Breaking the asylum system may be part of a deliberate Home Office strategy to punish those seeking asylum. While Priti Patel blames the EU for the current number of refugees crossing the channel, or ‘lashes out’ at ‘lefty lawyers’, her own immigration inspectorate clearly lays the blame for a ‘broken’ asylum system at her door. The damning report, ‘An inspection of asylum casework’, examining the efficiency and effectiveness of the asylum casework system was published this week.
Scope of the immigration inspection
The scope of the inspection was on immigration processing and decision-making from the initial screening interview through subsequent interviews and onto asylum decisions. It also considered “resourcing, training, workflow, and the prioritisation of claims”, quality assurance measures, and Home Office progress against the recommendations of the last 2017 (process) inspection report.
In the statement accompanying the report, the chief inspector, David Neal, said:
“The Home Office is still failing to keep on top of the number of asylum decisions it is required to make … The length of time asylum claimants had waited for a decision increased annually since 2011. In 2020, adult asylum claimants were waiting an average of 449 days. This increased to 550 days for unaccompanied asylum seeking children.
“Delayed decision-making is caused by a number of factors, including workforce capabilities, inefficient workflow processes, a reliance on outdated IT, and routing asylum claims for inadmissibility consideration in the absence of any bilateral agreements with EU countries. In addition to timeliness concerns, the inspection found problems with the quality of interviews and decisions, and with quality assurance mechanisms.”
A catalogue of damning immigration inspection reports
The scope was limited and the findings are best understood alongside other inspection findings, in particular – the 2018 inspection of the Home Office’s management of asylum accommodation provision, the 2021 inspection into the Home Office use of ex-army barracks, and the 2020 inspection of the provision of language services, as well as the previous (2017) process inspection.
A number of themes are consistent across all these reports:
- The asylum system is broken. It is broken because of lack of resources, skills and expertise, management oversite, poor technology and lack of political will to mend it.
- Many asylum seekers are held in filthy and degrading conditions on first arrival (or following onward transmission) in the UK. Those operating the facilities lack experience and skills and are largely left to their own devices with the Home Office failing to provide oversight or even visit the accommodation. The poor conditions were said by the inspectorate to be due to “fundamental failures of leadership and planning by the Home Office”.
- The care of unaccompanied children is unacceptable as are the increasing delays in dealing with their cases. Children are also being detained illegally as the systems are not in place to properly receive children when they arrive.
- Immigration system and decisions are “driven by anecdote, assumption and prejudice”.
- Delays, last minute legal interventions and successful appeals are as a result of Home Office errors and mismanagement. Detainees are provided with poor or no information and are unable to access good legal advice or lawyers early in the process. Communications are often solely in English and full of legal jargon.
Continuing problems and neglect of the system
This latest report shows that delays have become endemic. It is worse now as the backlog of asylum cases has risen from 60,000 to 70,000 since the field work for the inspection was undertaken. The inspectorate found that systems were poor and there was no prioritisation – except for those receiving asylum support, which suggests driving down costs rather than need was prioritising decision-making. Case progression was poor with many errors in decision-making and almost no performance or quality oversight or reports.
Alongside poor questioning of interviewees, which left many topics inadequately covered, interviewers were “openly disbelieving of claimants in interviews and not responding appropriately to sensitive disclosures of personal information”. Decision-makers had not read supporting documentation or even the initial questionnaires completed by their colleagues. Despite repeated criticisms in previous inspection reports, there is no quality oversight for initial interviews.
Impact of Brexit
In December 2020, I wrote about the changes to the immigration rules that were coming into force in January 2021 at the end of the transition period, and the end to the UK’s capacity to return refugees to ‘safe’ EU countries under the Dublin III arrangements that previously applied. The rules were being amended to:
“Allow decision-makers to reject a claim as ‘inadmissible’ if the claimant could have or has made an application in another safe country, or has a substantial connection with another country. In other words, the claim will not even get as far as being ‘substantively’ considered.”
It was self-evident then that this would result in “the starting point for asylum decisions for those arriving in the UK [being] an enquiry as to how the refugee can be sent elsewhere, and only when that fails will their case be considered in the UK”.
I noted then that, irrespective of the legality of the approach (and its inclusion in the nationality and borders bill suggests the Home Office had some doubts on that score too), it would inevitably lead to further delays. Because each asylum seeker who had passed through an EU country would automatically have their case suspended while enquires were made about their possible return.
The guidance says that claims for asylum in the UK will only be considered when approaches to EU countries have been ‘exhausted’. As at December 2020, the UK had no agreements with any EU country for such returns and EU countries had indicated that they would not accept them, yet the impossible-to-implement rule was still introduced.
Asylum seekers stuck in limbo and indefinite uncertainty
The inspectorate found that by May 2021, 3,379 asylum seekers were stuck in this limbo. Their cases could not proceed in the UK and the asylum seeker could not be returned. There is no limit to the time that they can be kept in this situation. The moderate inspectorate language does not do justice to the cruelty of this practice of indefinite uncertainty and, in some cases, indefinite detention.
The inspectorate found no will within government to resolve the problems identified in 2017 and increasing year on year. The Home Office argued to the inspectorate that the ‘new plan for immigration’ (of which the nationality and borders bill is a part) will solve all the problems the system faces. It hopes the new rules will deter refugees from crossing to the UK, in spite of all the Home Office evidence that it will fail to do so.
Irrespective of the bill’s intentions, as the inspectorate notes “there will still be a need to ensure that the Home Office is properly resourced, equipped and organised to make timely and good quality asylum decisions”. Measures that had been identified that might bring about improvements were not being implemented and inspectors were told plans to improve the system are “in draft form, are subject to change, and reliant on funding”.
In other words there is no intention other than to continue with current failure. Priti Patel has been accused of blaming everyone other than herself for the failing immigration system. It may be however, that failure is a key weapon in her hostile environment strategy.