Claiming asylum in the UK should be a process of alleviation. After enduring the traumas of war, exile, and separation, asylum seekers should be met with a smooth procedure that grants full access to the information and support needed to build a promising application. Instead, many argue that the UK asylum system encompasses a ‘hostile environment’ with long delays and a culture of disrespect, preventing those who have already faced unimaginable horrors from rebuilding their lives.
Out of the 26,547 applications for asylum, protection or settlements in the UK, 14,166 were granted in the year ending in March 2018, dropping 11% from the previous year. With Brexit creeping closer and a hostile environment immigration policy sending inhospitable messages to refugees fleeing violence and persecution, it will not be surprising if the 5% of global asylum applications currently received by the UK continues to drop.
Awareness of the UK’s inhospitable system continues to grow following the Windrush scandal, where 5,000 Commonwealth citizens in Britain have since been identified as potentially having their immigration rights taken away by the Home Office. Intense scrutiny over the Home Office’s immigration system has therefore brought to light the inhumane treatment experienced by refugees when claiming asylum and raises the question of how the government can allow the current system to continue.
Waiting in Limbo
For those who do apply for refugee status in the UK, this results in a prolonged state of uncertainty. Prevented from working and integrating into society, reports suggest that asylum seekers are expected to wait in the dark until the Home Office reaches a decision as to whether they can remain in the UK. Only then can a person be granted refugee status and apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain.
Currently, the asylum process has three main stages: the application, the screening interview, and the substantive interview. Whilst waiting for the completion of these stages and a decision to be made, applicants are provided with a negligible allowance of £37.75 a week to cover everything ‘essential’ except housing and bills. The current ‘service standard’ states that decisions will be made within 6 months of the application being submitted in ‘straightforward cases’. With nearly half of claims now deemed as ‘non-straightforward’, many cases have been exempted from the six-month target, turning the asylum process into what many perceive as an unnecessary catalyst of refugee trauma.
In 2017, long delays of processing applications and huge backlogs of work resulted in 6,134 decisions taking more than six months of application with some people waiting more than 20 years for asylum claim decisions to be made by the Home Office. Last year, 17 people received decisions from the department on claims they had submitted more than 15 years ago. With government policies disallowing individuals to work until their applications are approved, asylum seekers are left helpless, struggling to survive on £5 a day and situated in poor accommodation. The standard of this accommodation is often extremely overcrowded and of the poorest quality, with reports of mould, rat infestations, leaks, and dangerous wiring.
Asylum seekers are five times more likely to have mental health implications than other members of the British public. With more than 61% experiencing some kind of serious mental distress, asylum seekers are left waiting in limbo, isolated from their families and fearing the unknown outcome of the Home Office’s decision.
Jiang, a torture survivor from China, is currently claiming asylum under the Detained Asylum Casework Scheme (DAC). Fleeing from China for fear of being killed, Jiang is one of many vulnerable asylum seekers whose mental health has continued to deteriorate whilst being detained at a UK detention centre. He is trapped waiting in limbo whilst the result of his referral to freedom from torture is decided, a judgment that will determine the rest of his life.
Obtaining a rule 35 report has proven to be a painstaking process where Jiang was unable to get an appointment with a medical practitioner for at least six weeks to assess his suitability for detention. Receiving this report is critical in his asylum application as it provides evidence that the scars on his body are consistent with the torture that he has suffered.
Having survived unimaginable horrors of torture, the impact of detention has only exacerbated Jiang’s mental distress. Despite informing healthcare about suffering from headaches, feelings of anxiety and insomnia, Jiang has only been given one tablet. No other support has been offered to him.
The Interview Process
The Home Office states that the purpose of the substantive interview is ‘to investigate the key issues through a focused and sensitive approach to questioning’. However, many reports by previous applicants have exposed the interview process as harsh and unfairly demanding. Those questioned are required to supply large quantities of documents and recount endless amounts of information about their journeys, a memory task made even harder through trauma. With many asylum seekers also needing an interpreter, the conveyance of information can get easily misconstrued which is detrimental to a process that requires highly precise detailing of information.
Asylum claimants are also subject to intrusive questions regarding their sensitive reasons for seeking asylum. This can vary dramatically, with many interviewees getting just four minutes to plead their case whilst other interviews last for seven hours. Despite being allowed breaks, Jiang had to sit on a ‘very hard and uncomfortable’ chair for a strenuous three hours whilst the Home Office interviewing officer sat comfortably in a leather chair.
Studies show that substantive interviews exacerbate rather than alleviate an asylum claimant’s trauma. Home Office interviewers have been reported as being abusive, using intimidation tactics and disrespectful language. Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration John Vine’s investigation found that 10% of gay and lesbian asylum seekers are subject to ‘intrusive or unsatisfactory’ questions about their sex lives during Home Office interviews.
Recent reports have also unveiled the absurdity of questions and unfair justifications for Home Office decisions after the substantive interview process. Despite having medical testimony from an expert that scarring on his body was ‘either consistent or highly consistent’ with torture, a man was refused asylum after the Home Office suggested that his scars were instead caused during karate training. The Home Office also refused protection to a Vietnamese man arguing he could integrate back into his country as he had ‘spent the majority of his adult life there’ despite acknowledging in the same sentence that he had ‘lived in Vietnam until the age of 17 years’.
With acts of injustice permeating the Home Office immigration process, it is difficult not to point blame at the decision makers. However, it seems as though Home Office staff have also had enough, with more than a quarter of them quitting over a six month period between 2016-2017. This has led to staff shortages and a huge backlog of around 50,000 cases with decision makers being required to complete 225 interviews or decision reports a year.
If an application is rejected by the Home Office, there is hope for people seeking refuge who is entitled to appeal against that decision in an immigration court. From April 2017 to March 2018, 11,974 cases were determined in court, with 4,332 of the Home Office’s decisions being overturned. Nearly three-quarters of Home Office appeals are dismissed by the final immigration court, so the chance to reverse any discriminatory or careless decisions made by Home Office staff is a fundamental opportunity for asylum seekers.
According to these findings, the current immigration system treats asylum seekers as a burden on society. Traumatic encounters at the Home Office intensify rather than alleviate the suffering already experienced by asylum seekers in their countries of origin.
A report by Refugee Action recommends that the key to improving the immigration system is that the government massively increases the provision of comprehensive information and advice offered to asylum seekers. People seeking refuge need to feel prepared and have the opportunity to present their case in a compassionate rather than intimidating environment. A robust Legal Aid system is vital to ensure smooth navigation through the asylum process and a fair treatment towards all applicants. Jiang was referred to one of our Legal Aid representatives who has advised and assisted him throughout the process, ensuring that he was happy with the interpreter and the translation of his statement before beginning the interview process.
With long delays at the Home Office breaching basic human rights, Refugee Actions report also recommends that people seeking asylum should be given the right to work after 6 months of having lodged an asylum claim. Additionally, those waiting over 12 months for a decision should be granted Discretionary Leave to Remain. Both changes would end the trauma of waiting in limbo, giving asylum seekers financial independence and allowing them to integrate into a society that has aided, rather than persecuted them.
This article has been written by Maddie Grounds, political correspondent at the Immigration Advice Service.