I spoke at a conference in Glasgow at the weekend. The conference theme was “Racism: from the Labour movement to the far right”. I talked about the treatment of asylum seekers:

I want to show what’s done to people in our name to asylum seekers, refugees fleeing from persecution. I’m particularly interested here in what happens during the face-to-face encounters between asylum seekers and the officials who deal with them. I do it, really, as a sort of tribute to people I have known, people I know.

Most of the examples are from a few years back and come from my research into the treatment of asylum seekers, which I finished in 2010. But the racist discourse against asylum seekers that began in the 1980s continues today.

First, by way of introduction:

Racism is adaptable. The racism of the colonial period survived after the Second World War, and this is reflected in the determined (desperate) attempts by Labour and Conservative governments to invent reasons for immigration controls, which hadn’t existed before, against black and Asian Commonwealth citizens.

It took them till 1962, when the Tories were in government, to get controls – because there were no real reasons for them. Several committees were set up to find reasons but they failed. By 1961 all their reports admitted failure. On all the grounds they had hoped would show the need for immigration controls, they failed:

“A case for controls cannot at present rest on health, crime, public order or employment grounds.”

Or indeed on any lack of integration, which was another hoped-for scenario that hadn’t materialised. So no real reasons. Just racism.

In the end they manufactured a case based not on the evidence but on what they feared might happen in the future and brought in the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962.

Controls were seen by both by the Tories and Labour as essential. In fact Labour tightened the Tory controls after it won the 1964 election.

Even Labour’s liberal agenda, under Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, which was the basis of multiculturalism, insisted on controls. One minister at the Home Office, Roy Hattersley, explained:

“Integration without control is impossible, but control without integration is indefensible.”

34 years later he admitted he’d been wrong and showed how racism lurks behind all immigration controls: “If your immigration restrictions are too repressive” (!), he said in 1999,

“you encourage bad race relations rather than encourage contentment and satisfaction, because you are saying, ‘We can’t afford any more of these people here’, and the implication is that there is something undesirable about these people.”

Well, that’s an argument against immigration controls in general because they’re racist – not just the “too repressive” ones. So racism continues and immigration controls continue.

The targets may change, racism is adaptable (Yasmin Alibhai-Brown said in 2007: “The Poles are the new blacks”). But the beast remains the same.

And asylum seekers? They have become targets in their turn.

The UK has signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, so it has undertaken to protect people fleeing from persecution. It has a duty to protect.

Here’s the Home Office:

“The United Kingdom has a proud tradition of providing a safe haven for genuine refugees.”

That’s its 2005 Brief Guide to asylum applications:

“We give all applications for asylum a fair hearing in accordance with our obligations under the Convention.”

The problem is that the other tune is also playing – that of immigration controls – and it drowns this one out so that asylum seekers are routinely seen as an immigration control problem rather than as people in need of protection under the Refugee Convention.

This is the approach in most EU countries. As one French writer describes it:

“The specific question of asylum is not taken into account in an independent and appropriate fashion but vanishes into the general migration policy of the state, a policy guided above all by economic and security imperatives.”

So a racist discourse has developed, laws made and practices have arisen which undermine the right to asylum and deny protection to people who need it.

This is reflected in the legislation passed over the last nearly 3 decades. In all of these Acts and other regulations and orders asylum seekers find themselves criminalised, their rights restricted (legal aid, rights of appeal, right to accommodation and financial support, use of fast-track processes which make a fair and considered hearing pretty much impossible), increasing numbers are put into detention centres and sent back to imprisonment, torture and even death.

And this, too, has been the work of both Tory and Labour governments. And the mainstream parties compete with each other as to who is “toughest” on asylum.

So the claim is that most asylum seekers have not been persecuted but come here for “economic” reasons (to find work or claim benefits), and they apply for asylum in order to avoid legal immigration controls.

All this is seen in the language politicians use to go with this theme, to create prejudice and hostility and to justify the policy:

Asylum seekers are “bogus” (the Tories and Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw), they are brought here by “racketeers”, the UK is a “soft touch”, our schools are being “swamped” (Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett).
The language leaks into the legislation: section 24 of Labour’s Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 lay down procedures to be followed by registrars if they suspect a marriage to be a “sham” marriage. That’s the word in the Act – it’s not a Daily Mail headline.

