Your asylum procedure is too fast and not fair, UNHCR tells UK government

Depriving an individual of their liberty for administrative convenience risks breaching international human rights principles says United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Today, the chief inspector of the UK Border Agency John Vine releases his report into the Detained Fast Track (DFT), a procedure whereby asylum seekers are detained if the government considers their claim “can be decided quickly”. My organisation, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), has also been auditing the Detained Fast Track – at the government’s invitation – since 2008. Whilst John Vine’s report considers the efficiency and cost of the process, the concerns identified by UNHCR lie rather with the humanitarian impact of detaining asylum seekers and whether those who need international protection are identified properly.

When reviewing DFT in its audit, UNHCR observed that safeguards to identify vulnerable and traumatised individuals are inadequate. A quarter of individuals who enter the DFT are later released, a majority of whom are referred to organisations caring for victims of torture. However, even among those who remain within the DFT, UNHCR has identified vulnerable people and applicants with complex cases which are not suitable for being decided quickly. This includes individuals who claim to be victims of rape or trafficking.

Although claims in the DFT are expected to be decided between seven and ten days, the government’s current policy leaves open the possibility for detention to exceed this period and even, to be of unlimited duration. UNHCR considers that depriving an individual of their liberty for reasons of administrative convenience risks breaching international human rights principles.

Detention and the speed of the DFT affect the fairness of a procedure which determines whether or not a person will be protected or sent home. The short time frame means that both UKBA decision makers and applicants lack sufficient time to prepare for the asylum interview. The determination of asylum claims is a complex procedure which requires time and consideration on the part of the decision maker to gather evidence, including the information available on the situation in an applicant’s country, and to assess the credibility of the claim. Furthermore, asylum seekers who have had traumatic experiences and possible mental health issues may require time to establish trust and confidence to disclose their stories to the authorities.

UNHCR’s audits have found poor quality decision-making within the DFT.  Of particular concern is that UKBA insufficiently appreciates the limited opportunities for asylum seekers in detention to support their claims by evidence and documentation, and demands an inappropriate threshold of proof. In one case, an Afghan who claimed that his life was at risk because he worked as an interpreter for the US forces was not believed despite being able to provide twelve pieces of documentary evidence to corroborate that he was.

Asylum seekers from conflict-affected countries such as Afghanistan are regularly being routed into the DFT. UNHCR’s view is that claims from persons originating from countries experiencing indiscriminate violence should be assessed with the utmost care.

For UNHCR, the detention of asylum seekers for reasons of administrative convenience is inheritably undesirable and should be limited to only very exceptional circumstances. In comparison to any other European country, the UK is using detention in asylum procedures in a disproportionately high manner, which sets a worryingly negative precedent.

Asylum seekers who come to the UK have often experienced extremely distressing circumstances which have caused them to flee. To be led off to a detention centre – sometimes in handcuffs – as soon as they arrive, is far from a humane way of being treated. These people did nothing other than to ask for protection.

There is a presumption on the part of the UK Border Agency that most asylum claims can be decided quickly, but the process of determining whether someone has a well-founded fear of persecution is a not only very complex but an extremely important procedure which should not be taken lightly. It should not be driven by the pressure to meet time limits and targets.

UNHCR recognises and supports the need for a fair and effective asylum system. UNHCR has been working with the UK Border Agency to improve the quality of asylum decision-making and I welcome the government’s ongoing commitment to achieving a fairer refugee status determination system. Considering the financial and human costs of detention, we are ready to help the authorities to look into alternatives to detention.

 

Notes and references

  1. The Detained Fast Track is a procedure whereby asylum seekers are detained if the government considers their claim “can be decided quickly”, which can mean within seven to ten days. The decision whether or not an asylum seeker will enter the DFT is made at an initial interview.  
  2. Since 2008, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has audited a total of 142 asylum decisions made in the DFT and issued two reports to the Immigration Minister raising concerns with the procedure.
  3. Key findings and recommendations of UNHCR’s 2010 audit of the Detained Fast Track can be read here.
  4. UNHCR’s 2008 audit of the Detained Fast Track can be read here, and key findings and recommendations can be read here.

 

About the author

Roland Schilling took up his post as UNHCR Representative in London in July 2009.  He arrived in the UK after four years in Ankara as the Refugee Agency's Deputy Representative, where he oversaw refugee protection activities and supported the Turkish Government in establishing a national asylum system. 

As Senior Programme Officer for UNHCR in Sri Lanka from 1998-2002, Roland Schilling coordinated UN humanitarian work following the tsunami. He has also served for UNHCR as Deputy Representative in Germany, Head of Office in Moldova, and held positions in Hong Kong and Yemen.