Human rights and the UK asylum system

October 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

The news this week that the events leading up to asylum seeker Jimmy Mubenga’s death on a deportation flight on 12 October 2010 were entirely different to those given in the Home Office’s account of the incident is, unfortunately, not very surprising.

This is certainly not the first time the private security firm G4S has been in the media spotlight as a result of mistreatment suffered by deportees at the hands of G4S security personnel. Claims of abuse suffered by deportees on deportation flights are routinely dismissed by the Home Office as inaccurate and misleading, with very little attempt made to actually investigate the claims. The difference this time is, because Jimmy Mubenga died on a scheduled flight with other passengers on it, rather than on a charter deportation flight, there were witnesses who saw how the events unfolded and were thus able to challenge the official account. Otherwise, this would still be an “accidental” death caused by Mubenga suddenly falling ill prior to the flight.

The fact is, the UK government wants to be able to deport as many asylum seekers as possible, as quickly as possible. It’s not too fussy about human rights when it comes to getting things done. It’s also not very fussy about where it sends people back to. In the past year, despite opposition from the UNHCR, the UK has tried to send people back to Iraq and concocted a plan to forcibly return asylum seeking minors to “rehabilitation centres” in Afghanistan, not to mention the routine forced deportations of failed asylum seekers from various trouble spots in sub-Saharan Africa.

The New Asylum Model, introduced in April 2006, aims to speed up the asylum process so that decisions on claims are made within a maximum of 6 months. While on first glance the idea of speeding up the asylum process seems like a positive step, it doesn’t at all take into account the significant trauma that the majority of asylum seekers have gone through prior to and during their journey to the UK. It doesn’t take into account the difficulty of sharing such trauma with a complete stranger before you’re had time to process it yourself. It doesn’t take into account the fact that people make themselves “forget” in order to be able to get on with their lives. In a nutshell the logic of the New Asylum Model is simply this: faster processing = faster deportation.

The various tactics employed – turning up to detain and deport people without prior warning, preventing them from contacting their legal representatives and friends, hiring private security firms like G4S to do the dirty work, using chartered flights at odd times of the day to carry out deportations – are all means to this one end. Get people out the country before others – whether individuals, legal representatives or organisations – have the chance to do anything about it.

The attempted deportation of 10 Iraqi asylum seekers
in June this year is a case in point – government lawyers asked high-court lawyers to refuse to consider “last-minute” judicial reviews of asylum cases “because of the complexities, practicalities and costs involved in arranging charter flights.” Of course, the reason last–minute judicial reviews are necessary at all is because the people being deported are not given enough – if any – advance warning that they are about to shipped out so have no way of contacting their legal representatives beforehand.

This recent investigation by The Independent documents instances of physical and verbal abuse as well as the so-called “control techniques” routinely used during removals. It seems that any concept of the human rights appears to go out the window when there’s time and money at stake. Money, mainly. Money seems to be the crux of the matter.

UK politicians and media claim that immigration (including asylum seekers) is a drain on our resources and finances. But our current asylum system appears determined to ignore simple facts:

1 – Asylum seekers on the whole DO NOT choose to come to the UK for benefits, most of them don’t even know where they’re going – they pay someone, hide somewhere, and arrive (if they’re lucky).

2 – Asylum seekers are often highly qualified – doctors, lawyers, politicians, activists – we can use their skills, instead of forcing them to live on benefits that barely cover the cost of basic subsistence.

4 – Deportation flights are ridiculously expensive, psychologically damaging and, particularly in cases where people are being returned to unsafe countries, inhumane.

Basically, it would be a lot more cost-effective to allow asylum seekers to work and use their skills. From my experience of working at Scottish Refugee Council, most volunteer in various roles in order to help others in similar situations, in order to take their minds off their experiences, in order to be doing something. Allowing asylum seekers to work would take any financial strain off the state, generate a fair amount in tax money and help them to start integrating socially and economically into their new communities. And that last point is the problem. While we hear debate after debate about immigrants (generic) failing to integrate properly, keeping to themselves, etc etc, when it comes to asylum seekers, the government doesn’t WANT them to integrate. It wants to send them home, as quickly and easily as possible.

A colleague on a training course said that he’d heard of an instance where an asylum seeker had received a letter from his case owner informing him that his claim has been rejected because he had said that he feared guerrilla attack and, “after consulting with the WWF (yes, the World Wildlife Fund), we do not think there are any guerrillas in your area.” Admittedly, my colleague wasn’t sure if this story was true or not, but added that he wouldn’t be surprised if it were. The aim of our current asylum system is not to provide protection and safety, but to wash our hands off as many cases as possible.

So how do we create a more effective asylum system that doesn’t penalise people from the start, that doesn’t assume immediately that people are lying about their experiences? How can the UK better fulfil its obligations under the Refugee Convention?

The obvious answer would be to start by reconceptualising the way we perceive asylum seekers from the top down – from policy makers to the media to the general public. Unless the real reason for our illogical system is an underlying racism, a desire to “preserve” some undefined nugget of so-called “Britishness”, we should be prepared to have our ideas challenged by the facts… no?

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