So asylum seekers are treated as suspect. And this discourse sets the tone for public discussion.

Plus, and ominously, it sends signals to Home Office staff and officials who deal with refugees about the nature of their job and how they should do it.

So what does happen if you apply for asylum?

You might get it. Not everybody is refused. But your application takes place against the background I’ve described. And most of those who get asylum have to fight for it, sometimes over many years. Many of them fail.

Abdullah was here for 12 years, and was deported to Afghanistan last year. At his last appeal his flatmate, Serkan, went to the London hearing with him. When I phoned him to see how it was going Serkan was outside the court in the corridor.

“Have they stopped for lunch?” I asked.

“No”, said Serkan. “But I had to come outside because they keep calling him a liar, and I can’t stand it any more.”

In 2001 Ali, an Iraqi Kurd, had his main asylum interview, and it was a difficult and puzzling experience.

Now, the main interview is the most important part of the process. It’s where the assessment of your claim is made, “based”, in the words of the Home Office, “on the details given at interview, and also sometimes in writing via a Statement of Evidence Form.”

It’s a crucial couple of hours, and the Home Office tells applicants to go into all the details of why they have come. “This is your chance”, the Home Office says, to tell your story.

But Ali told me:

“They wouldn’t let me explain – they didn’t give me a chance to explain all my problems. They just – they say, ‘No, we are not going to listen to you. We have just to ask you a few questions and you have to say yes or no – nothing else.’”

One of the questions was whether he had specifically chosen the UK as his destination.

[Because, of course, what was in the interviewer’s head, placed there by his managers and by the politicians? “These people are bogus. They come over here, they always make Britain their first choice, Britain is the softest touch they’ll ever find, they don’t need protection.” So – “Was Britain your first choice of destination?”]

Ali could only answer, “No.”

His detailed answer, he said, would have been that in the back of the lorry he knew his destination was Europe but he didn’t know which country – “Sometimes people want to go somewhere else, but [the driver] just take you back to his country.” But he was not able to give that answer.

Three weeks later his application was refused – that particular answer No was probably counted as a lie – but luckily when he appealed against the refusal the judge decided to listen to his story and granted Khaled indefinite leave to remain. But that was more than a year later, a year of unnecessary anxiety.

Credibility

Now, one thing your interviewer/caseworker will be looking to do is damage your credibility. This is partly because, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Handbook says, “the burden of proof in principle rests on the applicant”, which simply means you are guilty until proved innocent. But in addition caseworkers are obliged, under s. 8 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act 2004, to consider certain specified behaviours as damaging to your credibility.

One such damaging kind of behaviour is to arrive without a passport, or with a false passport.

Now, according to the Refugee Convention, refugees, just by virtue of being refugees, persecuted, under surveillance, in trouble with their government at home, may not be in a position to get a valid passport. Article 31 of the Convention says that arrival without a passport, or with a false passport, is no offence:

“The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who … enter or are present in their territory without authorisation [without travel documents, passports].”

But – section 8 of the 2004 Act in effect turns it into an offence. Arriving with no passport damages your credibility.

Now, one of the most common reasons given for arriving without a passport is that the agent who supplied it travelled with you and demanded the passport back before the end of the journey to avoid detection.

Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett claimed that this explanation was not true. He said asylum seekers “destroy” their passports because

“traffickers tell them it’s their best chance of staying in the UK – by making fraudulent claims and making it difficult to remove them if their claims fail.”

So section 2 of the Act lays down that asylum seekers who arrive without a passport must “prove [here we go] that they have a reasonable excuse” for not having one and section 8 requires the caseworker to raise it as a credibility issue.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the answer “the agent asked for it back” does not count as a “reasonable excuse”. It’s only counted as a “reasonable excuse” in “exceptional situations” (the very elderly are apparently allowed that “excuse”, so are unaccompanied children).

Another time it’s allowed is if

“a document was destroyed or disposed of as a direct result of force, threats or intimidation, e.g. where an individual was forced at knife-point to give a document to someone else.”

Now, I never met anybody who gave that as a reason:

Latif came with his family from Eritrea. His wife Lara told her caseworker: “The passport I had was Sudanese but the agent took it away.”

