|Hunger strike outside the headquarters of the UK Border Agency|
By Bernard Keenan
First, a few statistics for those who imagine a horde of "bogus" claimants is overrunning the country. The UKBA statistics for asylum in 2010 reveal that overall, the number of applicants was down 15% on 2009, with 17,790 applications made for asylum last year. The UK therefore received around 7.5% of all applications for asylum in the 27 EU states last year, ranking 14th in terms of asylum applications per head of population. We are not being swamped by asylum seekers. Around 75% of asylum applications decided in 2010 by the Home Office were refused. Of those who appealed the refusal, 27% were allowed. Make of that what you will. What drives people to starve themselves to possible death is a sense of injustice about the process itself.
It is helpful, if simplistic, to think of an asylum case as having two distinct sides. There is the subjective account given by the individual, and then there is the objective situation in the country of origin. The construction of a subjective account begins when an individual is first encountered by the immigration system. This may be at a port, in a police station, or at an asylum screening unit. Any "age-disputed" case is first referred for an age-assessment, an extremely controversial process in which social workers aim to establish whether a person is over or under 18. This is a process fraught with error, and rarely takes any account of the trauma that a person has experienced. A negative assessment by social services, who will bear the burden of looking after anyone they themselves find to be a child, gives the immigration service a first reason to treat the person as incredible. One-nil to the state – this is an adversarial process.
The idea of credibility, or rather a lack thereof, forms the basis of the interview process. An asylum interview generally lasts between three and six hours, and it is not a pleasant experience. If by the end of it there is anything that can be presented by the Home Office as evidence of an inconsistent narrative, then asylum is refused and the applicant accused of lying. Evidence of torture, post-traumatic stress, and documentary evidence in support of a claim can be disregarded. The aggression and suspicion levelled at applicants can be extremely upsetting. Value is placed on coherent narrative, over and above overwhelming physical evidence. So it may be that you have diagnostic scars across your body, but if you appear to have been inconsistent in recalling this traumatic, often shameful, event, then you are deemed to be lying.
An appeal to the tribunal in such a case must account for all the reasons raised for refusal by the Home Office. This usually involves expensive expert evidence regarding scars, psychological trauma, document verification, specific country of origin information, and so on. It is expensive and requires hard work from legal representatives, working on very tight legal aid budgets, to succeed. Under the detained "fast-track" process, obtaining such evidence is practically impossible. Without effective legal representation, problems are often compounded rather than corrected.
In the second half of the equation – objective country conditions – asylum seekers are generally divided into categories of claimants and their cases examined in line with the findings of "country-guidance" cases given by the tribunal. These are generally translated by the Home Office into its operational guidance notes. The trouble is that if a person is already deemed to be not credible, however bad the situation in their home country, then the guidance will not help them.
The government is committed to reviewing the process by which asylum claims are dealt with. The Asylum Improvement Project aims to improve decision making and cut the costs of the National Asylum Support Service. The first step must surely be to end the culture of disbelief and the hostile and aggressive interrogations of asylum seekers; currently a fault-finding exercise instead of the fact-finding enterprise it is supposed to be. The next step should be to ensure access to legal representation and medical assessment before the process begins, and to give asylum-seeking children the benefit of the doubt rather than subjecting them to the same pressures as adults.
Finally, this is a question of principle and of basic human decency. The UK bombs Libya and Afghanistan in the name of human rights. We tried the same thing in Iraq, and talk of sanctions or even bombing of Iran is never entirely off the agenda. While the victims of such regimes remain far away, we encourage them to fight and martyr themselves for values we say we share. When they arrive here seeking shelter, the approach should be the same.