Affairs Select Committee once again hit the headlines last week with a
damning report on the failures of the UK Border Agency, this time stating
that the agency cannot fulfil even its basic functions. For the Refugee Council,
an organisation whose clients rely on the UKBA to make life-changing decisions
that determine their futures, this is deeply worrying.
To start with, as widely picked up by the press, the Committee’s report found that the Agency’s figures are in mess, using the backlog of asylum cases as an example. Having announced to the public that it had cleared the backlog of 450,000 cases in 2011, this report confirms that the UKBA is still working on 17,000 live cases.
This is indeed misleading to the public and parliament, but the cost to the people involved is far more serious. These are people who sought protection in the UK as long as ten years ago, and have since been living in limbo without a final decision — many with no rights, no permission to work, without any financial support, and unable to return to the country they fled from. The least they now deserve is a quick and reasonable decision, yet this report states that it will take a further four years for the backlog to be cleared.
We find this unacceptable, and urge the UKBA to increase their resources to clear the backlog once and for all by the promised deadline of March 2013 so that the people affected can finally start to rebuild their lives.
Thankfully, we know that the UKBA has made efforts to ensure decisions made on current asylum cases are much quicker than this. While we want the UK to make decisions on asylum cases within a reasonable timeframe, making the right decision is of course much more important. A wrong decision can have extremely serious consequences for our clients – the threat of persecution on return, or worse.
It is therefore frightening that the tools UKBA staff should use to make such decisions are being used inappropriately, according to the MPs’ report. In particular it states that the ‘Country of Origin Information’ reports, which provide details of the situations and human rights abuses in countries people are fleeing from to help UKBA caseworkers determine whether asylum seekers could have fled persecution, are being used “selectively”, and staff are instead making assumptions. The report also finds that the COI does not accurately reflect the situation in those countries, so even if it was being used by staff properly, it would not necessarily help them make a correct decision. The Still Human Still Here coalition, of which Refugee Council is a member, regularly reflects this by highlighting inconsistencies and omissions in the COI reports.
And there is evidence to show decisions are often wrong first time: the report states that UKBA loses over a quarter of appeals against negative decisions (27 per cent). We know that the appeal rate for people from certain countries, and for women is often much higher: for example, in 2011, more than 45 per cent of appeals were allowed on women’s asylum cases from Iran, compared to 27 per cent for Iranian men, showing that decisions on women’s cases are more likely to be wrong first time. The Committee states that this is “a considerable waste on administrative assets, the time of the tribunal and a burden on applicants who have been given a wrong decision”. We work with asylum seekers every day and the ‘burden’ of being wrongly refused is nothing less than devastating.
These are life or death decisions and it is absolutely vital that they are right first time. If the UKBA wants to be seen to be making credible decisions, they must end the selective use of COI reports, speculation, and incorrect assumptions, and should ensure information about countries people are fleeing from is regularly and accurately reported.
There are of course other issues not touched upon in the report that will enable better decision making, such as quick and early access to legal support throughout the process, specialist support for vulnerable people including women and torture survivors, and a culture of giving the benefit of the doubt, rather than one of disbelief. We know UKBA has made some steps to improve in these areas, but there is still some way to go before we are convinced decisions are being made fairly.
For those who are refused (rightly or wrongly), we were pleased the report addressed the grave situation many face when the UK sends them back to countries like Sri Lanka where their lives are likely to be at risk. Human Rights Watch recently reported that people forcibly returned to Sri Lanka have faced torture. Over 30 per cent of women accessing the Refugee Council’s therapeutic services for victims of sexual violence last year were Sri Lankan, almost all of them had been tortured and raped, and just under half were refused asylum. It is unacceptable that people like this are being returned to the risk of torture or death in our name. The UKBA must acknowledge the dangers facing people in their own countries, and offer some kind of protection if it is not safe for them to return.
Last week, the immigration minister Damian Green blamed ‘past mistakes’ for the failures of the UK Border Agency today. But as we can see, this excuse is no longer good enough. We fully endorse the recommendations in the Committee’s report to restore the public’s faith in the UKBA, but moreover, to ensure asylum seekers are not forced to suffer. Until the human cost of these mistakes comes to an end, we will campaign for a fairer, more effective asylum system so that those in need of protection here can get it.