Lisa’s agent took her passport during the flight, got off the plane when it landed at Rome and left her to travel on to Heathrow alone.

Sara’s agent took her passport before the plane landed and then he disappeared.

There is, in fact, no need for “knife-point” threats: asylum seekers hand their passports back because, dependent as they are on their agents, they just do what the agent says. But this little discourse on “excuses” and wilful “destruction” of passports serves to justify a law that lands people in trouble once they arrive.

Surprisingly, the Refugee Convention and the UNHCR Handbook leave individual states free to devise their own asylum procedures as it suits them. But can states contravene the Convention with impunity in this way?

It certainly looks like it. When I met Latif and his family they were waiting for an appeal hearing because their asylum claim had been refused, and one of the grounds of refusal was just this: “You destroyed your passport.”

I’ll stay with credibility issues because they are often the clearest examples of mistreatment, abuse and the fitting-up of asylum seekers. They aren’t all required by the Act, but they get raised because of the pressure of the government’s restrictive agenda, sometimes called by support groups an “agenda of disbelief”.

Your credibility is questioned if you get dates wrong. And remember here that the asylum seeker is telling the story of a probably lengthy time of anxiety and trauma from which they have not recovered.

The first example I’ll give is simply and obviously unjustified. The second, again unjustified, also seems deliberately confusing and cruel.

Latif got a date wrong. His refusal letter said:

“You [said] in your witness statement … that you were arrested on 5/8/2004. It is noted however that in your substantive asylum interview you … claimed that you were actually arrested on 4/8/2004. These statements are inconsistent and in light of your lack of certainty about the date of the event which led you to leave the country in fear of your life, your account of this matter cannot be accepted as being true.”

The second example is Reso. His credibility was also questioned because he momentarily gave a couple of wrong dates. His refusal letter said:

“You claimed [in your written witness statement] you were arrested on 20 May 1995 … At interview, when you were asked the date you were arrested you stated you were arrested on 20 November 1995, you then corrected this and claimed you were arrested on 20 May 1995 and allege you were released on 10 November 1995. When asked what happened on 20 November 1995, you said you made a mistake, you stated it was the date your brother was killed, but not the year.”

In fact there was nothing suspicious here. In his distress Reso mixed up some dates. As he explained it to me

(and these are his own words, and they show clearly the impact such cruel treatment has on vulnerable people):

“I had said the wrong date: “What date your brother die?” Yeah? Because … I been shot with my brother. After three days my brother die in hospital. They ask me which day you and your brother been shoot? And which day your brother die? And which day you run? Which day you leave your country? Is too many days, and I don’t remember after four years all these dates.”

The caseworker had no such considerations in her mind, only the agenda of disbelief, and the refusal letter continues:

“The Secretary of State notes your confusion, at interview, when asked about your alleged arrest. He considers that to confuse significant dates [like] the date you claimed to have been detained and the date you allege your brother was killed, some claimed four and a half years later, detracts from the overall credibility of your account.”

Your credibility is also questioned if you didn’t leave your country as soon as the persecution against you started. There are, of course, many reasons why you might leave at one time and not another:

Political reasons: you are committed to fighting for change, so you maintain your political activity until it becomes impossible
Family concerns
The need to find an agent
The need to get a passport
The need to raise money for travel or to pay the agent (say, by selling property).
The caseworker tends not to take any of this seriously, and is provided with a standard paragraph, for use in a refusal letter, that is designed to dismiss it. It’s a standard paragraph because scepticism is a required standard response to such an account by an asylum seeker. Here’s the paragraph, and all the caseworker has to do is fill in the gaps provided:

“Further doubts as to your alleged fear of persecution can be drawn from the fact that you did not leave [COUNTRY NAME] until [DATE]. The Secretary of State holds the view that if your fear of persecution by the [COUNTRY NAME] authorities was genuine you would have left [COUNTRY NAME] at the earliest opportunity and the fact that you did not casts doubt on your credibility.”

Your credibility will be questioned if, on your journey to the UK, you passed through a country regarded by the Home Office as “safe” and didn’t stop and claim asylum there. The Home Office lists all the EU member states as safe, plus Iceland and Norway. Section 8 obliges the caseworker to count your “failure” to apply there as damaging to your credibility.

