By Jill Rutter
Over the last two weeks we have seen a large number of reports and articles critical of the asylum system. The Independent Inspector of the UK Border Agency highlighted the growing backlog of unprocessed asylum claims in a report published at the end of February.
His report was followed by Nuala O’Loan’s investigation into allegations of the abuse of asylum-seekers held in detention or in the process of removal from the UK. Yesterday the media reported that the costs of supporting asylum-seekers – who are not permitted to work – had risen by 1,700 per cent over the last five years.
All these reports point to an asylum system vulnerable to misadministration and crisis. There have been some improvements in the processing of asylum claims over the last ten years – the time it takes for an initial decision on an asylum case has fallen from 22 months in 1997 to seven months in 2009. An inspectorate for the UK Border Agency and greater commitment to the integration of those allowed to remain in the UK are other changes for the better.
Nevertheless, the asylum system remains flawed and prone to backlogs. It is high time progressives took an honest look at asylum in the UK. Yet a tabloid media hostile to asylum-seekers, coupled with a powerful refugee lobby have prevented a root and branch examination of the treatment of refugees.
The latest media articles, drawn from Home Office statistics, point to a reduction in the numbers of ‘failed’ asylum-seekers who are removed from the UK and a huge increase in the cost of supporting them. In 2009, some 26,832 removal notices were issued to failed asylum-seekers, yet only 7,850 persons from this group were removed from the UK.
Many of those who are not removed from the UK receive food vouchers and basic accommodation from the UK Border Agency, a type of sustenance known as Section Four support. Ministers are very concerned by the rising costs of Section Four support.
However, an in-depth analysis of Home Office asylum statistics shows why such small proportions of failed asylum-seekers end up being removed from the UK and why the costs of Section Four support have rocketed. In 2009, some 17,805 asylum-seekers – about 73 per cent of all applicants – received an initial negative decision in the UK. Of those refusals 4,150 were from Zimbabwe and 1,080 were from Sri Lanka. Yet government has suspended removals to these countries because it acknowledges that Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka are too unstable for the return of asylum-seekers.
Some 1,070 Iraqis and 585 Somalis were refused asylum in 2009. While the UK will return them, organising flights and onward transport in these countries is logistically challenging and expensive. Failed asylum-seekers from countries such as Zimbabwe and Somalia are kept in limbo: their applications have been refused, yet we cannot send them back. It is an inhumane and costly trap. A progressive asylum policy would allow those who we cannot remove from the UK to remain here, work and contribute to their new communities.
Our government does remove those who have overstayed their permission to remain in the UK, a group that includes failed asylum-seekers. At present there are weekly charter flights to countries such as Nigeria and Afghanistan.
Frontex, the EU external borders agency, will soon be taking responsibility for chartering and coordinating removal flights. Yet progressives have given very little consideration to removals policy. Honest debate about this issue is often heavily suppressed by the open borders movement, groups and individuals who often have links with the left.
We need to get to grips with removals policy. We need to acknowledge that there are some people whose removal is practically impossible – they should be allowed to stay in the UK. We also need to confront other questions. How do we deal with those who physically resist removal? How can the activities of Frontex be made transparent and accountable? Should we have independent human rights monitors on charter flights, as some EU countries do? How do we monitor the safety of those returned to their home countries?
Above all, we need safeguards at our external borders, as many would be asylum-seekers do not make to European territory and are turned back at our external borders.
Jill Rutter works for an organisation supporting refugees and migrants and is an associate fellow of the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr); she writes here in a personal capacity.