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A recent ruling by the Master of the Rolls, Lord Woolf, and two other appeal Court judges leaves little doubt that asylum seekers can no longer regard the UK as a safe haven while their applications for asylum are being considered.
Their decision that the former Home Secretary, Michael Howard, could lawfully conclude that France was a safe country to which asylum seekers can be removed, is seen as one with far reaching consequences for a particularly vulnerable group of people.
Asylum seekers arriving in the UK who would, in the past, have remained here while their appeals against refusal of asylum were considered, are now likely to find their asylum applications refused without a right of appeal, and sent back to “third countries” through which they have passed on their way to the UK.
Lawyers argue that while the UK may have a record of fair treatment, this may not be the case elsewhere. They are worried that asylum seekers could find themselves being sent back to the countries from which they have fled by less than sympathetic third countries. This would be in breach of the UK’s obligations relating to the status of refugees.
The case which focused legal attention on the predicament of such asylum seekers involved
a Kurdish woman, Gulay Canbolat, who arrived at Waterloo International Station, London, on 31 August 1996 and claimed asylum on arrival. She was refused asylum the following day and directions were given for her removal.
Since then she has been challenging the former Home Secretary’s authorisation for her removal on the basis that France cannot be considered safe for her.
Howard’s decision was made under the provisions of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, which entitles the Home Secretary, having refused asylum on third-country grounds, to remove that applicant without allowing him or her to remain in the UK while exercising the statutory right of appeal.
But Georgina Davidson of Edmonton-based Bluett who represents Canbolat, says the case is now causing major concern. The fate of a large number of asylum seekers facing the prospect of being returned to other third countries is believed to hinge on the recent ruling.
Davidson says she believes the provisions of the Act, stipulating that an appeals procedure must be conducted from distant shores, are impractical.
“The Act says these people have a right of appeal,” says Davidson, “but in reality it is not a right of appeal at all if the country to which the person is being removed is unsafe.
“In France there is no legal aid for asylum seekers and there are problems obtaining legal representation and interpreters. There is compelling evidence that asylum seekers have had their claims ignored by the French authorities.”
She adds: “Faced with problems such as these, the so-called right of appeal becomes an almost impossible right to exercise.”
The case may go further. Although the Appeal Court refused leave to appeal to the House of Lords, an application is now being made direct to the Law Lords.
Human rights groups consider the decision a highly worrying development in UK law and the attitude towards asylum seekers generally. Amendments to the law have not, as yet, been made by the new Labour government.