Shine A Light

Election time: asylum seekers lose their last safety net

When terrified men, women and children are being shunted off to countries where they face real and imminent risk of rape, torture, genital mutilation or death, an MP’s urgent appeal to government may tip the balance, stalling removal directions, making time to get legal advice.

Clare Sambrook
26 April 2010

When terrified men, women and children are being shunted off to countries where they face real and imminent risk of rape, torture, genital mutilation or death, an MP’s urgent appeal to government may tip the balance, stalling removal directions, making time to get legal advice.

But not during a general election campaign, when MPs lose their right to represent constituents' grievances. ‘We will not be able to respond to former MPs, or prospective parliamentary candidates on individual cases,’ says the UK Border Agency, ‘unless there is a signed letter of authority from the individual they are representing.’


For an asylum seeker banged up unexpectedly in a detention centre, isolated from help and support, with little English, no legal advice, restricted access to a fax machine, and facing a dawn deportation flight, the effect until May 6th is likely to be: no representation.

‘The family is Sudanese — a mother with three girls, aged 14, 10 and three,’ Conservative MP Alistair Burt told the House of Commons one evening last summer. ‘They have been in this country for a couple of years . . . The father disappeared in Darfur and the family applied for asylum, but the application was turned down.’

Burt, whose Bedfordshire constituency contains Yarl’s Wood detention centre (pictured) , where the family had been held for nine weeks, went on: ‘The three girls face the inevitable prospect of female genital mutilation when they return — the 14-year-old faces it almost immediately on her return. It is impossible to describe to the House the horror and apprehension that the family feel about their imminent return.’

He said: ‘I was contacted suddenly before their anticipated removal, and I asked whether the minister would be good enough in the circumstances . . . to put the removal directions on hold and allow the family more time to see a new solicitor and present another case. On the afternoon in question, the family . . . were in a van on their way to the airport when news came through from the minister’s office that he had been kind enough to grant a stay of removal directions.’

Despite receiving minister Phil Woolas’s cancellation orders, the private contractors, G4S, drove the family onto the tarmac, had their bags loaded onto the plane, then split them up so they could force the girls onto the plane first. The mother managed to get word to Burt on her mobile phone.

‘The mother became extremely distressed and was restrained in the elastic cuffs that are used,’ Burt told the House. ‘The mother resisted, not unnaturally, and there was further to-ing and fro-ing. She was placed in the aircraft, where she continued to resist, and then the escort said that further confirmation had been received that the removal directions had been cancelled. That followed a further intervention on my part to the minister’s office, asking what on earth was going on when removal directions had been cancelled but, contrary to the minister’s express wishes, were being carried out.’

That wasn’t the end of it.

‘The next morning,’ said Mr Burt, ‘they were served with a further notice of immediate removal . . . They should not have been served with such directions until 72 hours had passed after the previous attempt to remove them. Again, I made a further intervention and again, the minister’s office understood that a mistake had been made and the order was countermanded.’

It didn’t end there. ‘I learned this afternoon that removal directions have been set again for the family for Friday,’ said Mr Burt. ‘As far as I know, no inquiry has taken place into what happened the other week. No time has been given for the new solicitors to make proper representations about what is likely to happen to the girls when they return to the Sudan. I am deeply upset that a further intervention by me is required to ask the minister to give proper time for an inquiry into what happened and the reasons for it . . . When the minister gets back to his office, will he kindly look at the letter that I have written, lift the removal directions for this week, give the case an opportunity to be looked at afresh and see whether there is not a better answer?’

Two years ago, in a shaming indictment of UK asylum policy, Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed deep concern about, among other things, the ‘serious reduction of legal aid provided to asylum seekers’ — which leaves vulnerable people, who may have been tortured and raped, defending themselves in court against the Home Office’s experienced presenting officers. Hardly the ‘equality of arms’ enshrined in European law. 

Hammarberg said the law should ‘expressly proscribe’ the ‘fast-tracking’ of especially vulnerable people, and strongly opposed the British practice of trusting diplomatic assurances from ‘countries with long-standing, proven records of torture and ill-treatment.’

‘Celerity and quality of decision-making in the complex field of refugee law and protection are rarely a matching pair,’ he said, urging the government to consider the risks to the quality of asylum decision-making before speeding up the process any further.

Giving Hammarberg the finger — ‘We deport someone every eight minutes,’ boasted home office minister Meg Hillier, out campaigning in Barking and Dagenham — the government has made asylum seekers more than ever reliant upon last-ditch interventions from MPs.

Since MPs’ appeals can and do make a difference to asylum-seekers facing removal, I asked the Border Agency whether arrangements had been made to counterbalance their loss during the election campaign.

A spokesman replied: ‘We only remove people that we and the independent courts deem to have no prospect of persecution. An MP’s appeal is not part of the process.’

After months of fearful uncertainty, the Sudanese woman and her three young daughters were granted refugee status earlier this year. But for MP Alistair Burt’s urgent and relentless interventions, they would have been returned last summer to the Sudan.

‘Who knows what becomes of them?’ Chris Mullin MP has said of children dispatched to places such as Congo, Angola or southern Sudan. ‘On rare occasions there is a letter or a phone call about what happened next. Sometimes the news is good; at other times it is not. Usually, however, there is only silence.’

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