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Protest by Oxford Migrant Solidarity demanding closure of Campsfield House refugee detention centre, October 2015. Photo: OMS via Facebook

Protest by Oxford Migrant Solidarity demanding closure of Campsfield House refugee detention centre, October 2015. Photo: OMS via Facebook

A political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service explains how asylum seekers, especially torture victims, are being failed by the hostile environment

Asylum seekers are some of the most vulnerable people in the world. Leaving their homes and lives behind them, they usually undertake perilous journeys to reach their final destination; crossing oceans on rafts, clinging to fast-moving vehicles, and entrusting their lives to smugglers in order to reach safety.

By the time they reach a UK port (which they must do in order to claim refuge), they have likely seen and experienced more trauma than the average person could imagine. For this reason, those who handle and review their cases are entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that they do so with compassion and fairness.

The asylum interview is a central facet to the way in which they are expected to do this. The vast majority of asylum claimants are asked to attend an interview with a Home Office caseworker. For asylum seekers that are fleeing torture, violence or danger in their home countries, the stakes of the asylum interview are incredibly high. For a vast number of people, the interview is the only chance they have to tell their story and prove their case is legitimate.

Supporting evidence is often either irretrievable or non-existent in asylum cases, especially when claimants have come from war-torn or developing countries and when they have entered the UK with people smugglers, who routinely confiscate the few documents they possess. In fact, the Home Office itself acknowledges that the testimony that is provided in the interview is “usually the most important evidence” and “often the only substantive evidence”. Because of this, the importance of ensuring asylum seekers are given the proper time, space and support to give it cannot be understated.

According to official Home Office guidance, caseworkers are required to create a “positive and secure environment” that allows the person being interviewed to be treated with “respect and humanity, dignity and fairness”. However, a report that has just been released by Freedom From Torture has revealed that this has not been consistently implemented, and that those most at risk are continuing to fall through the cracks.

According to the report, titled Beyond Belief, multiple issues were found with the way in which caseworkers conduct interviews with vulnerable people – specifically victims of torture. These issues ranged from not allowing enough time for claimants to give their full testimony, to making judgements based on prejudiced preconceptions. The latter concern is closely tied to discriminative governmental immigration policies. These policies, which have been becoming progressively harsher over the last decade, have been centred on limiting the number of so-called ‘illegal’ migrants entering and staying in the UK.

The ‘hostile environment policy’ – rolled out by then home secretary Theresa May in 2012 – is one such example. The hostile environment worked off the basis that the UK should be made as unwelcoming a place as possible for ‘illegal’ migrants. Since its birth, it has caused a whole wealth of problems for migrants and British citizens alike, particularly those from marginalised and black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities.

As part of the policy, caseworkers were asked to scrutinise all immigration applications, particularly those for asylum, and tasked with meeting refusal and deportation targets. In 2014, May rolled out a series of immigration policies that enabled caseworkers to do this; one such example was the ‘Deport First, Appeal Later’ scheme, which was only last month ruled to be unlawful by the Supreme Court. This works off the basis that asylum claimants are deported before they have a chance to lodge an appeal. In practice, this policy has resulted in tens of thousands of people being wrongfully deported back to countries where they are at risk of torture and severe violence. When this is added to the fact that the past consecutive five years have shown that huge numbers of denied asylum cases have been genuine (and have been overturned by a judge at the appeal stage) this is especially concerning.

Clearly, the situation has not changed in recent years -- and investigations into the state of the UK’s asylum interview process reflect this. Freedom From Torture reviewed 30 case files and interviewed 25 asylum claimants when undergoing their investigation and found that victims of torture were severely disadvantaged in the way in which they were approached in their caseworker interviews. This was due to a range of factors, including: “poor interview technique”, “inadequate evidence gathering” and a failure from caseworkers to approach the interview with sensitivity. As well as this, the investigation also uncovered a running trend for interviewers to approach cases with “prejudgement” and “disbelief”.

The purpose of the asylum interview is to provide an opportunity for claimants to present their evidence and prove that it is “reasonably likely” that they are unable to return home without risking immediate danger. It is supposed to consider factors such as the grave implications of getting a decision wrong and is supposedly designed in a way that allows caseworkers to give space for this.

When caseworkers do not create this space, they ultimately put people’s lives and safety at risk, while also forcing asylum seekers to continue to live their lives in limbo. The appeal process can take months – even years – to undergo and until those seeking asylum are granted refugee status they are only afforded temporary residency in the UK. This means they are unable to work, study, or move forward with their lives. They are held off from being able to properly integrate into British communities as a result. According to testimonies from victims of torture and violence, remaining in this state can be deeply disconcerting and, in many cases, retraumatising.

What’s more, the social distancing restrictions that have been put in place since the coronavirus pandemic have meant that the asylum process has effectively been paralysed. Face-to-face interviews have been halted, making it much harder for caseworkers to continue to provide a positive or caring environment for claimants to tell their stories. Equally, many people’s cases have ground to a halt amid restrictions, prolonging this sense of limbo.

The asylum interview is arguably the most critical element of any asylum claim. With this is mind, it is vital that hostile policies and inconsistent procedures do not jeopardise the ability for caseworkers to conduct them in an empathetic and unbiased way. As face-to-face interviews begin to resume and are reshaped to fit a post-Covid19 world, the Home Office must desperately review the way in which they are conducted from an ethical standpoint. They must also consider how continuing hostile policies continue to influence the landscape of asylum law. Victims of torture and persecution around the world come to the UK in hopes of refuge and sanctuary – it is our duty to offer them a space in which they can (at the very least) be heard and considered for this without prejudice.

Luna Williams is the political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers that works closely with asylum seekers and refugees.

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