Shine A Light

Rethinking asylum

As the Coalition government considers how the UK treats those who seek sanctuary within its borders, Colin Firth argues that the system should be humane and civilised and that the question of asylum should be treated separately from the general question of immigration.

Colin Firth
15 July 2010

As the Coalition government reappraises how the UK treats those who seek sanctuary within its borders, we publish an article by actor Colin Firth based on his submission to the Home Office Review into Ending the Detention of Children for Immigration Purposes.

Last month, at a Citizens UK event in London, the new immigration minister Damian Green appeared to reject the views of extremist politicians, saying he believes many asylum seekers are genuine refugees deserving of our help, that CO. I hope these principles will inform his decisions during the current review into ending child detention for immigration purposes, and that we are moving towards a humane and evidence-based asylum system.

We have a long way to go.

While this review takes place attempts are being made to remove asylum seekers to war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia.

Most of these people will have been denied the opportunity to obtain the necessary proofs of their case. Their initial interviews — 17 pages in English — based on a series of questions eliciting the narrative in a non-consecutive way, may confuse the applicant. Interpretation is often inadequate. Dialects may differ. Several cases have been delayed because the individuals making the decision found the initial interviewer’s writing illegible. (One such example was reported to the Southampton MP Alan Whitehead).

The previous government cut legal aid provision to 5 hours:  lawyers insist that cases require at least 18 hours to process. In hearings the presumption is often made that the person(s) concerned are lying. Attempts are made to trip them up by reference to the first interview, when they were bewildered and frightened.

Many women seeking asylum have been raped. Despite strong evidence that women do not disclose sexual violence to a male stranger, especially in front of male relatives, this is frequently the situation they find themselves in at their initial asylum interview. When, later, they disclose rape and sexual violence, they are disbelieved.  

Adjudicators rarely treat the appellant with respect. Decisions are made by people who may lack understanding of in-country conditions, under pressure to achieve targets that the UKBA’s own inspector calls ‘unachievable’.

As Thomas Hammarberg, the Human Rights Commissioner for the Council of Europe said in his stinging rebuke of UK asylum policy two years ago: "celerity and quality of decision-making in the complex field of refugee law and protection are rarely a matching pair."

Hammarberg also strongly opposed "the UK practice of aliens’ forced returns on the basis of diplomatic assurances which are inherently flawed since they are usually sought from countries with long-standing, proven records of torture and ill-treatment."

Indeed it is hard to see the government’s logic in sending vulnerable Somalis to Mogadishu, the capital of a failed state, the world’s most violent city and a place too unsafe to have a working British Embassy.

"If we must return families to such countries," said Chris Mullin MP, "we should take some interest in what happens to them after they have disembarked. That might involve putting some money in their pockets, employing an NGO to see them safely through the airport and back to where they came from, and perhaps a little help with reintegrating."

Reintegration was not an issue for Adam Osman Mohammed, 32, a failed asylum-seeker returned to Darfur under a UK government repatriation scheme. Just days after arriving in his village, in full sight of his wife and four-year-old son, he was gunned down by Sudanese security officers.

Adam’s return was not a unique and terrible mistake. In April of this year Amnesty International accused Britain (along with a number of other European countries) of forcibly repatriating Iraqis to "extremely dangerous" parts of the country — in breach of United Nations guidelines.

Damian Green rightly recognised there is a need for "a general review of the asylum system ... to ensure that decisions are right first time".


Yarl's Wood detention centre.

But "right first time" decisions are less likely than ever since the government’s decision last month to let Refugee & Migrant Justice fail, depriving many thousands of asylum-seekers of decent legal representation. In a last ditch appeal to the government to save RMJ, the largest specialist national provider of legal representation to asylum seekers and other vulnerable migrants, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, warned: "Lives will be put at risk and there are likely to be many more miscarriages of justice - which are already common in our asylum system."

Bishop John Packer said: "It is hard to see how any government or society with a concern for justice could allow it to cease its work."

Lord McNally’s reassurance that the government was "giving high priority"to minimising the "disruption" in allocating the 10,000-plus cases previously managed by RMJ, is not borne out by reports from the field. There, chaos rules.

It should go without saying that the separation of parents and children must be specifically prohibited in the new arrangements for asylum-seeking families. Separation would be contrary both to Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 22 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as Section 55 of the Border, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009.

Since the 1950s, when John Bowlby began to examine the impact of maternal separation on young children, our society’s whole approach to the needs of the child has been predicated on the importance of avoiding maternal / parental separation especially at times of stress when children are more vulnerable to harm (for example when they are sick or in hospital).

Yet, in spite of the clearly recorded vulnerability of child refugees and asylum seekers, (who as a consequence of being asylum seekers are likely to be experiencing material poverty, poor quality housing, discrimination, poor diets and problematic access to health and social care services), the UK Border Agency has had few qualms about separating young asylum seekers and refugees from their parents.

In his February 2010 follow up report to, The arrest and detention of children subject to immigration control, the then Children’s Commissioner for England Sir Al Aynsley-Green said: "Separating young children from their parents – even for a short time during transportation (to detention centres) - is potentially extremely damaging and should only be used in the most extreme circumstances."

He goes on:

We have received at least three reports in which children – even very young children – have been separated from their parent when initially taken from home to the local enforcement office . . . This has the potential to be extremely damaging to the child who may not have the capacity to understand when or how they will be reunited with their parent. We have documentary evidence of the effects of this on one small child and it makes very uncomfortable reading.

It is unconscionable that our government would choose as an alternative to detention the planned and deliberate separation of a baby, child or young person from his or her parents.

Regular reporting is a cheap and effective alternative to detention. Other options could include a close link with a social worker or with a member of an approved NGO. I welcome the pilot scheme that was launched in Glasgow and which saw asylum families housed in former council flats, under a partnership between the council, the Scottish government and the UKBA. But I remain concerned that evaluation of this scheme focuses on its ability to secure higher return rates and not on the well being of the children and families concerned. David Wood of the UKBA admitted to the Home Affairs Select Committee last year that families are very unlikely to abscond:

Whilst issues are raised about absconding, that is not our biggest issue. It does happen but it is not terribly easy for a family unit to abscond.

All the evidence points to the fact that higher rates of compliance with voluntary returns will be achieved only if families who have fled danger to seek sanctuary here are permitted to dwell in the community while their cases are being considered, and are supported and kept informed of the progress of their case by dedicated case managers.

I agree with the report from Ian Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice that excellent, available legal advice, the trustworthiness of the workers they have contact with, and support — not destitution — are the conditions most likely to achieve the voluntary returns the government is seeking.

Any civilised nation should respond this way to those who seek sanctuary. Families who are to be returned should be treated with dignity and respect; they are, in the words of the Bishop of Southwark, not worthless scroungers to be despised but, "men and women who are anxious and frightened and trying to keep body and soul together in a strange land."

I call on the government to end the immigration detention of children and to adopt more humane alternatives that recognise the rights of all children to be treated with dignity and respect. Families should never be left destitute. Central to any fair and just alternative would be community-based access to housing, food, clothing, health and social care, alongside good quality legal representation.

The lack of understanding around asylum seekers, and the climate of suspicion so easily stirred up by media and politicians, has seeped into the culture of the legal system and the enforcement process.

We need to elevate the human and civil rights status of innocent asylum seekers to at least the level we accord our criminals.

Colin Firth is an actor and activist and co-founder of Brightwide — the website for social and political cinema. With thanks to Clare Sambrook, Esme Madill, Simon Parker, Professor John Mellor, Dennis Cook and Dr Shirley Firth.

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