U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1998 - United Kingdom

  At the end of 1997, there were more than 58,100 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection in the United Kingdom (U.K.). These included 51,795 asylum applicants awaiting an initial decision, 3,165 Bosnians who received temporary protection based on their asylum claims, and applicants in 3,985 cases who were granted asylum during the year. During the year, 32,500 persons (excluding dependents) applied for asylum in the United Kingdom, a 16.6 percent increase from the 27,875 applicants in 1996. The 51,795 applications pending an initial decision at year's end represent a 6.9 percent decrease from the 1996 backlog of 55,635. The Home Office disclosed that more than 11,000 applicants within the backlog of cases had applied before the 1993 Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act. The countries producing the largest number of asylum applications in the United Kingdom in 1997 were Somalia (2,730), the former Soviet Union (2,105), China (1,945), Sri Lanka (1,830), Pakistan (1,615), Nigeria (1,480), Turkey (1,445), and Colombia (1,330). In 1996, the United Kingdom passed a new law, the Asylum and Immigration Act, which substantially changed the asylum determination process. In February 1996, the British government enacted legislation denying welfare benefits or employment to asylum seekers who do not apply for asylum immediately upon arrival and to those appealing a negative decision. The legislation entitles only "port applicants" to welfare benefits and income support. Of those who applied during 1997, 16,590 applied at ports of entry, and 15,910 applied within the country. Asylum approval rates decreased annually from 32 percent in 1989 to 6 percent in 1996. However, in 1997, the approval rate for the 36,045 cases decided increased slightly, to 11 percent. The number of rejected asylum seekers granted "exceptional leave to remain" (ELR) dropped dramatically for the fifth consecutive year. The Home Office has discretion to grant this extendable one-year protection from deportation, based on unsettled home country conditions or other humanitarian grounds, at any time after an applicant remaining in the country has received a final rejection. Normally, failed asylum applicants only receive ELR only if compelling humanitarian reasons exist for not enforcing their removal from the United Kingdom. From 1986 to 1993, an average of 62 percent of all decided cases were granted ELR. In 1997, only 9 percent of the decided cases were granted ELR. Certain nationalities have been more likely to receive ELR than others, but, according to the government, the dramatic decrease coincided with the 1993 Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act. Prior to the act, ELR had been a pragmatic solution when applicants had prolonged their stay until it was simply "impractical to enforce their departure," according to the Asylum and Policy Unit of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate of the Home Office. But after the 1993 act took effect, "the then government announced that exceptional leave would in future only be granted when there were clear, compelling, compassionate, or humanitarian reasons for doing so," said the Asylum and Policy Unit. In 1997, applicants from several countries experiencing widespread unrest were refused both ELR and refugee status. During the year, the government denied any form of refuge to 96 percent of Sierra Leoneans, 93 percent of people from Turkey (mostly Kurds), 81 percent of Angolans, and 80 percent of Congolese/Zairians. Despite increased violence in Sri Lanka, only 3 percent of Sri Lankan applicants were granted refugee status, and 1 percent given ELR. By contrast, in 1993, before the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act, 98 percent of Sri Lankan asylum seekers were permitted to remain in the United Kingdom. Colombians Increasing human rights abuses committed by security forces, guerrillas, and paramilitary groups in Colombia triggered a dramatic increase in the number of Colombian asylum seekers in the United Kingdom, from 280 in 1992 to 1,330 in 1997. By May, Colombian asylum applications were up 500 percent from the same period in 1996. Also in May, the new British government imposed visa restrictions on Colombian nationals entering the United Kingdom, a move the British Refugee Council criticized for "raising concerns that those fleeing persecution will now face further obstacles to finding international protection and may be forced to put their lives in the hands of unscrupulous traffickers." Other refugee support groups said that Colombians often could not produce the evidence of a home and job needed to obtain a visa. Refusal rates for Colombian asylum seekers were high, despite deteriorating country conditions. Between 1992 and 1996, 93 percent of Colombians failed to gain refugee status or ELR. In 1997, the refusal rate was 90 percent. Czech and Slovak Roma In mid-October, the British media was filled with stories about the arrival of "thousands" of Czech and Slovak Roma (gypsies) at the port of Dover, on Britain's south coast. The actual numbers were much lower: during the first five days of the "influx," some 200 Roma arrived at Dover, and at least 84 were either refused entry or decided to return home. Overall in October, the month with the highest number of applications, only 85 Roma from each country applied for asylum. By year's end, 305 Roma from Slovakia, and 240 from the Czech Republic, had applied for asylum. Of the 485 Roma cases from both countries