The UK's asylum system is "marred by inhumanity" and "not yet fit for purpose", the most comprehensive study ever conducted into its workings has found.
A report published today by the Independent Asylum Commission found the treatment of asylum seekers coming to this country fell "seriously below" the standards of a civilised society.
The year-long study of the work of the Border and Immigration Agency, led by former appeal court judge Sir John Waite, said the system denied sanctuary to some in need and failed to remove others who should go.
It called the treatment of some asylum seekers a "blemish" on the UK's international reputation.
The Border and Immigration Agency has refuted the report, claiming it operated a "firm but humane" system.
The commission was established in 2006 after the then home secretary John Reid branded the immigration system "unfit for purpose".
It took testimonies from every sector of society, including former home secretaries, policy makers, charities, asylum seekers, police, local authorities, and citizens.
The findings highlighted three particular areas of concern: the use of detention centres, especially to hold children, pregnant women and torture victims; the often brutal handling of removals; and the use of destitution as a tool to drive claimants out of the country.
Waite said: "The overuse of detention, the scale of destitution and the severity of removals are all areas which need attention before the system can be described as fit for purpose".
Commenting on the common practice of locking up refugees, the report said: "The detention of asylum seekers is overused, oppressive and an unnecessary burden on the taxpayer," and branded the detention of children "wholly unjustified".
"The system still denies sanctuary to some who genuinely need it and ought to be entitled to it, is not firm enough in returning those whose claims are refused and is marred by inhumanity in its treatment of the vulnerable."
Waite went on to call for "a thorough re-examination" of the detention and bail system, which treated asylum seekers as criminals.
"The justification for such a system is the fear of absconding, and that fear is, in our opinion, grossly exaggerated," he said.
Border officials, the report found, did not give enough consideration to factors such as post-traumatic stress in initial interviews.
"Some of those seeking sanctuary, particularly women, children and torture survivors, have additional vulnerabilities that are not being appropriately addressed," it said.
Other issues highlighted in the report included the fact that many genuine claims were being overlooked because of cuts in the legal aid budget which have made it more difficult to find lawyers for complex cases.
And some private security firms were described by the commission as carrying out removals with "unnecessary violence and carelessness".
Government figures reveal there were 23,430 asylum applications in 2007, the lowest for 14 years, and a quarter of the record set in 2002.
Today's report presented the commission's interim findings. Further reports will be published in May, June and July, including recommendations on reform of the system.
Donna Covey, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: "This is an important set of findings from an independent commission, which presents overwhelming evidence that the asylum system is still not fit for purpose.
"We must treat people with basic decency, and the system must get asylum decisions right – they are a matter of life and death."
Responding to the report, Lin Homer, head of the Border and Immigration Agency, said: "The claims made in this report are not based on any thorough knowledge. I totally refute any suggestion that we treat asylum applicants without care and compassion.
"We have a proud tradition in Britain of offering sanctuary to those who truly need our protection and anyone seeking asylum can have their case reviewed by an independent judge.
"We operate a firm but humane system, supporting those who are vulnerable with accommodation and assistance.
"But we expect those that a court says have no genuine need for asylum to return home voluntarily, saving taxpayers the expense of enforcing their return.
"We will enforce the removal of those who refuse to comply, always ensuring first that it is safe to do so."
- IAC: INTERIM FINDINGS - Fit for Purpose Yet? (PDF)
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