MPs warn on asylum decision-making
Britain is at risk of harbouring war criminals and terrorists due to p oor decisions made by border officials, an influential group of MPs has warned.
In a damning report on asylum, the Home Affairs Select Committee said it was concerned by the quality of decision-making as 30% of appeals against initial decisions were allowed in 2012.
A backlog of 32,600 asylum cases that should have been resolved in 2011 are yet to be concluded, the Committee discovered, while t he number of applicants still waiting for an initial decision after six months rose by 63% last year. Some applicants have been waiting up to 16 years.
The group of MPs also raised concerns about the "appalling" housing conditions faced by asylum-seekers, as well as the pressure placed on gay applicants to prove their sexual orientation.
In 2012, there were 21,955 applications for asylum in the UK. As of September 19 this year, of those 21,955 cases, 18,423 have received an initial decision and 12,632 have been concluded.
This means that 3,523 people who applied for asylum in 2012 have yet to receive an initial decision.
Committee chair Keith Vaz said: "The asylum system is overburdened and under severe pressure.
"The backlog of asylum cases that should have been cleared by 2011 has reached 32,600, with some people waiting up to 16 years for a decision.
"The system needs to work, otherwise applicants are trapped in a cycle of helplessness and vulnerability."
The Committee's report said it was concerned about decisions to grant asylum to people "who later emerge to be involved with terrorist activity".
It was recently reported that al Qaida leader Abu Anas al-Libi , who was seized by US special forces on Saturday in the Libyan capital Tripoli, was granted political asylum in Britain in the mid-1990s.
However, it is now understood al-Libi was never granted asylum in the UK.
Mr Vaz continued: "Those who apply for asylum should be checked against national and international law enforcement agency and security databases to ensure that we are not harbouring those who intend us harm.
"The Home Secretary has to assure us that any anomalies in the process, which have allowed decisions such as this to take place, are addressed immediately."
The Committee's report said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has identified a number of failings in the quality of the UK's asylum decision-making, including a failure to apply the correct methodology to assess an applicant's credibility.
The group of MPs added it was "alarmed" by the "sub-standard level of housing" provided to asylum applicants by private firms G4S, Serco and Clearel, as part of the Compass contract, a project launched in July 2009 to provide contracts for the provision of asylum support services.
Mr Vaz said: " These companies must be held accountable and deliver a satisfactory level of service. It is unacceptable that in 21st century Britain thousands of people are forced into destitution due to the inefficiencies of the system."
The Committee said it was concerned that the process for lesbian and gay applicants, many of whom are fleeing persecution in their home countries, relied too heavily on anecdotal evidence and "proving that they are gay".
This has led to claimants going to extreme lengths to meet the new demands of the assessment, including handing over photographic and video evidence of "highly personal sexual activity" to caseworkers.
Jonathan Ellis, head of policy at the British Red Cross, which helps 10,000 refugees and asylum seekers in the UK every year, said: "It is encouraging the committee acknowledges there are unnecessary hurdles in the present system, but the levels of support for refugees are still not enough to meet their basic human needs.
"We see many vulnerable people suffering in appalling conditions because they simply do not have enough to survive on as they battle through the asylum process - homelessness and hunger are the very real results of a system that is broken."
Maurice Wren, chief executive of the Refugee Council, a UK charity which works directly with refugees and asylum seekers, said: " The findings of this report reflect the grave concerns about the asylum system in the UK that we and many others have been highlighting for years.
"Failing to treat asylum seekers with dignity and, simultaneously, failing to deal effectively and fairly with their claims has created an expensive and counter-productive bureaucratic nightmare that all too often denies vulnerable people the protection from persecution and oppression they desperately need.
"In particular, the Government should be ashamed that it has to be told by a parliamentary committee to stop forcing pregnant women to move around the country for bureaucratic convenience.
urge the Secretary of State to use the recommendations in the Committee's report as the basis for achieving an asylum system that is fair, efficient and commands public confidence."
The Home Office said it takes a range of measures to screen immigration applicants for potential involvement in terrorism and is clear that convicted terrorists should not be granted asylum in Britain.
A Home Office spokesman said: " The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need it. We are committed to concluding all cases as quickly as possible, but asylum cases are often complex and require full and thorough consideration.
"We have robust mechanisms in place to monitor standards of housing provided to asylum seekers.
"Following the awarding of Compass contracts, the Home Office and its providers carried out an inspection of accommodation standards and where necessary took action to ensure they met the necessary standards.
"Overall the performance of all three providers has shown steady improvement since January and G4S and Serco have made significant investment in their property portfolio. We will continue to monitor performance to ensure that standards are met."
Dave Garratt, chief executive of Refugee Action, said: "As this report highlights, our complex system leaves too many asylum seekers in limbo while they wait for a decision from the Home Office.
"Every day at Refugee Action we see the human cost of these failures. While having to navigate the bewildering asylum process, many of the people we advise are forced to live in isolation, poverty and destitution as a result of the inefficiencies of the asylum support system."
Mr Garratt added: "We join HASC in the call for a better quality asylum support system that guarantees the provision of financial support and adequate housing to those who are entitled."