decided during the year, none received refugee status or ELR. A Czech television documentary depicting a small group of Roma enjoying life in Britain and encouraging others to seek asylum there helped spur the Roma's arrival in the United Kingdom. Canada, which had received the majority of Czech Roma asylum applications during the summer, imposed visa restrictions on Czech nationals on October 10. British media and government officials treated the Roma arrivals in October and November with suspicion. Fifty members of the right-wing National Front party demonstrated against their presence in Dover. On October 21, the British immigration minister warned "everyone who is planning to come to the United Kingdom and apply through the asylum system to think twice." He appeared on Czech and Slovak television and radio, and was quoted in newspapers saying, "You won't be welcome and we will deal strictly and quickly with you so we could return you." At the end of October, the British government implemented new measures to reduce from 28 days to five the period when "abusive" Roma asylum seekers could submit further documentation to support their claim after their initial asylum interview. In practice, individual caseworkers had to decide whether Roma's claims were abusive or not. In November, all the Slovak Roma's applications and more than 90 percent of the Czech Roma's applications were "certified" as "without foundation," and refused both refugee status and ELR. Asylum Procedure The Asylum Division of the Home Office is responsible for all decisions relating to claims for asylum, whether made on arrival or after entry into the country, including the recognition of refugee status. The Immigration Service (or, for in-country cases, the Screening Unit of the Home Office's Asylum Division) first briefly interviews asylum seekers to ascertain their identity, immigration status, and in the case of port applicants, whether they have been through a third country en route to the United Kingdom. Asylum seekers at ports of entry submit their applications to immigration officers, who must then refer them to the Home Office. "In-country" asylum seekers apply directly to the Asylum Division of the Home Office, whose caseworkers interview them within three to four weeks. After their interview, port applicants normally have 28 days to submit further evidence (five days if they are detained). However, in October, the government introduced a new procedure allowing Asylum Division caseworkers to decide if the claim is abusive, and thus whether to allow five or 28 days for applicants to submit further information in support of their claims. "The caseworker will take account of all the relevant factors and will have particular regard to whether there is already ample material available to conclude that a claim is abusive and that further time and/or material is most unlikely to alter this view," said to the Immigration and Nationality Department. In-country applicants have five days after their interview to submit further evidence in support of their applications. In 1995, the government introduced a new "short procedure," at first for selected in-country applicants, which decreased the waiting time for asylum interviews and increased the number of interviews asylum officers conduct. This short procedure contributed to almost doubling the 18,165 decisions made in 1993 to 36,045 in 1997. Applicants recognized as refugees are granted "leave to remain" for four years, after which they usually receive "indefinite leave to remain," also known as "settlement." Refugees and persons granted ELR have equal rights with British citizens, except the right to vote (unless originating in a Commonwealth country). Safe Third Country Cases If an asylum applicant arrives from a third country that is party to the UN Refugee Convention and that has rejected the applicant's asylum claim, U.K. officials may return the person to that country without considering his or her claim. That also applies to asylum seekers at U.K. ports of entry who have traveled through a third country where they could have applied for asylum, but did not. The decision to return the applicant to a safe third country normally occurs within 24 hours of arrival; British officials deny "leave to enter" because the asylum claim is "certified" to be "without foundation." Previously, the United Kingdom restricted safe third country status to the states of the European Union (EU), but under the 1996 act, it extended that status to Canada, the United States, Norway, and Switzerland. The 1996 act also denies to asylum seekers who travel through a safe third country the right to appeal refusal from within the United Kingdom. Instead, they have 28 days to appeal from the third country through which they transited. Refugee advocates said that the act's deletion of suspension of removal pending appeal undermines an important safeguard against refoulement. UNHCR estimated that prior to the act, some 40 percent of safe third country appeals in the United Kingdom were successful. However, on September 1, 1997, the Dublin Convention came into effect in the EU, requiring positive documentary evidence that someone actually traveled through a third country before he/she could be returned there. In practice, the United Kingdom removes few asylum seekers on safe third country grounds because of this requirement. Appeals Rejected asylum applicants, except those rejected on safe third country grounds, have the right to appeal their denials in the United Kingdom in several stages. Under the asylum appeals system set up in the 1993 