Uncertain future for refugees
10 June 1998
Tanya Goldfarb says there is a danger the Government will make the rules too strict. Tanya Goldfarb is a solicitor at Magrath & Co. The current laws and regulations governing asylum seekers and refugees are, according to the tabloid (and increasingly the broadsheet) press, too lax and all too often allow economic migrants to benefit.
Mike O'Brien, the Immigration Minister would appear to agree. In a recent radio interview, he stated that the Government's intentions for the next parliamentary sessions with regard to asylum seekers would include the end to all cash payments for all those who claim to be refugees.
In addition, the minister stated that a new and improved system of rapid refusals would be introduced; appeals against refusals would be heard within five days, rather than waiting for a hearing date for six months (his estimated current time); and detention of those whose applications are pending will become more widespread.
Some of the problems identified by O'Brien are reasonable enough - waiting for six months for an appeal date serves neither the interests of the applicant for asylum, who must necessarily exist in a state of uncertainty and insecurity, nor those of the country hosting that person until a decision is reached.
In the recently-published White Paper, the Government has indicated its plans for a "fairer and faster" system of dealing with asylum seekers and refugees, as well as dealing with unscrupulous immigration advisers and consultants.
This is all well and good and probably unavoidable if a serious attempt is going to be made to reform the way the UK deals with people claiming refugee status. But in the meantime, the Home Office has, in response to enquiries from representatives of those with such claims, sent out holding letters advising them that decisions on their claims will be taken "eventually".
The future for asylum seekers in the UK therefore looks uncertain. The present system of dealing with applications is certain to be overhauled. Increased resources will be deployed at the ports of entry with a rise in the number of immigration officers employed, while airline liaison officers will be introduced to prevent those without "proper papers" boarding planes. However, it is highly unlikely that the actual process once they are in the UK will be radically altered to assist asylum seekers with their claims, which is where the real changes need to be implemented.
The introduction of airline liaison officers is controversial in itself. Specially-trained immigration officers will be based in particular countries and will be charged with the task of perusing the documents of those intending to get on planes bound for the UK. Those carrying false identification documents and passports will not be allowed to travel on that flight.
This seems not unreasonable. Unfortunately, by the very nature of their escape from regimes or countries where rights and lives cannot be protected, asylum seekers are frequently unable to obtain documents from the authorities, and so leave by any means possible, often with the assistance of an agent and false papers. The very act of seeking political asylum often necessitates secrecy in the individual's country of origin, often at great personal risk to themselves, their family, friends and colleagues.
The introduction of an airline liaison officer, who will be have the power to thwart any hope of an asylum seeker escaping to safety, must at least call into question the British government's obligations under the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees to offer protection to those who may qualify for refugee status, by preventing an individual from even attempting to make such an application.
There is no question that economic migrants should be prevented from seeking protection under the convention, but measures must be put in place to ensure that genuine refugees, no matter which country they are from or for whatever reason, must be allowed to approach the British authorities and ask for sanctuary - even, and perhaps especially, if the regime from which they are fleeing has removed their documents, or made it impossible for them to produce them.
The rules on granting refugee status are not too lax at present. The problems lie in the sheer inefficiency of the Immigration Service to deal with people who are claiming asylum, the net result of which is to make the rules themselves appear inadequate. Too many people are able to slip through the net and the Government is seeking to put a stop to this. However, there is a very real danger that in seeking to do so, it will go too far and that those in genuine need will not be offered protection, with often fatal consequences.