The release, last week, of the asylum statistics for 2002 was greeted by politicians and media alike as ‘bad news’. But a closer examination of the numbers reveals a more complex picture.
‘Asylum up 20%’ and ‘Record levels of asylum seekers’ were the headlines proclaimed across last week’s news-stands. And, since the government, earlier this year, explicitly set a target of halving the number of asylum seekers by autumn 2003, the publication of the quarterly asylum figures became a significant news event in its own right, with all commentators giving the same, simple reading: higher numbers is bad news; lower numbers is good news. The implicit assumption is that the number of genuine asylum seekers is negligible; most commentators put it at around 10 per cent of the total. With this assumption in place, the debate is conducted entirely around the question of whether the government’s reforms are tough enough to reduce the numbers or whether harsher policies are needed.
Yet the data published by the Home Office describes a very different reality.
Initial decisions harsh
First, consider the question of what proportion of asylum seekers are ‘genuine’ refugees. The figure of 10 per cent, which is usually quoted, corresponds not to the number of ‘genuine’ refugees but the number recognised as genuine and granted asylum when an initial decision is made by the Home Office. This is hardly an adequate measure of the number of refugees who are genuinely at risk, if sent back home, because the decision-making process at this initial stage is so harsh.
This becomes apparent when one looks in more detail at the people who make up the remaining 90 per cent of claims. Among them are those who fall into the category of ‘exceptional leave to remain’ (ELR). These are people who are deemed to be in substantial danger if deported but whose cases do not fulfil the exact criteria to qualify for protection under the 1951 Geneva Convention. This amounts to 24 per cent of the total applicants for 2002.
Many successful appeals
Then, the question of appeals needs to be considered. In 2002, the authorities processed 64,405 applications appealing against initial decisions. Incorrect initial decisions were found to have been made in 22 per cent of those cases. This is an important figure as it gives a sense of the carelessness in the initial decision-making process. These are matters of life and death and yet, of those cases tested at appeal, one in five is found to be wrong.
Although many of those appeals were against initial decisions made before 2002, it is reasonable to expect that a similar proportion of successful appeals will eventually be made against initial decisions made in 2002. So, we can take the total number of people who will successfully appeal their decision to be at least 13,800 people or 16 per cent of the total asylum applicants for 2002. Once we add successful appeals (16 per cent) and ELR (24 per cent) and those granted asylum at the initial decision (10 per cent), one arrives at a figure of 50 percent, for those who could be termed ‘genuine’ refugees.
But that is still not the whole story. Of the remaining 50 per cent, whom the newspapers are hungry to denounce as ‘bogus’, as many as 12,130 (15 per cent) were rejected on ‘non-compliance’ grounds in 2002. ‘Non-compliance’ means that the application was rejected simply because the paperwork was not filled in correctly or on time. Again, the figure of 15 per cent is an important indicator of the system’s cruelty: almost one in seven applicants are rejected for no other reason than that they did not correctly fill in a 19-page form, which has to be completed in English and done in less than 10 days. One simply has no idea whether the people in this category have valid cases or not.
All that the figures really show is that the system is haphazard in its decision-making and callous in its treatment of a group of people who, according to the above analysis, are, more often than not, fleeing from genuinely life threatening situations.
What, then, of the dramatic increase in the overall figure, bringing the total number of applicants and their dependants, as the newspapers are eager to tell us, to over 100,000 for the first time? When the figures were published, David Blunkett described the high figures for 2002 as ‘unsatisfactory’. But, he claimed, over the last three months of 2002, the figures had shown a steady decline as the government’s new deterrence measures, brought in with the 2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act, came into effect. Chief among these measures is the restrictions on benefits to asylum seekers who do not claim asylum as soon as they arrive in the UK.
The implication of Blunkett’s gloss on the figures is that tougher laws are reversing the increase in claims, as potential asylum ‘abusers’ are cottoning on to the fact that Britain is no longer a ‘soft touch’. Noticeably, even the rhetoric of offering protection to ‘genuine’ refugees has been dropped. Instead, we have a Pavlovian model of asylum seekers, whose numbers have gone up or down in response to the relative toughness of the UK’s asylum laws.
Evidence to the contrary
What is the evidence for this view? In fact, the Home Office’s own data provides evidence to the contrary. If, as Blunkett is arguing, most asylum seekers have been simply abusing the system and migrating to the UK to milk benefits, then one would expect the toughening up of asylum law to have corresponded to a drop in asylum applications from all or nearly all of the countries from which asylum seekers have come. Similarly, if the 20 per cent rise in the number of asylum seekers from 2001 to 2002 was a result of ‘abusers’ exploiting weak laws, then one would have expected the rise to have been spread evenly across most nationalities. If these falls and rises were mostly found in just a few countries, then one would expect those countries to be ones from which false claimants have been coming, not the countries where there have been real reasons for genuine refugees to flee.
But the opposite is the case. Almost all the increase in asylum applicants between 2001 and 2002 came from just two countries, Iraq and Zimbabwe. And these are countries which even the British government recognises as having human rights problems serious enough to warrant flight. Furthermore, if we look at the fall in numbers of applicants from October 2002 to December 2002, we find that more than half of the decrease can be accounted for by a decrease from just one country, Zimbabwe. This decrease has coincided with the introduction of a new visa requirement for travel from Zimbabwe.
The most significant point, though, that emerges from the statistics is that rises and falls in asylum applications are country-specific and bear no relationship to changes in asylum law which applies equally to all countries. Taking the last two years, the number of applicants started at around 21,000 in the last quarter of 2000, then fell to a low point of around 16,000 in the middle of 2001 and then rose again to a peak of around 23,000 in the last quarter of 2002. Yet this fall and rise does not correspond to the asylum laws which have only got progressively harsher. The Home Secretary is wrong, then, to believe that restricting asylum seekers’ benefits has had a deterrent effect on asylum abusers. Rather, the effect has been to throw all asylum seekers into destitution, whatever their motives for coming to the UK.
But this should come as no surprise to the Home Office. Their own survey research (Understanding the decision-making of asylum seekers, Home Office Research Study 243, July 2002) concluded that where asylum seekers have a choice as to which country to claim asylum in, the main factors leading them to choose the UK are that they know people already here, that they speak English, historical ties between Britain and their home country and their perception that the UK is a fair country. And the Home Office survey found that asylum seekers had knowledge neither of the UK’s asylum procedures nor of entitlements to benefits.
When one combines the Home Office’s survey research with a full consideration of the numbers of asylum seekers coming from each country over time, one finds that the explanation for numbers of asylum seekers rising and falling is much more complex than Blunkett admits. At bottom, though, is the simple fact that the number of asylum seekers is a reflection of the level of human rights abuses taking place in the world. And if the government wants to change that, it needs to turn to its own foreign policy rather than make the victims of persecution suffer even more when they come to Britain to seek refuge.