Shine A Light

Fast track to despair

In the UK, people lose their liberty simply for claiming asylum. On the 60th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, which enshrined the right to seek protection from persecution, it is worth reminding ourselves of how far we have fallen from those aspirations.

Jerome Phelps
11 May 2011

Mohammed knew something about unrestrained government power over the individual from his experiences in Libya, where he had escaped two arrest warrants and the risk of execution. But when he arrived in the UK and claimed asylum, he was completely unprepared for the welcome of the Detained Fast Track. “They just locked room and waited for about five hours. Then van came over and they took me to detention in Manchester for two days, then they transfer me after that to Scotland for three days, then they brought me back Manchester for another three days. Then took me to Harmondsworth.” Almost three weeks after claiming asylum, he had seen only detention centres, but no legal advisor. He knew nothing about the Detained Fast Track system, or how his claim would be processed, or what evidence he needed to be preparing.

On the Detained Fast Track, asylum seekers whose claims are judged to be suitable for quick processing are detained throughout, from making their claim until removal. They have no right to choose a legal aid solicitor, but are allocated one from a rota. The 99% who are refused asylum are given two days to appeal; most are dropped by their solicitors and have to appeal unaided, in a language that they may not understand, from their room in a high security detention centre. The whole process should take 22 days.

The UK began fast tracking asylum claims in 2000, detaining asylum seekers for seven days in a centre at Oakington and releasing them after an initial decision on their claim. The Detained Fast Track in its current form was introduced in 2003 for men, using Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, near Heathrow Airport, and two years later for women at Yarls Wood near Bedford. At the time of its introduction, it was the bluntest of blunt instruments of a government faced by historically high numbers of asylum claims and apparently otherwise incapable of resolving cases quickly. In the context of epic backlogs and fierce political attention, the government could not resist the temptation of an asylum process guaranteed to process and remove people fast.

The timescales and the detention environment pose formidable obstacles to preparing an asylum claim. The UK Border Agency has frequently been accused of a culture of disbelief and denial; providing evidence is crucial, yet how to obtain it so quickly, from detention? In Mohammed’s experience, “when they refused me I had no evidence, it was in Libya and my family were scared to send me the evidence.” Only after he had been refused and given a date for removal was he able to obtain evidence through a friend and make a fresh asylum claim. He was subsequently released on bail. The UNHCR has criticised an “inappropriately heavy burden on Detained Fast Track applicants to prove their claim.”

The fast timescales of the detained Fast Track originated in concerns about the legality of detaining asylum seekers for extended periods for mere administrative convenience. Detaining migrants for removal is controversial; detaining asylum-seekers simply to consider their claims is still more serious. The process was challenged in the European Court of Human Rights in 2008 in the case of Saadi. The Court found that Dr Saadi’s detention was lawful, as he was held for only seven days in Oakington, a low security detention centre that was considered a “relaxed regime.” The Court also gave weight to the administrative problems of the UK government at the time in processing “an escalating flow of huge numbers of asylum-seekers.” Six judges dissented, describing the use of detention to process asylum claims as “an increasingly worrying situation” and concluding that “mere administrative expediency or convenience will not suffice.”

Yet today’s Detained Fast Track bears little resemblance to that described in Saadi: the more limited Oakington process no longer exists. Most men on the Detained Fast Track are today held in conditions equivalent to a high security prison in new wings at Harmondsworth, today the largest immigration detention centre in Europe. And the periods which asylum-seekers spend in detention are many times longer.

Research by Detention Action (formerly London Detainee Support Group) has found that asylum seekers are spending weeks in detention waiting for the Detained Fast Track process to begin. Confused and panicked, many have little understanding of why they are locked up. Before meeting their solicitor on the day of their interview, before being given only two days to appeal, asylum seekers wait two weeks or more in detention, for no apparent reason. Without access to legal advice, not knowing what is happening, they must wait in a state of enforced helplessness. David from Pakistan told Detention Action that he spent over six weeks in detention after he claimed asylum, time spent frantically searching for a solicitor and attempting to understand what was happening. On his 44th morning in detention he was summoned unexpectedly from his bed for his asylum interview. He met his solicitor on his way to the interview, and had fifteen minutes with her to seek advice and explain his case. His asylum claim was considered and rejected in just two days.

This research forms part of a review of the Detained Fast Track of 2011, “Fast Track to Despair,” by Detention Action. The report concludes that the Detained Fast Track is an unfair, crude and outdated part of the asylum system, structured to the maximum disadvantage of asylum seekers. The 45 asylum-seekers interviewed about their experiences describe their distress at finding themselves abandoned to a chaotic and incomprehensible process. Paul from Gambia wondered “why am I here, in a prison?” For Mallan from Malawi, “it was just hell. I didn’t know what to do, what to be afraid of.”

The Detained Fast Track is not an inevitable part of the asylum process. No other EU country has an equivalent system. The UK no longer faces large numbers of asylum claims and backlogs. The New Asylum Model, introduced in 2007, has reduced delays to the extent that some asylum seekers in the community have their initial interview considerably faster than those on the Detained Fast Track interviewed for the research. Moreover, there are signs of a move away from reliance on detention to enforce immigration control, since it is cheaper and more effective when migrants consent to the process and return voluntarily if refused. The UK Border Agency has implemented several pilot projects which aim improve dialogue with asylum-seekers and the quality of decision-making, so that applicants understand the process and feel that they have had a fair hearing. These include the Early Legal Advice Project and the Key Workers Pilot. Evidence suggests that such approaches improve compliance with the asylum system and reduce absconding. The logic of these approaches is the polar opposite of brute constraint of detention. Asylum claims can be resolved in the community in a way that is fast, fair and effective. The Detained Fast Track should have no place in the improved asylum system signalled by Ministers.

The urgency of this change is not diminished by its lateness, too late for the people who have already sought protection in the UK and faced instead the Detained Fast Track. As Kafka, who foresaw this degradation of justice into incomprehensible and meaningless rituals of bureaucracy, once said: “there is hope… plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope. But not for us.”

The full report by Detention Action ( formerly London Detainee Support Group) , "Fast Track to Despair" will be published on 12th May 2011.


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