Special report: Immigration – Public interest
14 July 2014 | By Hannah Gannagé-Stewart
14 January 2014
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27 June 2014
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3 April 2014
The University of Kent’s well-publicised landmark work for an asylum-seeker could lay the foundations for a shift in thinking in immigration cases
Last month’s The Lawyer Awards saw the University of Kent’s Law Clinic pick up the gong for Ethical Initiative of the Year for engineering an asylum precedent in a landmark immigration case.
The case began in October 2013 when a 23-year-old man from Afghanistan was urgently referred to the Law Clinic by a refugee support group that had been unable to secure legal aid for him.
The claimant had arrived in the UK unaccompanied at the age of 16 and, although he had been brought up a Muslim, he gradually became an atheist after his arrival.
At 23 years old his leave to remain expired and he was afraid that if he returned to Afghanistan he would face persecution for renouncing his faith.
Clinic supervisors Richard Warren and Sheona York had led a year-long research project on failed asylum seekers the previous year, and have since published an academic paper on their findings called ‘How children become failed asylum seekers’.
The research examined the experiences of young unaccompanied asylum-seekers in Kent between 2006 and 2013, and the ways in which the asylum system had failed them.
“We’d been doing that work for a year; we knew all the angles involved and that is why the case was referred to us,” explains York, who also supervised the 12-page submission for refugee leave eventually drafted by second-year student Claire Spawn.
The applicant was not, in fact, a failed asylum-seeker. He had been granted leave to remain in the country in the past, but with his leave
due to be reviewed he was afraid that if he failed he would be forcibly returned home and persecuted.
Spawn’s submission argued that he had a well-founded fear of being persecuted for no longer following Islam. He might even have faced the death penalty under Sharia law.
The claim was accepted by the Home Office before it reached a tribunal, but the clinic felt it was important to ensure the case was publicised to help others. It became apparent there had been similar claims granted in the past, but none with a high enough profile for lawyers acting in this area to be aware of.
York explains that the clinic felt it was vital to make its successful arguments public, enabling others to use them for similar cases.
The case paves the way not only for those worried about returning to strict Islamic countries as atheists to seek asylum in Britain, but for them to do so within the scope of legal aid.
With the claimant’s permission, York and Spawn passed the story to the press office at the University of Kent, successfully catapulting it into the public domain and getting it reported around the world.
“We did several BBC radio interviews and had emails from as far afield as Al Jazeera in the US,” says York.
The coverage encouraged lawyers from around the globe to get in touch with the clinic, seeking advice on how they could bring similar claims, although York is careful to point out that their advice can only ever be based on experience of UK immigration law.
“We do give advice to foreign lawyers on the way we handled the case and what precedents we used, but obviously it depends on the jurisdiction they’re operating in and what their laws define as a credible asylum case,” she explains.
York says the influence of the case has been wide. Not only has it made a difference for other legal advisers working in the area of immigration law, it has also raised the profile of the law clinic and the type of work we do.
She adds: “We hope it has made the law clinic more appealing to students because they can see we deal with high-level work.”
York says the prestige from having done such high-profile work does not necessarily produce immediate benefits, but it does mean the clinic is taken more seriously.
Immigration stories can be controversial and York is pleased there was little negative publicity over the atheism case.
Some interviewers did raise the question of whether it would open the floodgates for fraudulent claims, to which York says she responded: “Isn’t it sad that that’s the first thing people think of? Wouldn’t it be better to think that more people afraid of facing the death penalty if they are sent home now have some hope?”