Ministers have trumpeted the quarterly asylum statistics as evidence that their tough policies are working. Do the figures prove their case? And what is the impact on asylum seekers?
The quarterly publication of asylum seeker statistics has become a major political event, particularly since the government, earlier this year, set a target of halving the number of applicants over a twelve-month period – a target it now claims to have met. Asylum applications have fallen by roughly half: from 22,030 in the third quarter of 2002, to 11,955 in the third quarter of 2003 (excluding any accompanying spouses and children). Yet, beyond the dramatic headlines (which follow the simple rule: numbers up equals bad news, numbers down equals good news) there is barely any attempt to give a full picture of all the published statistics, which include not just the number of applicants but also data on rejections, appeals, deportations and detentions.
In its press release announcing the figures, the government claimed that the reduction in numbers was caused by its policy of deterring those making ‘abusive’ claims. But it makes no mention of those asylum seekers whose claims are successful. It is easy to forget, therefore, that thousands of asylum seekers have been able, in spite of the odds against them, to prove that they are in genuine fear of persecution. This is particularly important as, if we go beyond the statistics on the number of claimants, and examine what happens to claims after they have been lodged, we get a different perspective on the trends in the asylum system.
Who has been deterred or prevented from claiming asylum?
A year ago in the third quarter of 2002, 33 per cent of claims were accepted as genuine or warranting exceptional leave to remain (a category for those individuals who were in real danger but whose situation did not fit the wording of the Geneva Convention). A further 14 per cent of applicants were refused on ‘non-compliance’ grounds, which means that they did not fill in the application form quickly enough or made mistakes in answering the questions on the form. One cannot tell how many of the 2,820 people in this category had valid claims. In addition, there is an estimated 16 per cent of applicants whose claims were recognised as genuine on appeal. This leaves under 50 per cent of applicants whom the government claimed were abusing the system and whom it aimed to deter and impede with the policies of the 2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act.
Has the reduction over the last year been largely the result of those with unfounded claims being deterred from claiming? If this were the case, then we would expect that, other things being equal, as unfounded applicants were deterred, the proportion of claimants who are successful at the initial decision stage would rise to over 33 per cent of the total, the figure for the previous year. In fact, the opposite has happened. The percentage of claims accepted as genuine refugees or granted other forms of leave to remain has fallen to 12 per cent in the third quarter of 2003, not counting those who appeal. The Home Office would argue that the falling percentage of those granted status is another indication that they are weeding out ‘unfounded’ claims more thoroughly. But the data on appeals suggests otherwise (see ‘decision-making’ below).
So, it is not only the fall in applicants from 2002 to 2003 that needs to be explained but also the declining proportion of accepted claims among those who did apply. How has this happened? Although it is difficult to identify simple patterns of cause and effect in the complex process of seeking asylum, there are several factors which could explain these trends:
- Stronger border controls are likely to have been a factor in the reduced number of asylum applicants. The closure of the Sangatte camp, the introduction of new surveillance technology at the channel ports and the stationing of UK immigration officers in France would have made it harder for some asylum seekers to reach the UK.
- The introduction of visa regimes for certain individual countries will have made it more difficult to flee to Britain. The number of applicants from Zimbabwe, for example, has fallen from 2,750 in the last quarter of 2002 to 710 in the third quarter of 2003. The likely cause is the introduction of a visa regime at the end of last year.
- The ‘exceptional leave to remain’ category has been replaced with new categories of ‘humanitarian protection’ and ‘discretionary leave to remain’ which are harder to obtain, so someone who a year ago would have been allowed to stay may now be rejected.
- Changing conditions in the countries from which asylum seekers come may have led to a reduction in the total number of asylum seekers coming to Britain. Falls in the number of applicants in other European countries support this possibility.
- Evidence from the statistics on decision-making and appeals (see ‘decision-making’ below) suggests that the Home Office’s initial decision-making has become more strict and therefore a larger proportion of claims are being rejected.
- Over the last year, the government has introduced a ‘white list’ of twenty-four countries from where claims are generally regarded as ‘clearly unfounded’. Applicants from these countries are ‘fast-tracked’ at the Oakington Reception Centre and, if their claims are deemed clearly unfounded, can only appeal from abroad, after being deported back to their country of origin. 1,355 individuals were received at Oakington Reception Centre in the third quarter of 2003, none of whom have had their asylum claims accepted. The ‘fast-track’ regime does not, however, seem to have had a significant deterrent effect on the number of asylum applications from the ‘white list’ countries, as the percentage reduction in applicants from these countries is similar to the reduction in applicants from other countries not on the list.
