A place of sanctuary?

2014 Nov 14CentreForum’s report, A place of sanctuary? urges the Government to make the asylum system fairer and more efficient. It argues that the most “draconian elements” of the current system were a response to the large number of applications in previous years which have fallen by 72% between 2002 and 2013. The report makes recommendations in the areas of institutional reform, detention, destitution, etc. For details see: http://www.centreforum.org/assets/pubs/a-place-of-sanctuary.pdf

Executive summary and recommendations
The UK’s asylum system was severely tested by a surge in asylum seekersaround  the turn of the century. The  government responded with a flurry of legislation designed to curb numbers by restricting border access for potential
asylum seekers, reducing the scope for successful applications and appeals and by making living conditions more uncomfortable.
However, the political salience of the asylum debate has diminished in the last few years as the numbers have declined. While the Coalition government has introduced some important non-legislative changes with an impact on
asylum, such as the abolition of the UK Borders Authority, the legislative framework has not changed substantially since 2007.
This means that the system is still set up as if to deal with a crisis caused by a huge influx of asylum seekers, when the reality is numbers have fallen back to more modest levels.
There is some evidence that policies designed to restrict access to territory and to tighten up the processing of asylum claims had a partial deterrent effect on numbers. But there is no compelling evidence that the asylum system is subject to widespread abuse or that work or welfare rights act as a major pull factor. The vast majority of asylum seekers come from countries with a clear record of human rights violations and conflict. Yet many asylum seekers are left close to destitution by very low levels of financial support and a blanket ban on work.
The asylum system, which is founded on a Cold War worldview, also appears ill-equipped to deal with the growing numbers of women and unaccompanied children seeking asylum, or the growing awareness that people can face
persecution for reasons other than their political views, such as their sexuality.
Moreover, the government’s overall management of the asylum system still leaves much to be desired despite the decrease in numbers.
The catalogue of failures – from lost files to slow processing times and a never ending stream of successful appeals against wrong decisions – is very long indeed.
Compared with many of its peers, the British government continues to make heavy use of detention, most remarkably being able to detain failed asylum seekers indefinitely.
Public opinion remains hostile to immigration more generally. However, there remains strong support for the principle of offering sanctuary. The Coalition’s decision to end child detention suggests that it is possible to reform some elements of the asylum process without undermining confidence in the system.
This paper proposes a number of reforms that the next government should explore with the aim of ensuring the asylum system functions efficiently and fairly – and is responding to today’s challenges not those of the previous
Institutional Reform:
The government should move the case handling and determination for asylum cases from the Home Office to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). This would have a number of beneficial effects. For example, it would increase the incentives to get the decision right first time rather than waste time and resources on the appeals system.
Stripping the Home Office of case assessment would allow it to focus resources on improving enforcement and clamping down on abuse.
In turn, it would leave the Ministry of Justice free to assess cases solely on their merits, seeking to apply the UK and international law surrounding asylum as fairly as possible.
The Ministry of Justice would have the opportunity to improve the standard of decision making by creating a professional corps of asylum staff, along the lines of the US Asylum Officer Corps. The new asylum corps should offer improved training and clear career paths rather than obliging good staff to seek promotion in the wider civil
The asylum service needs to place much greater focus on service levels. An increased focus on customer service should not just lead to improved efficiency but would also help break down the ‘culture of disbelief’. In this context, the asylum service should build on a promising programme which gets case workers to meet with people who have gained refugee status.
The asylum service should further explore the potential for the provision of early legal advice for asylum seekers. Early access to legal advice, if correctly applied, should help speed up the claims process and as a consequence ultimately reduce costs.
The asylum service should ensure a formal auditing process is in place for appeals, as the Home Affairs Committee has recommended.
When a decision is overturned, there should be a review of the work of the caseworker with further training offered and performance management provided to improve the quality of decisions.
