Shine A Light

Mark Harper, it's your asylum system that's 'not credible and ridiculous'

The UK immigration minister Mark Harper mocked an Iraqi asylum-seeker on national television. Expert witnesses discover time and again that the Home Office fails honourable people who have valid claims for asylum.

Peter Richardson
15 November 2013

“Not credible and ridiculous”, Mark Harper, the UK immigration minister, told Esam Amin, an Iraqi asylum seeker on the BBC’s Sunday Politics West show, but for those of us who work with asylum seekers it’s the system that’s not credible.

During my six years as director of Leeds Asylum Seekers’ Support Network, we supported thousands of people battered by the Home Office. I can’t tell you about all the astonishing people I met so I’ll mention three young men I know well from central/east Africa – each one branded as not credible.

Andrew’s journey to the UK took months and started with a deadly walk across semi-desert. He didn’t know he was coming to the UK but simple followed the agent, struggled to keep up and watched people die at the side of the path.

Having arrived at Paddington Station, Andrew, like the famous bear, was fortunate to find someone willing to help. Andrew met a man from his own country who took him in, fed him, arranged for a solicitor to write a letter and gave him directions to Croydon – the only place in the UK that the Home Office will register new asylum seekers who haven’t been identified at the port.

“Go back to where you came from,” Andrew was told by the officer at the reception desk.

She’d heard Andrew’s well educated English and assumed he’d been in the UK for years not just hours. She didn’t believe him or the solicitor’s letter.

It took Andrew a week to find the courage to return and reapply. This time he met a more credible duty officer. He is now a refugee in Leeds, works for a bank and has set up a charitable organisation to advise people how to manage their debts.

Gordon’s journey to the UK was more straightforward. He flew to Heathrow with a valid visa based on his work for an international organisation and attendance at a conference in London. Having safely negotiated his way into the system he was dispersed to Leeds, where he was refused asylum.

Gordon is one of the most intelligent and resourceful people I have ever met. Within six months his English was good enough that he was asking me to explain figures of speech that my children don’t understand.

He was spending every moment preparing his appeal against his refusal by reviewing the paperwork about his case. He became increasingly unhappy with the translation and interpretation of what he had said during his initial interviews and decided that the only way to ensure that things were said correctly was to say them himself.

Gordon won his appeal after six months in a foreign country where he didn’t speak the language and after having to defend himself before a judge without a solicitor. Gordon went on to gain a distinction in his Masters degree and now teaches at a university in Africa, but makes frequent trips home to Leeds to be with his young family.

Too many asylum seekers like Gordon are refused on grounds of credibility only to be granted leave to remain after winning an appeal. An Amnesty International/Still Human Still Here report earlier this year found that in 84 per cent of the research sample,

“the primary reason for an initial decision being overturned was that the UKBA case owner had wrongly made a negative assessment of the applicant’s credibility. In all these cases, the case owners had not properly followed the UKBA’s [UK Border Agency] own polices on assessing credibility.”

Francis used to live next door to me. It took him many years to convince the Home Office that his life was in danger in his own country. Everyone else meeting Francis was convinced within minutes.

Francis had been imprisoned for protesting, alongside his father, against the inhumane treatment of civilians in their country. His father was beheaded and Francis feared for himself and his family. He flew to the UK having escaped prison and torture.

On a recent training course a volunteer asked whether or not the Home Office is basically looking for reasons to refuse. Everyone with experience of the Home Office laughed – “of course they are.”

In Francis’s case they simply didn’t believe he was Francis. They insisted he’d pinched someone else’s identity in order to claim asylum and therefore they refused him.

Francis later made a fresh asylum claim with new evidence. He had just found out that his mother had also been killed. The Home Office still denied him but eventually relented and granted him refugee status.

He now lives in Australia with his wife and children. They had been kidnapped in an effort by the authorities to entice Francis out of hiding. They escaped when their captor was killed and fled to a neighbouring country, where the Australian government (which is not known for leniency to asylum seekers) recognised their dire situation and flew them to Australia as refugees.

Francis is now studying to complete a degree in Peace Studies. Peace and justice are still his primary motivation despite the violence and conflict he has experienced.

I’ve heard so many asylum seekers complain that the hardest thing is not being believed. You have just escaped from dreadful circumstances, you’ve travelled miles in pain and discomfort, you fear for your life and then someone in authority says, “I don’t believe you.”

It happened to Mary when a judge commented that people come here for the benefits. Mary told him the reality of her own situation:

“In my country I lived in a five bedroom house – here I have one bedroom in a shared house. In my country I had a chauffeur and two cars – here I cannot afford a bus fare. In my country I was surrounded by my family – here I am alone. In my country I was principal of an academy – here I am no one.”

It seems to me that the system is geared towards finding a reason to say no. Andrew was asked 205 questions in his initial interview. For example, “what was the name of your maths teacher, who is the health minister and how would you disassemble your weapon” – to be answered through an interpreter who had never held a gun and didn’t know the words for the various components.

The consequences of not being believed are devastating to life and liberty. A recent inspection of Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre found a woman had been living (in prison) for almost four years. That’s not a removal policy – that’s abuse.

Mark Harper says, "We are committed to ensuring that all detained persons are held safely and that they are treated with dignity and respect.”

I’m sorry I don’t believe you. I don’t find your department credible. I’ve seen too many people refused protection and treated appallingly.

We need a more credible process – with decision-making that’s independent of political pressure – such as Tony Blair’s target to remove more migrants than arrive or David Cameron’s target to reduce net migration.

We need to treat vulnerable people with more respect, uphold the assumption of innocence until proven otherwise and have a system of support that enables and ensures truth and justice. 

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