Home Office. They told him they did not
"have time" to record his story of persecution and, anyway, it was
"too complicated". Without the applicant's approval, they presented an
asylum tribunal with a plausible - but entirely fictitious - story,
which had nothing to do with his actual experience of human rights
abuses in Iran. I can only assume that this firm also presents bogus
evidence in other "complicated" cases. The Home Office under-funding
of legal aid encourages such abuses. It is an open invitation to
unscrupulous laws firms to take short-cuts and manipulate the system.

The whole asylum process is rigged to fail as many applicants as
possible. The government's Fast-Track system is designed to speed up
the processing of claims and expedite the removal of "failed" asylum
seekers. A solicitor assigned to a new claimant often gets less than
24 hours notice of their client's Home Office hearing. Unsurprisingly,
the refusal rate is high. If the claim is refused, the appeal can be
scheduled for as little as a week or so later – which is rarely enough
time to get additional supportive evidence.

My experience is not untypical. Similar complaints about the asylum
system are reported by other organisations working with asylum
applicants, such as the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation
Campaigns, Bail Circle, and the London Detainees Support Group.

Home Office ministers like Tony McNulty cannot claim they are unaware
that the asylum system is rigged to fail as many applicants as
possible. They cannot plead ignorance about the woeful inadequacy of
legal aid funding. If they don't know, they should know. It is their
responsibility. If they do know, why are they allowing it to continue?

More from Peter Tatchell / Human Rights Activist News Wire
You must log in to add a comment. If you already have a GT account log in with your email address and password. If you’re a customer of Prowler Direct or Expectations you can log in with those details.
Article Comments