Hundreds of asylum seekers from Afghanistan have been prevented from applying for refugee protection in the UK this year despite increasing instability in the now Taliban controlled country, as new rules allow the Home Office to first investigate if their claims are “admissible”.
The nationality breakdown on figures, obtained under freedom of information legislation, shows that in the first six months of this year thousands of people from countries including Iran, Iraq, Eritrea, Syria as well as Afghanistan were told their right to claim asylum would first be investigated, a process which takes six months.
Immigration rules, introduced by the Home Office in January mean it will consider applications from people arriving through a third safe country to be “inadmissible”. Anyone who is suspected of arriving via a third country, such as France or Italy, may not have their claim accepted by the Home Office while it investigates.
The UK Government says people should only travel via refugee resettlement schemes and has committed to taking 5,000 in the first year. However many are unable to access such routes.
Asylum seekers investigated
So far the Home Office has found only seven claims inadmissible. But between 1 Jan and 30 June this year a total of 4,561 people were forced to wait six months after being served “a notice of intent”. These included 655 women.
The statistics, released to the Scottish Refugee Council, show the total included 173 people from Afghanistan – 102 of whom arrived between April and June when Taliban attacks began to intensify – were told they would first be investigated.
A total of 643 asylum seekers from Eritrea, a dictatorship which Human Rights Watch has claimed is “extraordinarily repressive”, were barred from applying for asylum while the Home Office decided on their right to do so. A further 391 people from Syria were stopped from claiming asylum pending investigation despite ongoing civil war and unrest. The figures included 682 people from Iran and 644 from Iraq.
Jalal Chaudry, associate solicitor for legal firm Latta & Co in Glasgow, said that several of its asylum seeking clients had received “notice of intent” letters in recent months.
“We’ve had clients from Sudan, Iran and Vietnam experience this,” he said. “All three of the Iranians are Christian converts with a very high prospect of being granted refugee status.”
Human rights groups have reported raids on secret churches with their leaders and members arrested and given long prison sentences for “crimes against national security.
One Vietnamese man, supported by Latta & Co, had his right to asylum accepted after six months and his claim is now being processed. Others – who have not yet waited the six month period of investigation set by the Home Office – are still in limbo.
“All it does is buy the Home Office more time,” said Chaudry. “It possibly has the benefit of making it easier to make internal targets [on the percentage of cases processed]. There is no other logical or reasonable reason for this.
“People are being told it is because they went through a “safe” third country. But they are only able to get out by putting themselves in the hands of smugglers and they have to do what they are told. People would often not be in a position to know when they have reached a safe country. On a human level this is so concerning.”
Maddie Harris, director of the Humans For Rights Network, has been working with asylum seeking men in Napier Barracks, on the Kent coast, where she claimed about three quarters of the camp’s residents had been served with a notice of intent.
“A lot of people don’t even realise their claim is not being processed,” she said. “We are spending time showing people a redacted notice and explaining what it means for people.”
With no international agreements in place that would allow returns to other countries, she claimed the policy simply meant a six month delay for the majority of people and a bigger Home Office backlog.
She claimed it was bad for their mental health and slowed down reunion with their partners and children, and the right to work. Both are only granted after someone has been given refugee status.
“It’s just cruel,” she added. “We are seeing people here developing feelings of paranoia and fears about surveillance. One man I’m working with is unable to leave his room. There is despair and confusion. There have been 10 incidents in which people have attempted to take their own lives.”
High refugee protection rates
Graham O’Neill, policy manager at Scottish Refugee Council, said the inadmissibility rules amounted to the UK Government giving “instructions for officials not to take into account the persecution, abuse or violence a person seeking protection may have experienced”.
He also claimed that the rules – which see those from countries with high refugee protection recognition rates such as Eritrea, Yemen, Iran and Afghanistan being denied safety – were a “potential infringement of the UN Refugee Convention”. The convention says that a person’s claim to asylum should be judged on their well-founded fear of persecution.
“The awful reality of these rules means that people who want to rebuild their lives are deliberately left living in limbo for months or longer, with no control over their lives,” he added.
While waiting to be allowed to claim asylum people are provided with basic and often institutional accommodation, such as barracks in England. If meals are not provided support worth up to £5 a day is provided. They are not allowed to work. If their claim is found inadmissible, or their asylum claim refused accommodation and finance will be withdrawn and they may be deported or detained.
“This is senseless and cruel. It is clear that the plans set out in the government’s anti-refugee bill are already in action here. We urgently need the UK Government to act with humanity and end these practices.”
Anne McLaughlin MP, SNP spokesperson for immigration, asylum and border control, claimed the rules also put lives at risk. She added: “We know that the Tory Government’s hostile environment is designed to make life as difficult and miserable as possible for those that arrive at our shores seeking refuge to the point that it has breached UK and international law.
“Most of these individuals are from countries where they will face torture and death if they are returned. Their cases are clear cut and not even this government is sending people back to Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran and Iraq for very obvious reasons so why prolong the nightmare for them?”
A Home Office spokesperson said:“Our New Plan for Immigration will overhaul our asylum system and speed up the removal of those with no right to be here.
“Individuals should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach – rather than making dangerous journeys to the UK. That is why we will have rules in place to make asylum claims inadmissible where people have travelled through or have a connection to safe countries.
“All countries have a moral responsibility to tackle the issue of illegal migration and we expect our international partners to engage with us to stop people making perilous crossings.”
Cover image thanks to iStock/Doc_Steele