UK: Asylum - Queen's Speech measures raise spectre of asylum-seekers being returned to torture and persecution
The human rights organisation, which has formally submitted its concerns to the Home Office, is concerned at plans to limit appeals against asylum decisions despite the fact that initial decision-making is faulty - with at least one in five first-stage decisions presently reversed on appeal. Last year alone nearly 14,000 wrong initial decisions were overturned on appeal.
Additional plans to limit legal aid in asylum cases - or even, according to some reports, to abolish it entirely ? could mean that asylum-seekers are forced to make often complex asylum applications without expert advice.
Amnesty International is calling for the government to reverse these measures and to 'front-load' the asylum system. This would mean allowing properly-resourced and properly-evidenced initial claims. The organisation believes that not only would this be fairer to asylum-seekers, it would actually save public money otherwise spent on appeals against poor initial decisions.
Amnesty International UK Refugee Affairs Director Jan Shaw said:
'With the third major piece of asylum legislation in six years the government's latest proposed changes risk further eroding safeguards for some of the world's most vulnerable people.
'Cutting appeals against bad initial decisions raises the spectre of scared people being sent back to torture and persecution in places like Iran, Afghanistan and other repressive or dangerous countries.
'If the government also carries out legal aid cuts in asylum cases, asylum-seekers could be exposed to the twin perils of being cut off from early advice and then cut off from the appeal courts if their initial claim is refused.
'Rather than reducing the safety net of an asylum appeals system, the government should be concentrating on raising the standard of initial decisions which even its own figures show are faulty in at least one in five occasions.'
Other asylum measures expected in the Queen's Speech of concern to Amnesty International:
- criminal offence of 'undocumented without reasonable explanation'
Amnesty International is concerned that this will add to existing barriers that presently make it extremely difficult for genuine refugees to lawfully reach the UK. The government has previously accepted that applicants may find it necessary to use deception to escape from their country of origin, and the government's own figures show that a significant proportion of undocumented applicants are presently accepted as having grounds to stay in the UK. The human rights organisation believes that this measure could be in breach of article 31 of the Refugee Convention.
- 'safe third country'
Amnesty International is concerned at vague outline measures which may indicate an intention to widen the existing 'safe third country' concept (used to determine presumed responsibility for asylum applications and refugee protection amongst EU countries) to countries other than ones that the asylum-seeker may have a link with or have passed through. There are concerns that this could lead to asylum-seekers being summarily sent to non-EU countries without any guarantee that their asylum claim will be properly dealt with or that they will be afforded any meaningful protection.
Amnesty International's November 2003 response to the new legislative proposals on asylum reform is available as a pdf online.