Asylum system nearing breaking point

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Keith Vaz speaks during an interview in New Delhi

MPs attack government over backlog promises

The Home Affairs Select Committee, led by Keith Vaz MP, has warned of the ‘severe pressure’ Britain’s asylum system has been placed under, leading to “wholly unacceptable” delays before decisions are made.

The Committee of MPs, which scrutinises the work of the Home Office, released a report in 2011 saying that the lengthy decision process leaves people in limbo, without any legal entitlement to seek work. It describes professional people who “have been de-skilled because they were not allowed to work for eight years”.

Keith Vaz said that a promise by UK immigration to eliminate a backlog of asylum cases by 2011 had been broken and that the backlog now contained 32,600 cases. Some of the subjects of these cases have been waiting for 16 years for a determination.

Recent applicants are also facing delays. Of 21,955 claims for asylum made in the year to September 2012, only 12, 632 were decided by 19th September. A further 5,791 had received an initial decision but 3,523 had not received any determination at all. The Committee expressed concern that any applicant should have to wait more than six months for an initial answer.

The Committee also expressed concern about the “sub-standard level of housing provided to asylum applicants”. Housing is provided by three service companies SERCO, G4S and Clearel. The failure of the Home Office to decide asylum cases in good time means that many people can languish in this sub-standard housing for many years.

The report also said that those claiming asylum were routinely disbelieved. It found that there was a ‘culture of disbelief’ among immigration staff who started their investigations into any claim with the assumption that the claimant was lying. Conversely, the Committee was also concerned that investigators were failing to make investigations into the backgrounds of some applicants. This meant that some people who were granted asylum were later found to have been “involved with terrorist activity”. The Committee called on the Home Office routinely to check the names of applicants for asylum against international databases of war criminals and terrorists.

Mr Vaz told The Guardian newspaper “The Home Secretary has to assure us that any anomalies in the process which have allowed decisions such as this to take place are addressed immediately”.

The report also says that the asylum system treats women particularly badly. The Committee heard evidence that women wait longer for an initial decision than men. The Scottish Council of Refugees found that 49% of women waited two years for a determination whereas only 22% of men waited that long. In addition, it found that women can be particularly badly affected by delays in the determination of their husbands’ applications. Where the applications of men who abuse their wives are delayed, this leaves the wives “stuck in abusive marriages unable to leave their husbands because they were the principal applicants and the women would not have had status or support on their own”.

The Chairman of the Refugee Council, Maurice Wren, said that the current system was creating great difficulties for genuine refugees. He told journalists: “Failing to treat asylum seekers with dignity and, simultaneously, failing to deal effectively and fairly with their claims has created an expensive and counter-productive bureaucratic nightmare that all too often denies vulnerable people the protection from persecution and oppression they desperately need”.

A spokesman for the Home Office said it was committed to “concluding all cases as quickly as possible” but added “asylum cases are often complex and require full and thorough consideration”. The spokesman added that the Home Office had carried out inspections of housing for asylum seekers and “where necessary took action to ensure [the contractors] met the necessary standards”. He added that the Home Office would “continue to monitor performance to ensure that standards are met”.