act, refused applicants who have not been "certified" have seven working days to lodge an appeal with independent special appeal adjudicators, who should officially deal with the appeal within 42 days. (This is often extended in practice.) If the special appeal adjudicators decide that the cases are not unfounded, rejected claimants may apply for "leave" from the Immigration Appeal Tribunal or the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal may review the tribunal's decision. However, if an asylum applicant applies at a port of entry, is "certified" following his or her asylum interview, detained, and handed the refusal decision personally, the applicant has only two days to appeal a negative decision. Fast-track Appeals Procedure The 1996 act extended the categories of appeal cases that may be "certified" as "without foundation" and thus heard under the fast-track procedure‹officially within 10 days of the appeal submission. In practice, however, decisions can take up to six months. Under the 1996 act, the secretary of state, with parliamentary approval, designated Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ghana, India, Pakistan, Romania, and Poland as "not generally giving rise to a serious risk of persecution"‹the first countries on the so-called white list. Asylum seekers from those countries, except those who could show a "reasonable likelihood" that they had been tortured, are put into the fast track appeals procedure. The designated countries produced significant numbers of asylum seekers in 1997. The fifth largest number of asylum applicants during the year came from Pakistan, a white list country. In addition, 1,285 Indians, 605 Romanians, 565 Poles, 545 Bulgarians, 495 Cypriots, and 350 Ghanaians filed asylum claims for themselves and their families during the year. In one dramatic case, Pardeep Saini, a Sikh asylum seeker from the Punjab in India‹a white list country‹climbed with his brother into the undercarriage of a plane leaving for London. His brother died during the journey, but Pardeep astonishingly survived the 10-hour flight, only to have his request for asylum rejected in Britain. Welfare Restrictions The 1996 act denies benefits to asylum seekers who failed to apply for asylum immediately upon arriving and to those who appeal a negative decision. Legal battles resulted in a High Court ruling in October 1996 that a 1948 law on providing shelter, warmth, and food to the needy obligated local councils to help destitute asylum seekers. The Court of Appeal rejected the British government's appeal of this ruling in January 1997. Refugee shelters and local authorities struggled throughout the year to meet the basic needs of a growing number of destitute asylum seekers in Britain's major cities. Detention and Deportation Asylum seekers who apply at ports of entry may be detained pending an interview with an immigration officer or pending a decision on their asylum application. Since 1993, the growth in the number of applicants claiming asylum at Britain's ports of entry has tripled the number of asylum seekers in detention. At any given time in 1997, some 750 to 800 asylum seekers were detained, either in immigration detention centers, regular prisons, or sometimes police cells. The average period of detention is about 150 days, but this has stretched beyond two years for some asylum seekers. Britain is the only western European country that detains asylum seekers without judicial review or an established time limit. Asylum seekers and their advocates complain about the conditions of detention and lack of information provided to asylum seekers. The right to apply for bail is not automatic for detained asylum seekers. In January, 17 asylum seekers went on a hunger strike in Rochester prison in southeast England, which holds some 200 asylum seekers, to protest their conditions of detention. In August, 44 asylum seekers rioted in Campsfield House detention center in Oxfordshire following the removal of a detainee to prison. Detainees reportedly feared that if they complained about conditions at Campsfield, they would be transferred to a prison with worse conditions. Campsfield House holds some 200 asylum seekers. On December 17, an asylum seeker won a claim against the Home Office for prolonged detention. In the first ruling of its kind, the British High Court ordered the Home Office to pay compensation to an Algerian national for keeping him in detention after it had enough evidence to grant him asylum. The Algerian man arrived in the United Kingdom in June 1995, claiming fear of persecution based on his role as a Mujahedin fighter in Afghanistan. He was released in July 1996 after being granted refugee status, but said that he had suffered psychiatric damage as a result of his prolonged detention. Former Yugoslavs The British government announced in May that it would allow Bosnians a three-month period to return to their homelands to assess the situation without losing their right of return to the United Kingdom. The approval rate for asylum seekers from the former Yugoslavia has increased dramatically in recent years, from a 0.7 percent in 1992 to 66 percent in 1997. The number of decisions also jumped, from 130 in 1992 to 2,665 in 1997. Conversely, the rate at which former Yugoslavs have been accorded ELR has steadily dropped, from a high of 71.7 percent in 1994 to 13.3 percent in 1997. UNHCR estimated that some 3,165 former Yugoslavs had temporary protection, while some 4,600 had a more "durable solution" in the United Kingdom as of December 1997.

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