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UNHCR concerned over UK’s use of detention in asylum process

On Thursday 23rd February, John Vine, the Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency released his report into the Detained Fast Track (DFT) asylum procedure.

Introduced in 2000, the DFT is a procedure where asylum seekers are detained if the government considers that their claim “can be decided quickly” which can mean within seven to ten days. The decision whether or not an asylum seeker will enter the DFT is made at an initial interview.

Through the course of two independent audits of the DFT, UNHCR has also identified a number of concerns with this process.

Vulnerable asylum seekers are wrongly held in detention

UNHCR is of the view that safeguards to identify vulnerable and traumatised individuals are inadequate. A quarter of individuals who enter the DFT are later released, most of whom are referred to organisations caring for victims of torture. Among those who remain within the DFT, UNHCR has still identified some vulnerable people and applicants with complex cases which are not suitable for being decided quickly. This includes individuals who claim to be victims of rape or trafficking.

Deprivation of liberty

Although claims in the DFT are expected to be decided between seven and ten days, the Government’s current policy leaves open the possibility for detention to exceed this period and even, to be of unlimited duration. UNHCR considers that depriving an individual of their liberty for reasons of administrative convenience risks breaching international human rights principles.

There is insufficient time for accurate decision-making

Detention and the speed of the DFT affect the fairness of a procedure which determines whether or not a person will be protected or sent home. The short time frame means that both UKBA decision makers and applicants lack sufficient time to prepare for the asylum interview. The determination of asylum claims is a complex procedure which requires time and consideration on the part of the decision maker to gather evidence, including the information available on the situation in an applicant’s country, and to assess the credibility of the claim. Furthermore, asylum seekers who have had traumatic experiences and possible mental health issues may require time to establish trust and confidence to disclose their stories to the authorities.

Decision making within the DFT has significant and repeated errors

UNHCR’s audits have found poor quality decision making within the DFT.  Of particular concern is that UKBA insufficiently appreciates the limited opportunities for asylum seekers in detention to support their claims by evidence and documentation, and demands an inappropriate threshold of proof. In one case, an Afghan who claimed to that his life was at risk because he worked as an interpreter for the US forces was not believed despite being able to provide twelve pieces of documentary evidence to corroborate that he was.

Asylum seekers from conflict-affected countries are being detained

Asylum seekers from conflict-affected countries such as Afghanistan are regularly being routed into the DFT. UNHCR’s view is that claims from persons originating from countries experiencing indiscriminate violence should be assessed with the utmost care.

Worrying precedent

UNHCR is of the view that detention of asylum seekers for reasons of administrative convenience is inheritably undesirable and should be limited to only very exceptional circumstances. In comparison to any other European country, the UK is using detention in asylum procedures in a disproportionately high manner, which sets a worryingly negative precedent.

UNHCR’s Representative to the UK, Roland Schilling, said:

‘Asylum seekers who come to the UK have often experienced extremely distressing circumstances which have caused them to flee. To be led off to a detention centre – sometimes in handcuffs – as soon as they arrive, is far from a humane way of being treated. These people did nothing other than to ask for protection.

‘There is a presumption on the part of the UK Border Agency that most asylum claims can be decided quickly, but in UNHCR’s view, the process of determining whether someone has a well-founded fear of persecution is a not only very complex but an extremely important procedure which should not be taken lightly. It should not be driven by the pressure to meet time limits and targets.

‘UNHCR recognises and supports the need for a fair and effective asylum system. UNHCR has been working with the UK Border Agency to improve the quality of asylum decision-making and I welcome the Government’s ongoing commitment to achieving a fairer refugee status determination system. Considering the financial and human costs of detention, we are ready to help the authorities to look into alternatives to detention.’

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