By Alan Travis
Home Office ministers are to opt out of a European directive which lays down minimum standards for the treatment of asylum claims because it would mean abandoning a fast-track process that leads to hundreds of asylum seekers being detained every year.
The decision has been criticised by immigration lawyers and peers who believe the detention of asylum seekers at Yarl's Wood and Harmondsworth removal centres "under the detained fast-track" procedure leads to rushed and unfair decisions because there is no time to gather evidence.
The fast-track asylum procedure was introduced in 2003 and involves immigration officers making an initial decision within two weeks while the asylum seeker is in detention.
Ministers fear the EU directive, which forms a key part of developing a common asylum policy, will also block deportations of "manifestly unfounded" failed asylum seekers before they can appeal. About 150 failed asylum seekers a year are told that lodging an appeal against their claim being turned down will not halt their deportation and they can only appeal once they have left Britain.
A decision to implement the directive would also mean enabling access to legal advice and other help for asylum seekers detained on arrival at port and providing better translation services.
An official impact assessment recently posted on the Home Office website says that it would cost an extra £37m to implement the asylum procedures directive.
"The UK is formally obliged to opt in or opt out of these proposals. If we do not opt in to the procedures, the proposals will not apply to the UK. If the UK opts-in then the proposals will also apply to Gibraltar," says the Home Office impact assessment.
The European Commission says it has introduced the directive to ensure higher and more coherent standards for deciding who should be given international protection across Europe. It lays down minimum standards in deciding asylum claims, including rules on interviewing and appeal rights.
But the Home Office says that in doing so it places restrictions on the use of fast-track procedures to decide asylum claims and restricts the circumstances in which somebody can be deported while still waiting to hear the outcome of an appeal to the courts.
Home Office minister, Lord West of Spithead, told peers that the government cannot accept these restrictions. "Provided those subject to it have access to all the usual guarantees, there is no reason why an accelerated procedure should not be applied to any claim. The new directive would allow this only in certain circumstances; for example, where the applicant comes from a listed 'safe' country," he said.
"That would stop us operating our existing detained fast-track system, which provides fast and fair decisions on the applicants who go through it. It is an excellent way of managing the sort of asylum claims that are capable of being decided quickly."
Alasdair Mackenzie of the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association said: "The process rushes a person through the decision-making process without time to gather the necessary evidence, then sees that person making a fresh claim shortly after the process has ended because the evidence is now available and calls into doubt the original decision."
He said that it was neither a fair, nor an efficient, way to deal with asylum applications.
Human Rights Watch: UK ‘fast track’ asylum system fails women
Human Rights Watch - Feb 23
Women who fear severe human rights abuses if returned to their home countries are not getting fair consideration of their asylum claims under the United Kingdom’s “detained fast track” asylum system, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 69-page report, “Fast-Tracked Unfairness: Detention and Denial of Women Asylum Seekers in the UK” documents how women asylum seekers with complex claims are being routed into a system designed for much simpler claims. The women are held in detention largely for the UK’s administrative convenience, have very little time to prepare a legal case, and have only a few days to appeal if refused. But the claims often involve such sensitive and difficult issues as sexual violence, female genital mutilation, trafficking, and domestic abuse. There is little time for lawyers or other representatives to build the trust with their clients needed for them to explain their claims or to obtain medical or other evidence needed to verify them.
“The ‘detained fast track’ system doesn’t meet even the basic standards of fairness,” said Gauri van Gulik, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It is simply not equipped to handle rape, slavery, the threat of ‘honor killings,’ or other complex claims, and yet such cases are handed to it regularly.”
The report is based on research conducted in the UK in 2009, in locations such as Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. Human Rights Watch conducted 50 interviews, including with women in detention who were going through the “detained fast track” system, women who had gone through part of the system but were taken out, solicitors, representatives of nongovernmental organizations working with the women, and Border Agency officials.
“If I go back, my husband and my family kill me,” said Fatima H., a woman from Pakistan who based her claim on severe domestic violence and was refused in the fast track system. She spoke to Human Rights Watch on September 24, 2009. “If there [is] in this world a little bit of humanity or you can say human rights, please protect me from them. If no, then allow me to kill myself as a right of human who have nothing in this world, not a little place where I live safe.”
The report describes a screening procedure with guidelines too vague for the border agents who make the decisions about how a woman’s case will be handled to assess properly the complexity of many women’s cases and whether they can be handled adequately in the fast track system. Despite the UK Border Agency’s own gender guidelines, designed to explain particular considerations around gender-related claims, some Border Agency staff lack a basic understanding of the special issues often involved in women’s asylum claims, Human Rights Watch said.
Once routed into the fast track, women with complex cases have far too little time to prepare their case, obtain medical or other expert opinions, and establish the credibility of their claims. This is especially true in cases involving rape or abuse, where women may only be able to come forward with relevant information late in the process, or not at all, because they may be traumatized by their experience, frightened by the procedure, or simply embarrassed to tell an official.
Placing women in detention exacerbates the problems. Some of the women have no access to female interpreters, case workers, or medical staff.
“The UN, numerous groups that work with immigrants, parliament, and even its own quality assessment team have been telling the Home Office for years that ‘fast track’ is failing women,” van Gulik said. “The UK Border Agency’s failure to fix this suggests that deporting women is a higher priority for the agency than protecting them.”
In 2008, about one in four women assigned initially to the Detained Fast Track procedure were eventually moved into the standard asylum procedure. The government asserts that this shows that the system is working. But lawyers and nongovernmental organizations told Human Rights Watch that it was their intervention that led most of these cases to be reassigned rather than a reassessment by Border Agency staff. In the regular asylum system, the asylum seekers are not held in detention while their claims are examined, and they have weeks, not days, to prove their claims.
The Detained Fast Track system was created in 2003 and opened up to women in 2005. Currently, it is an important part of an effort by the UK government to “resolve” 90 percent of all asylum claims within six months. Under fast track, an effort is made to decide a claim within two weeks, and the asylum seeker is detained so that the agency will have immediate access to the person for quick processing.
So far 2,055 women have gone through the fast track process, all held at Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre near Bedford. About 96 percent of the claimants were refused on first hearing. Government statistics for 2008 and the first half of 2009 show that 91 percent of appeals were refused.
While the UK is entitled to control its borders and to remove people with unfounded claims, it is also obliged to ensure that people who actually need protection from persecution on Refugee Convention grounds should be granted refugee status, Human Rights Watch said. To ensure this, individuals who may need such protection have the right to a full and fair refugee status examination procedure.
Human Rights Watch said that the Home Office should put more rigorous procedures into effect immediately to ensure that people with complex claims are not routed into the fast track procedure, including:
- In the suitability guidance note for routing into this system, add complex gender-related persecution claims, such as sexual violence and domestic violence, to the list of “claims unlikely to be accepted into fast track.”
- Clarify the criteria for routing a person through fast track, including the factors that would enable a “quick” decision on a claim.
Among the women interviewed was Laura A. from Sierra Leone, who was routed into “detained fast track” but taken out later by the Home Office and eventually granted refugee status based on the several forms of gender-related persecution she escaped from. She said of her initial experience and refusal under the fast track system, “I am a fighter, I am used to fight to live, but to be told, ‘You faked your life,’ is a little like death.”