Revisit recommendations of the JCHR 2007 report

Dr Hywel Francis MP
Joint Committee on Human Rights
Committee Office
House of Commons
7 Millbank
London SW1P 3JA

24th March 2011

Dear Dr Francis,

Re: Revisiting the JCHR report, The Treatment of Asylum Seekers

The 2007 report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) on the treatment of asylum seekers was strongly welcomed by NGOs.  It set out in compelling detail the inadequacies of a system that is failing to protect the human rights of asylum seekers, through arbitrary decision-making, poor administration and overly complex systems.

Sadly, the report did not become the basis of a fairer, more humane, more effective system with human rights at its core.  With the notable exception of the commitment to end the detention of children, there has been little progress on many issues of concern to the JCHR.  Indeed, in some areas the situation has deteriorated significantly.   As organisations concerned about the use of detention, we believe that, four years on, it is time for the JCHR to revisit its report and assess how far the Government has addressed problems with the treatment of asylum seekers in the UK.

With the exception of the detention of children, immigration detention barely features in the Government’s current reform programme.  The Asylum Improvement Project aims to make the system faster and cheaper while improving decision-making, yet detention is excluded from its considerations.  We believe that a number of concerns raised by the JCHR in 2007 should be urgent priorities for a second phase of the Asylum Improvement Project.

  • Detention of vulnerable adults

Torture survivors and other vulnerable adults continue to be routinely detained, despite UK Border Agency (UKBA) policy that their detention should only be in very exceptional circumstances.  The gap between policy and practice identified by the JCHR in this area has not narrowed.  A crucial safeguard, the Rule 35 system, was the subject of an audit by the UKBA, published in March 2011, in response to concerns from NGOs that it had become a paper-pushing exercise.  The audit reveals that release followed a Rule 35 report in just 9% of cases, and that detention was maintained in the remaining 91% of cases.  No further information about the rationale for these decisions was provided.  The audit report, by ignoring the decision-making completely, has done nothing to allay concerns, and may even have heightened them.

  • Detention with no imminent prospect of removal

JCHR complained in 2007 that “insufficient care is being paid before an asylum seeker is detained, as to whether or not he or she can actually be removed.”  Since 2007, the numbers of asylum seekers detained for periods of years with little prospect of removal have increased dramatically.  According to official statistics, 260 people had been detained for over a year at 31 September 2010.  Research by London Detainee Support Group (LDSG) has found that only 34% of people detained over a year are ultimately deported.  The majority are released, having been deprived of their liberty for years to no purpose.  The Home Office paid out £12 million in 2009-10 in compensation and legal costs arising from unlawful detention actions, which ought to be of concern to Parliament in the current climate.

  • Fast Track detention at the beginning of the process

JCHR expressed concern that the decision to detain an asylum seeker within the Detained Fast Track (DFT) system could be arbitrary, and that DFT detainees are held for extended periods that could be unlawful.  We understand that the UKBA is proposing to extend the use of DFT without addressing these concerns.  Delays at the start of the process are leading asylum seekers to spend two weeks or more detained before the process even begins; this is twice the length of time that JCHR believed was acceptable for the entire process. Moreover, vulnerable groups continue to be routed into the DFT because of poor decision-making and a lack of safeguards at the screening stage (see for example the Human Rights Watch report ‘Fast Tracked Unfairness’ focusing on vulnerable women and the DFT)- ..  The refusal rate for asylum claims in the DFT remains 99%.

  • Access to bail

People detained under the 1971 Immigration Act have the right to seek bail, but in practice they continue to face the substantial barriers identified by the JCHR, as well as some new barriers.   Official statistics show that the rate of grant of bail remains low: only 25%.  In addition, rates vary dramatically between hearing centres.  A recent study of 115 bail hearings by the Close Campsfield Campaign, “Immigration Bail Hearings: A Travesty of Justice” (March 2011), observed that proceedings in the immigration courts are inconsistent and inadequately monitored.  Immigration judges have been without detailed national guidelines on bail for six years.  Detainees who apply for bail now often suffer the severe disadvantage of being heard by video-link, which according to the research reduces their chances of success by 14%.  Access to legal representation improved chances of success from 13% to 37%.  In nine out of the 115 of observed cases, the bail summary was not produced; bail was granted as a result only once. 

  • Detention of children

The detention of children is one area where the Government has taken substantial steps to address the concerns of JCHR and others.  As a new system for enforced returns of families is implemented, it is a timely opportunity for JCHR to examine whether their criticisms have been adequately addressed.

We believe that revisiting the recommendations of the 2007 report would be an efficient and effective means of bringing these issues into focus again without the Committee needing to launch a new full-scale inquiry.  At present, the Asylum Improvement Project entirely misses the opportunity to confront the deep flaws in the detention system.  We urge the JCHR to investigate.

Yours sincerely,

[This letter has been signed by a number of organisations, and you are invited to print off, sign and send it as an individual]