Lord Roger Roberts writes…Liberal Democrats in Government must fix failing asylum system

Yesterday was International Migrants Day. Sadly, celebrations for many were rather subdued. [Yesterday] morning marked the end of a long, hard and emotionally-charged  battle. Isa Muazu, a 45 year old asylum seeker from northern Nigeria, who had been on hunger strike for nearly 90 days, landed in Lagos, Nigeria.

Lawyers and campaigners fighting his cause ran out of avenues through which they could challenge the removal decision in the limited time-frame given. The case has been enormously distressing for many of those who have chosen to engage with it, but it has also raised the profile of many long-standing concerns surrounding immigration detention in the UK. I share some of my own concerns with you now.

In 2007, when the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith put forward plans to extend the detention without trial of terror suspects from 28 days to as many as 90, many citizens shuddered. 90 days under lock and key, without trial? The British public were right to be worried about such a flagrant disregard for the liberty that every human being should be afforded. For similar humanitarian reasons, the public has rallied behind the current ‘Modern-day Slavery Bill’ and watched with barely controlled outrage and emotion as the implications of life-long incarceration were played out in South London.

But – and this is an important ‘but’ – the UK  has a system that makes a mockery of such humane campaigning by the British public; a system of indefinite detention. Without committing a crime, you can be imprisoned for upwards of six months, in a place where your only access to a hearing is through a system that is seriously compromised. You might be a visa overstayer, or an asylum seeker whose claim for sanctuary was rejected. Isa Muazu was both of these. In the end, in the eyes of the Home Office and border officials, it doesn’t matter. You are an administrative inconvenience.

The majority of cases within the immigration system are dealt with quickly. This is an improvement on a decade ago, in which cases languished for years in the so-called ‘legacy backlog’. This change raises several important questions: if the vast majority of cases are dealt with within a reasonable timeframe, why are those whose cases last longer subject to detention without limit? And – positive though efficient and fast decisions are in the light of cases that have dragged on for years – at what cost has this sudden pace been acquired?

Not everyone going through  the process of immigration removal in the UK has the same experience. For cases deemed to have little substance, the fast track removals process is activated. Under this ‘Detained Fast Track’ system, individuals are interviewed by Home Office officials, who then promptly assess whether their case can be decided quickly. This is often assessed based on country of origin. Similarly, under the ‘Detained Non-Suspensive Appeal’ procedure, a person will be detained for 1-2 weeks while their asylum claim is decided upon, and at the end of this process the person has no right to appeal in the UK. Again, originating from certain listed countries automatically incurs this procedure (over 20 in total, including Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria – as was the case for Mr Muazu). This need for speed causes serious oversight, as the human rights campaigning group Liberty explains:

A claim will be fast-tracked if the immigration official decides the case is ‘straight-forward’ – yet, the information needed to decide whether a case is appropriate for fast-tracking is only available once a full asylum interview has taken place, which occurs after a decision is made on fast-tracking. 

It seems that the UK system of immigration detention and removals is caught between two extremes: indefinite incarceration for some and no time to put forward a case for others. The system is broken and it utterly failed Isa Muazu. Let Liberal Democrats in Government address it, now.

* Lord Roberts of Llandudno is a Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords

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  • Nick Tregoning 20th Dec '13 - 8:45am

    Absolutely agree. Years ago (many years ago) in my first full-time job in Bradford University, a colleague of mine had a small plaque on her desk. It read (forgive the interent sexism – these were different times) “You can judge a man by how he treats those whom he percieves as being of no use to him.” Personally, I think you can judge a government, and a nation, the same way. We fail this test in the immigration and asylum arena, and we have since the 1971 Immigration Act, the refusal to grant British Citizenship to Hong Kong residents, the immoral treatment of the East African Asian community.

  • Roger (and Nick) are absolutely right. Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary have been working hard to end Detention Fast Track, and indefinite detention. there are much better (and cheaper!) ways of dealing with the situations, as well as being more humane ways that have for respect for people.

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