Asylum in the UK: ‘room for improvement’ is putting it mildly

At Right to Remain, we’re always out and about across the UK, meeting with and running workshops for the groups in our network.  This means a lot of train journeys.  Luckily it provides some time to catch up on reading, like the report by the Independent Chief Inspector on the Home Office’s Asylum Casework released last week.

We get a very stark insight into how the asylum process operates from the members of the community groups we work with, and it’s not pretty.  This first-hand experience is invaluable, and as a collective of individuals, they provide irrefutable evidence of a system that routinely fails people, that is operated in an intentionally hostile way, and all too often is instrumentalised to deny people their rights.

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Inspection reports can provide a useful overview of the system, from the perspective of Home Office operations.  The operation of the asylum system can be random and illogical, so there is little sense of a coherent system at work in the report.  There is, however, helpful intelligence about how things ‘work’ (or don’t work), and yet more sustenance for the call for radical reform of the asylum system, and decision-making in particular.

The report

Although the inspectors met with some asylum-seeking stakeholders, the focus of the inspection is very much the practices of Home Office staff, and this inevitably limits the report’s comments on how the asylum system is experienced.  The inspection sets out to consider “the efficiency and effectiveness of the Home Office’s asylum casework operations and the quality of decision-making”, and explicitly states it “did not set out to test claims that a ‘culture of disbelief’ exists within the Home Office”.  This is perfectly understandable, given the inspectors’ remit, but does mean that only a partial picture is presented.

The inspection found significant improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness of asylum casework management and other operational practices.

Findings include:

  • the Home Office, for the time period covered in the report, met its aim of deciding all ‘straightforward’ claims within six months
  • towards the end of the inspection period, the Home Office was meeting requests for a male or female interviewing officer in 98.5% of cases
  • the Home Office was inconsistent in meeting its internal ten-day target for screening interviews.  Indeed, from September to December 2014, the Home Office decided not to conduct screening interviews for 150-200 claimants who were being provided accommodation by the Home Office due to homelessness.  The ten-day target, starting from the date on which the person claims asylum, is most relevant to people who make a telephone appointment to claim asylum at the Asylum Intake Unit in Croydon.  Asylum claims lodged at a port of entry; as a ‘walk in’ at Croydon (an appointment is not needed if the person does not have anywhere to live); or at a local enforcement office (usually after being picked up in an enforcement operation) were screened on the same day or within five days.
  • releases from the now-suspended Detained Fast Track system were mostly due to securing a pre-assessment appointment to begin the process of obtaining a medico-legal report (as a survivor of torture).  The overall success rate for Rule 35 submissions was only 15% – Rule 35 is the process in which detention centre doctors should report to the Home Office “any detained person whose health is likely to be injuriously affected by continued detention or any conditions of detention”.  This includes survivors of torture.  Rather alarmingly, the report also refers to difficulties in evidencing this, due to the practice of destroying detention records once a claimant has been released.

Conduct of screening and asylum interviews

The inspection found issues with the conduct of screening and asylum interviews.  The inspection, however, was limited to looking at the records of and notes relating to the interviews.  This means the inspection has not looked at non-recorded elements of how interviews are conducted, which in our experience have a considerable impact (almost always negative) on how well people are able to give their testimony and articulate their need for protection. 

The inspection report notes that their inspection only found a small number of cases (from the sample they studied) in which the interview had failed to capture the required details or the interviewer had used the wrong form.  However, the Home Office’s own internal quality assurance results assessed 40-50% of the screening records as ‘weak’ or ‘fail’.  Given that information given (or recorded as given) during the screening interview is routinely used to undermine claimant’s credibility and refuse asylum claims, this is a worrying statistic.

The inspection identified “room for improvement” in 21% of the asylum interviews inspected (remember, the records of the interviews only), with cases of material facts not being effectively identified, claimants not being provided the opportunity to address inconsistencies, and unfair questions being asked.

The report gives this example in an interview of a victim of domestic violence:

The claimant’s responses as recorded suggested they did not understand some of the questions posed, but there was nothing to indicate that the interviewer recognised this and took steps to ensure that the claimant had understood and could answer the questions.

Whilst the responsibility for this clearly lies with the interviewer, it’s yet more proof that preparing for the asylum interview, and understanding what the Home Office is going to ask you, is essential – keep your eyes peeled for the launch of our new toolkit in a few weeks, which includes information on this!

Another example included in the report is that of someone claiming asylum on the basis that their daughter is at risk of female genital mutilation (FGM):

The interviewer asked a series of questions about the claimant’s own experience of FGM.  As the claimant had been very young at the time, they were unable to provide detailed responses.  This line of questioning was inappropriate and not necessary to establish the material facts of the asylum claim, as the applicant had agreed to provide a medical report to evidence this element of their claim.

Several of the interviews looked at in detail lasted over four hours, an exhausting process for someone talking about often distressing and traumatic events.

Decision-making

The inspection looked at whether decision-making, as recorded in decision minutes and letters held on file for cases, and whether it had:

  • considered Country of Origin Information (correctly)
  • applied the appropriate standard of proof, which is a “reasonable degree of likelihood” (of future persecution).  This is actually a low standard of proof, but this is very different from the experience of the asylum-seekers we work with, who routinely report a ‘guilty until you are proven innocent’ approach.
  • appropriately considered risk of return, focusing on ‘sufficiency of protection’ and ‘internal relocation’
  • appropriately assessed credibility

In 40% of the cases inspected, these factors had not been considered appropriately.  These include examples of cases where the information and guidance was clearly available for the Home Office to make the right decision.

A striking example is given in the report:

  • On 20 February 2014, the claimant lodged their asylum claim, based on their prior employment as an interpreter for the UK military in Afghanistan, which was confirmed by the Ministry of Defence.
  • On 25 February 2015, the asylum claim was refused.  The decision-maker stated in the reasons for refusal letter that despite the claimant’s employment as an interpreter, “it is not considered that you would be at a real and personal risk…because you have not established a high profile”.
  • The relevant Country of Origin information, which had just been amended, stated that former interpreters were at higher risk that most other Afghans.
  • On 28 July 2015, the claimant’s appeal was allowed.
  • On 11 August 2015, asylum was granted.

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