- Since January, 7,490 asylum seekers whose claims were not submitted ‘as soon as reasonably practicable’ after arriving in Britain have been denied any kind of housing or subsistence, as a result of the new rules in Section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. The government has not published figures on the number who, in spite of being destitute, go on to prove the validity of their asylum claim. Earlier statistics indicate that those claiming ‘late’ are as likely to be granted refugee status as those who apply immediately. Whether the withdrawal of subsistence has deterred anyone from making an asylum claim is not clear. What is certain is that it has imposed hardship on genuine and unfounded asylum applicants alike.
The first four of these factors are likely to have been the main reasons which explain why the number of applicants in Britain has been halved. Of course, to the extent that government policies over the last year have deterred or impeded asylum seekers, they would have affected those whose asylum claims would be recognised as valid as much as those with unfounded claims. Since it is generally impossible for someone fearing persecution to obtain a visa and, for almost all asylum seekers, there is no other route to reach Britain except to enter illegally (as recognised by the Geneva Convention), these measures would obstruct all asylum seekers, irrespective of the validity of their claims. The policies, therefore, have not succeeded in only targeting ‘abusers’. That would be the expected outcome, though, of setting a target to reduce the number of asylum seekers (rather than the number of unfounded claims).
On the other hand, if the fall in the number of applicants is caused by changing conditions in countries of origin, then the government cannot claim that its policies of deterrence have been effective in causing the reduction. Indeed, measures which impose hardship, such as the withdrawal of subsistence under Section 55, would then not only be inhumane but also superfluous as a deterrent.
Since last year, the decision-making process has been speeded up as the government has tried to reduce the backlog of cases awaiting a decision. But, in the same period, the number of successful appeals against initial decisions has gone up too, suggesting that the quality of initial decision-making has been sacrificed in the process, with more genuine claimants being rejected. This might explain the decline, from 33 per cent to 12 per cent over the last year, in the proportion of applicants who obtain refugee status or leave to remain at the initial decision stage.
The rate at which appeals are submitted (relative to the number of initial decisions made) has risen steadily to almost twice what it was two years ago. Since the proportion of successful appeals has remained constant at around one in five, this rise in appeals cannot be explained away as an increasing abuse of the appeals process. Rather, the fact that the proportion of decisions which are successfully appealed against is increasing, tends to suggest that initial decisions are becoming more haphazard and inaccurate. As a result, it appears to be only at the appeals stage that a growing proportion of asylum seekers have any chance of getting a full and fair hearing of their case.
What this means is that it is becoming harder for asylum seekers to get access to justice at the initial decision-making stage. Lawyers and refugee organisations have always complained about the poor quality of the initial decision. And this situation is likely to get still worse if the government’s proposals to cap legal aid come in. In addition, the proposal in the new Asylum Bill to allow only one level of appeal, will make it even harder to correct mistakes made at the initial decision stage.
This is particularly worrying as asylum decisions are potentially matters of life and death. And if the initial decision-making process is becoming less accurate, so too are the headline statistics on the number of ‘genuine’ asylum seekers, as the percentage usually quoted is the proportion of applicants who are successful in claiming refugee status at the initial stage – currently 5 per cent.
If the trend in the asylum system is towards less and less opportunity for asylum seekers to make their case, it is all the more worrying that the number of deportations of ‘failed’ asylum seekers has almost doubled over the last two years, from 2,860 in the third quarter of 2001 to 4,655 in the third quarter of 2003. Altogether, 29,855 asylum seekers have been removed in the last two years and the government claims as ‘progress’ the fact that it is now deporting a record average of more than 1,500 asylum seekers per month.
The number of people held in immigration detention centres also remains high, with 1,575 detained under immigration laws as of September 2003. 60 had been held for more than a year and 195 were being held in normal prisons.
We should also remember that around one in twenty-five asylum seekers are unaccompanied children. In the third quarter of 2003, 565 applications for asylum were submitted by unaccompanied children, of which the majority were from African countries. The Home Office is now also beginning to send back unaccompanied children, reversing its previous policy of allowing all such children to remain in the UK until they turn 18.