Reid the removal man increases temperature of asylum debate

Asylum seekers young and old are bearing the brunt of the home secretary’s clampdown on the immigration system, report Gordon Carson, Simeon Brody and Helen McCormack

John Reid has raised the government’s rhetoric on asylum to new levels since his appointment as home secretary in May.

“We will take away the barriers currently preventing deportation of those who should no longer have the right to call the UK home,” he proclaimed in July as he outlined his plans to “rebuild confidence” in the asylum and immigration systems.

One consequence was a stay of execution for Oakington Immigration Reception Centre, which was found to have a subculture of racism and abuse in a report last year by prisons ombudsman Stephen Shaw, and was due to close this autumn. It will remain open until at least the end of the year to cope with the increase in deportations demanded by Reid.

By 2011, he wants decisions made on 90 per cent of claims, and failed applicants removed, within six months.

Even before his appointment, though, the number of removals was increasing. According to the Home Office’s asylum statistics for 2005, 15,685 asylum seekers were removed, helped to return to their own countries or decided to leave the UK voluntarily last year, up 5 per cent from 2004.

Two of the most controversial destinations for returning asylum seekers are Iraq, where more than 40,000 civilians are thought to have died since the start of the occupation in 2003, and Zimbabwe, where political repression is widespread.

Back to Iraq
In total, 245 asylum seekers returned to Zimbabwe and 775 to Iraq last year, although the figures do not differentiate between those deported and those leaving of their own accord.

The Refugee Council believes only 15 people were forcibly removed to Iraq last year and says none was deported to Zimbabwe as the government awaited the result of an Asylum and Immigration Tribunal judgement into the case of a man, AA, appealing against deportation.

The tribunal ruled earlier this month that failed asylum seekers would not face serious persecution on their return to Zimbabwe on the basis of their asylum application. AA’s solicitors plan to take the case to the Court of Appeal but the Home Office says it will now resume enforced returns. It insists 90 asylum seekers have returned voluntarily to Zimbabwe this year.

In the case of Iraq, the government says it will continue to monitor developments and will only enforce removals to areas deemed sufficiently stable and where returning asylum seekers would not be at risk.

A Refugee Council spokesperson says she expects forced removals to both countries to increase despite both being “very dangerous”.

She says the people returned to Iraq last year had to travel in a military aircraft to guarantee their safety, and that without independent monitoring it is very difficult to follow what happens to asylum seekers after they leave the UK.

The Home Office is also looking to return unaccompanied asylum-seeking children whose claims have failed to their countries of origin, including Vietnam, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This proposal preceded Reid’s appointment  and also raises human rights questions. Immigration and Nationality Directorate policy papers seen by Community Care concede there will be times where removal is not in the best interests of the child but necessary for immigration purposes.

False distinction
But Nushra Mapstone (pictured), professional officer for England at the British Association of Social Workers, says the best interests of the child should “always be the first consideration”. She adds: “Social workers don’t like this distinction between ‘citizen’ and asylum-seeking children.”

She also criticises the Department for Education and Skills’ lack of involvement in this and other asylum schemes, and says social workers feel “quite powerless” with the Home Office driving reforms.

Lisa Nandy, chair of the Refugee Children’s Consortium, says many children who could be returned under the scheme might have been trafficked into the UK, but fear of retribution deters them from revealing this to the authorities, making it likely their claims will fail.

Encouragingly, the human rights implications of the government’s asylum policies will soon face parliamentary scrutiny in a forthcoming inquiry by the joint committee on human rights. This will cover, among other things, the treatment of children, the conditions of detention and methods of removal, and campaigners will be hoping it provides a robust challenge to the government’s increasingly hard-line stance.

Catalogue of controversy
Although the Home Office’s stance has seemingly toughened under John Reid, many hard-line policies predate his appointment:

Section 9: Section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants etc) Act 2004 withdraws support from failed asylum seekers who refuse to return home, which could result in children being placed in care because of their families’ destitution.

The Home Office is yet to publish the results of an evaluation of the policy, which has been piloted by councils in London, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire since December 2004, but opposition has been huge, particularly in the North West.

Fast-track asylum decisions: Asylum Aid is concerned about the impact of fast-track asylum claims at Harmondsworth and Yarl’s Wood detention centres, particularly on women.

It argues the speed of the process – decisions must be made within five days – make it difficult for claimants to present a proper case.

The figures seem to back this claim: only 1 per cent of appellants at Harmondsworth and Yarl’s Wood in 2005 were granted asylum, humanitarian protection or discretionary leave to remain, compared with 17 per cent overall.

Debora Singer, co-ordinator of Asylum Aid’s Refugee Women’s Resource Project, says women who have been persecuted or raped would find it difficult to share their experiences in such a limited period of time. She claims lawyers often decide not to act for asylum seekers who appeal against initial fast-track decisions because they believe they have little chance of success.

Body searches: A visitor to Yarl’s Wood claims children and women are body-searched by male officers, contrary to Home Office guidelines.

Nellie de Jongh, a volunteer with the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns, says at least four mothers have reported male officers carrying out clothed body searches on them and their children.

But a Home Office spokesperson says searches on children can only be carried out by two female officers with child protection training, and that there is “no discretion” permitted to those rules. Searches on women should also only be carried out by a female officer.

She says the Home Office is “confident” the policy is being followed at Yarl’s Wood.

Additional reading
Care for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children
Home Office asylum statistics for 2005
Joint committee on human rights inquiry

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