In the long term, the UK should seek to reduce its reliance on Detained Fast Track (DFT) through the greater use of the alternatives discussed below. However, in the current political climate, the DFT continues to play a role in terms of ensuring public support for the wider asylum system.
The Home Office has recently been forced by a High Court judgement to undertake to provide four working days between allocating a detained asylum seeker a solicitor and the interview. The Home Office should acknowledge that proper access to legal advice is a crucial element for the DFT to function effectively and keep the provision of legal advice under review.
The government should further improve the asylum screening process and seek to ensure that trauma victims are not placed in DFT. In addition, the Home Office needs to be more flexible around taking cases out of DFT when new evidence comes to light.
The government should implement fully the recommendation of the Home Affairs Select Committee that it properly audits its DFT performance each year. This should form part of an overall commitment to improve the transparency of the system by making available to public scrutiny full cost and operational performance.
The government should introduce a maximum detention limit. A limit of 18 months would still be long compared with most European countries. Beyond this point there appears little likelihood of removal in any case. The government should develop alternative ways of monitoring those it perceives as a risk as it has done for
terrorist suspects.
The numbers being detained could be reduced by better guidance.
At the moment, the decision to detain is based around the risks of re-offending and/or absconding. However, there is no detailed assessment of whether it is likely to prove practical to deport a migrant within a reasonable period. Where there is no likelihood of quick return, the Home Office should seek to employ alternatives.
The next government should undertake a well-designed pilot of community based supervision and support along the lines used successfully in Australia. If the pilot works, the Home Office should seek to make this approach available for the majority of failed asylum seekers. For more high risk cases, the Home Office should work more closely with the probation services to monitor cases and manage risk.
There is no evidence that the current low levels of financial support mean refused asylum seekers are more likely to return home. The government should therefore be able to make the case for restoring the link between Section 95 (asylum seeker support) and income support. In the longer term, it would be preferable to remove the government’s arbitrary control by asking an independent commission, along the line of the Migration Advisory Committee or
the Low Pay Commission, to annually review Section 95 and set an appropriate level.
There are also strong efficiency grounds for abolishing Section 4 (support for ‘failed’ asylum seekers). The government is operating an entire benefits system, with all the attendant bureaucracy for less than 3,000 people. Unfortunately, it will require primary legislation to abolish Section 4 so this action would probably need to await the
next immigration or asylum bill. In the meantime, the government should bring Section 4 payments in line with those made under Section 95.
The government should re-introduce a right to work for asylum seekers after six months. Six months remains the main political target for processing asylum applications. It therefore seems fair that those asylum seekers who have to wait longer should be able to improve their financial situation, and increase their chances of re-integrating into the labour market, by working.
Women and children:
The government should commission and implement an independent review on how to deal more effectively and humanely with women’s cases. In particular, it should make sure that properly trained female case workers are available to deal with female asylum seekers.
The government should ensure that legal aid provisions work in favour of encouraging lawyers towards more complex cases, particularly those involving women.
The Home Office should amend its guidance to ensure that pregnant women are not dispersed. The government should also review the financial provision available to pregnant asylum seekers and increase the level of that support to ensure it is adequate.
The Home Office should seek to provide better support for deported young adults to improve the prospects for their reintegration into their old communities. While by definition much of this will be pre-return, the Home Office in partnership with the Department for International Development should seek to develop post-return
support through third party organisations.
The government should also seek to improve the experience of children when they apply for asylum.
The UK should follow international best practice and appoint an independent representative to safeguard the nterests of the child. This legal  advocate should be one person with parental responsibility who can help children navigate the immigration system, ensure their welfare needs are met and instruct solicitors in their best interests.
Common European Asylum System:
There is no political appetite to opt into the majority of the directives underpinning the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) any time soon. But many of the reforms recommended in this paper would have the by-product of bringing the UK’s asylum system more into line with the EU rules. This would in turn make it easier for the
UK’s asylum system to continue to co-exist alongside CEAS and make proper use of the Dublin Convention which is designed to prevent ‘asylum shopping’.