In a perfect world there might be no borders. In the real world however there are borders and there are immigration controls and those of us committed to social justice and some version of human rights have to use the tools available to us.
The principle tool we have at our disposal is the 1951 convention. It’s the bedrock of refugee protection. The gist of it is that if you are outside your country, and it’s not safe to go back, you are a refugee and can’t be returned. This has the charming name of ‘non refoulement’. And on this is our asylum system built. Now, I’m about to wildly oversimplify because if I don’t we enter a sort of madness that can only up in diagrams.
You claim asylum. The home office, in the person of an immigration officer, decide whether you really are a refugee. While this happens you enter the strange and frightening world of asylum support where you can’t work, and after some complicated stuff to do with initial accommodation you get a room in a house and £36.95 per week. If the immigration officer turns down your claim for asylum, you can appeal the decision before an immigration judge. With caveats, your support continues. If the judge agrees with the refusal then you’re not a refugee, and you should go home to safety. Obviously your support now stops. ‘That sounds fair enough’ you might say. ‘And why do you look like you’re about to explode?’
Firstly, that initial decision, made by a immigration officer employed by the Home Office. ‘Aren’t they the same people charged with reducing net migration?’ You might ask. Well, yes they are. And that might explain why the quality of decision making appears shockingly poor. Between 1/4 and 1/3 of all refusals of asylum are overturned on appeal. Really. It’s almost as if they were looking for any reason to refuse people. Or at least taking the line that if it’s anything other than cut and dried, refuse it and the courts can sort it out later. Imagine the uproar if this was happening to real people.
Actually, the quality of decision making on appeal is much better, in my humble opinion. But there are a series of buts. Here are some.
I oversimplified at the start. I did warn you. It’s not enough to prove that your country is dangerous. You have to prove that you personally are at risk of persecution, and that the persecution is on the basis of nationality, ethnicity, political opinion, religious belief or membership of a particular social group. Many people are badly advised, or not advised at all. They don’t know what they are meant to prove, and so their story focuses on entirely the wrong things. The grinding poverty at home, the horror of the journey, the difficulties of surviving on asylum support in the UK. None of which have any bearing on an asylum claim. I’m slowly learning just how common this is.
Or that was the problem at initial decision, but by the time you came before a judge you had got it right, except that meant your story had changed, which means nothing you said can be really trusted. Your credibility is now suspect.
Or the combination of persecution and trauma in your country of origin, the journey here, cultural dislocation and hostility in Britain left you in such a state you went to pieces in court, forgetting key dates, getting flustered and confused. Credibility gone again.
Or you simply had no proof that what happened to you actually happened. No newspaper reports or signed affidavits. Only your own account. How convincing are you? How credible?
So, it turns out that you can be refused asylum at appeal and still have very good reason to be terrified of returning. But fear not! The legal system has hope for you. You can gather evidence that addresses these problems and make further representations to the home office. If this looks like it materially changes things, then it may be recognised as a fresh claim, and you start again.
The problem here is that once your appeal was refused, you were evicted from your house and your £36.95 stopped. You never had a right to mainstream benefits so no housing benefit and no eligibility to a hostel. You never had a right to work. How are you supposed to survive while you gather evidence? Well obviously you’re not. It’s not a right your actually supposed to exercise. It exists on paper, and in the heads of politicians at the moment that they say that thing about ‘a proud record of refugee protection’ but it disappears in the cold light of day. This is what I mean when I talk glibly of ‘people falling through the asylum system’. It’s not a crack that had opened while no one was looking, it’s a great ditch dug to keep people from exercising their legal rights.