Mahmoud came with his wife Leila from Iran. Their asylum application was refused on a number of grounds. One of them was their “failure” to claim asylum in one of the states they apparently passed through on their way here. Mahmoud’s refusal letter said this:

“In your statement you claim that you travelled to Turkey then to the United Kingdom concealed in the back of a lorry. You would therefore have travelled through a number of European countries which are signatories to the 1951 United Nations Convention, and are therefore safe countries that are obliged to consider any asylum applications made upon their territory. There is no reason to believe that these countries would not fulfil their [Convention] obligations … The fact that you failed to claim asylum [in one of these countries] therefore further reduces your credibility.”

The argument against this, of course, is that once in the lorry you may well have no choice but to stay there till you arrive at your destination. Not only will you have no idea which countries you are passing through – you may have no idea where you’re going, as we saw in Ali’s case.

Fitted up

But Mahmoud and Leila’s case is not just an example of how section 8 works – and is intended to work – but also an example of how a caseworker’s determination to find credibility issues can make it all too easy to misrepresent the asylum seeker’s story.

Because the version of Mahmoud and Leila’s journey this caseworker produced in the refusal letter was rubbish. Mahmoud and Leila did not “travel to Turkey then to the United Kingdom concealed in the back of a lorry” – and the caseworker knew it. They arrived by plane. The evidence Mahmoud gave in his witness statement was clear, unmistakable:

“We entered the plane with passports provided by the agent. The passports were taken away from us by the agent’s representative at the Transit Hall of Stansted Airport, in the United Kingdom.”

They did spend time in a lorry (2 days) travelling from Turkey to, Mahmoud said, “a country whose name I do not know”. During those two days they did not get out of the lorry either for food or to relieve their bodily functions: “[W]e got on a container on a lorry. We were given a carrier bag for discharges (toilet, etc.) and protein food like chocolate.” After that they boarded the plane and landed at Stansted.

The caseworker knew that they had arrived by plane. He knew from the witness statement, from Mahmoud himself at his main asylum interview and from the record of his screening interview at Stansted. He knew.

At best the caseworker’s accusation arose from a careless disregard for the details of Mahmoud’s account. But it most likely derived from an eagerness to attach as many “credibility” issues to his case as possible under pressure from the government’s restrictive agenda, the agenda of disbelief. Mahmoud and Leila seem to have been fitted up.

Detained

Finally, you will probably be detained, put into a detention centre, and then deported. Your detention may be illegal.

I mentioned Abdullah. 3 years ago, he was allowed to put in a fresh asylum claim. While he was waiting for it to be dealt with, they came for him, at 7.30 in the morning. He was taken to a police station, and then travelled overnight to Manchester, then to two other detention centres, before being locked up in Tinsley House, the main detention centre near Gatwick Airport and told he was going to be deported. Conditions in one of those detention centres were so bad that when they told him at one stage that he would be moved back there he went on hunger strike. They didn’t move him.

Altogether he was detained for 3 months. At the end of that time, a judge finally ruled that his detention was unlawful, and he was released. During his time there he acted as an interpreter for other inmates (he speaks 3 languages). One of them had attempted suicide.

The truth is that as long as we have immigration controls, and as long as we see refugees as immigrants to be controlled, we will go on ill-treating vulnerable and brave people in these ways.

© 2017, Bob Mouncer, Ph.D.

One thought on “A racist asylum policy and what it means for asylum seekers | Bob Mouncer, Ph.D

  1. Thank you for sharing this with us this month. As an American, this kind of thing sounds all to common, but I had never really considered that it might be the same in other ‘civilized’ countries like the U.K. Having read this after the very recent Manchester attacks, I can only imagine that such events like what happened in Manchester and Paris just add righteous fuel to the agenda of discrimination. I guess it’s bad for refugees everywhere. Perhaps if all of the ‘civilized’ countries spent more time using diplomacy instead of warheads, we could stop creating such a large problem of refugees to begin with. :-/ But that would be a lot harder than simply rigging the system to deny asylum seekers access. Anyway, thanks again for showing me something new today.

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