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franciscan - January 2003

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2002

The Immigration and Asylum Act (2002): What it Won’t Do

by Nicholas Sagovsky

 The Government is bringing in another Immigration and Asylum Act, the fourth in ten years.  It contains some good ideas: increased opportunities for certain groups (e.g. fruit-pickers) to work in Britain legally; a concern that those who make a new home in Britain should understand and contribute to British citizenship.  It also contains some bad ideas: the segregation of asylum seekers from the rest of the community in purpose-built accommodation centres; yet more reductions in the right of appeal against refusal of asylum; the creation of a ‘white list’ of countries (including countries with large Roma populations) from which requests for asylum will automatically be refused; denial of benefits for those who do not claim asylum on arrival. 

The Government is bringing in another Immigration and Asylum Act, the fourth in ten years.  It contains some good ideas: increased opportunities for certain groups (e.g. fruit-pickers) to work in Britain legally; a concern that those who make a new home in Britain should understand and contribute to British citizenship.  It also contains some bad ideas: the segregation of asylum seekers from the rest of the community in purpose-built accommodation centres; yet more reductions in the right of appeal against refusal of asylum; the creation of a ‘white list’ of countries (including countries with large Roma populations) from which requests for asylum will automatically be refused; denial of benefits for those who do not claim asylum on arrival. 

What saddens me is that all this fails to address the real faults in the system, faults which generate wrong decisions and injustices all the time.  An Immigration and Asylum Act which genuinely sought to improve the workings of the system would include the following elements:

   1.  It would ensure that the Home Office worked from accurate, up-to-date, independent information about countries (not difficult).  The quality of information used in the name of the Secretary of State is often a disgrace.  In the case of a refusal (by far the majority of decisions are refusals) it can lead to months of uncertainty and then to legal wrangling at appeal.  Trying to interpret to asylum seekers letters of refusal which contain mistakes and misinformation about their own country is not easy.  I recall a citizen of India looking in disbelief at a letter of refusal which had completely garbled the name of the ruling party of India.

   2.  It would ensure that the Home Office accepted the scientific evidence (for example in the British Medical Journal, 9 February 2002, p. 324) that people who have been traumatised do not tell the story of their trauma in identical terms every time they repeat it.  Letters of refusal frequently seize on minor discrepancies of detail as though they prove someone is lying.  Trying to explain to asylum seekers who have been tortured and have less than perfect English why minor variations in the way they have told their story have been used in this way can be very hard.  I recall discussing with a man who had been hung upside down and beaten through a whole night to what extent his loss of consciousness might account for apparent discrepancies in his description of the torture - only for him to demonstrate how, when the way he had been tortured was more graphically explained, what he had been saying in broken English made perfect sense.

   3.  There should be better accountability for court practice.  The courts regularly summon people for crucial hearings by sending a letter in English which gives only the court’s address without any accompanying map, travel directions or cash.  Given the current dispersal policy, a person may be summoned for 10 a.m. to a court hundreds of miles away and not near a station (e.g. the Immigration Appellate Authority courts at Feltham). Asylum seekers are, presumably, expected to stay overnight or to travel without a cheap fare - quite possibly to a hearing which is adjourned because one of the parties is not ready to proceed.

   4.  It should be impossible for someone who is obviously and deeply scarred either mentally or physically, and claims this is the result of torture, to go to court without a competent medical report.  Getting such a report within the time-frame available demands an alert and energetic lawyer.  One case of which I have personal knowledge concerns a man who suffers severe ‘thought-blocking’ when he tries to describe how he was tortured.  Though his back was covered with deep scars, his lawyer had obtained no medical report for the appeal hearing.  The Adjudicator, noting that the lawyer had not thought a medical report was necessary, refused to accept the man’s credibility.  Nobody suggested that the Adjudicator simply look at his back.  The appeal was refused on the basis that the man must be lying.

   5.  There should be a much greater concern to weed out bad lawyers.  The level of practice is frequently poor, sometimes appalling, leaving asylum seekers aghast at the way they have been let down - yet such is their need of a lawyer that they dare not make a complaint.  I know (as a British citizen) how difficult it is to find out how to make a complaint, let alone to bring one.  If the Law Society were concerned about this scandal, it could, for instance, have leaflets in various languages displayed at all the courts to tell people what standard of service they should expect from their lawyer and what to do if they do not get it.

   6.  The work of NASS (National Asylum Support Service) who have the responsibility for arranging accommodation and the provision of benefits for asylum seekers should be thoroughly shaken up.  NASS is overworked and underfunded.  The system frequently fails those it is meant to serve.  It is common for asylum seekers to be left without benefits, sometimes for weeks at a time.  If they ring, often on a daytime, long-distance call, they may well be asked to hold - which you can’t do on a mobile phone, and when you’re trying to tell someone you have no money.  So far as I can see, NASS is completely unaccountable for the way it discharges its responsibilities.

The Government spends a huge amount on maintaining a system which is supposed to test claims for asylum fairly.  It doesn’t.  The system isn’t working, but nothing in the Asylum and Immigration Act will address the underlying chaos.  One of the reasons it is possible to get away with so much bad practice is that the people who suffer from it are quite without power to change it.  Another is that a lot of people (lawyers, Group 4, housing providers, ‘fly-by-night’ employers) make money out of the chaos.  Many Christians are involved with welcome and support in the community; far fewer with bail and support in the courts.  Simply to attend one of the twenty or so Immigration Appellate Authority courts (for their location see the IAA website, www.iaa.gov.uk) and to observe what goes on could be the beginning of conscientisation - the term used by the liberation theologians when we begin to see the system through the eyes of its victims.  Whoever the Immigration and Asylum Act (2002) is intended to help, it is certainly not them. f

 Nicholas Sagovsky is the Liverpool Professor of Theology and Public Life at Liverpool Hope University College.

 

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