Law: It's firm, but is it fair?

The Government may be making life harder for genuine asylum-seekers.
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The new Immigration and Asylum Bill will raise the suicide rate among asylum-seekers. Over the last two weeks, leading lawyers from the Immigration Law Practitioners Association have also predicted that the Government's proposals will dump victims of torture in areas of the country that cannot cater to their needs, will penalise women who have been abused, and will strand children in schools that are unable to cope with their learning disabilities.

The Bill promises to speed up an application process that has already been choked by Home Office computer problems, faulty telephone lines and the disorganised moving of applicants' files from one building to another - one lawyer has even been moved to ask whether civil servants do have a sense of irony, as the Bill's subtitle is "fairer, faster and firmer".

Jawaid Luqmani, a solicitor at Luqmani Thompson & Partners, describes the Bill as an attempt to set up a system whereby "even genuine asylum applicants will have to swim against the tide in order to survive".

The proposals have come at a time when local authorities have groaned under the financial burden of dealing with destitute refugees. Just over 46,000 people made applications for asylum last year, significantly more than the 32,000 put forward in 1997.

The two most significant moves in the Home Secretary Jack Straw's plans to deter economic migrants and bogus refugees are, first, the replacement of cash benefits by shop tokens and, second, the plans to remove the financial burden from London and the South-east by sending asylum applicants to "reception zones" all over the country. The welfare of the taxpayer has been seen as driving these proposals, but the lawyers who will have to deal with the new system argue that Mr Straw has come up with a plan that will not only end up costing more to the taxpayer, but will also severely disadvantage genuine asylum-seekers.

Instead of deterring opportunists, says Jane Coker, a solicitor, "the system they are setting up is inevitably going to be more expensive. There will be a separate adjudication system, a separate system with shops, and a separate transport system.

"They are not going to provide access to health care - so there will be an increased burden on the Accident & Emergency services."

More seriously, the Bill as it stands will penalise victims of torture and asylum-seekers suffering from other forms of trauma. Although the emphasis of the proposals has been on tackling economic migrants, figures released by the Home Office show that the majority of asylum-seekers come from areas of conflict - in 1998, 16 per cent of all asylum-seekers were from Yugoslavia, 10 per cent from Somalia and 8 per cent from Sri Lanka.

When the Bill was published, Mr Straw said that he was aware that specialised benefits would be needed for certain asylum-seekers. But Christopher Randall, a solicitor at the law firm Winstanley-Burgess, argues that moving people away from London, where there are established and sophisticated facilities designed to identify and help genuine victims, means that "people are going to be stuck, as victims of torture, with hundreds of miles to go for help. These are very damaged people in difficult situations - I'm sure the suicide rate will go up."

As for the view that one aim of the Bill is to cut down the advisers - qualified and otherwise - who are seen as using the immigration appeals procedures as a way of milking public funds, plans to force solicitors to be covered by a new statutory regulatory scheme have been shelved for the moment. Concern about the problem has led to a crackdown on legal aid claims by the Legal Aid Board and its recent announcement that it would work more closely with the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors.

Mr Randall says that the proposals may mean, in practice, that there will be more problems than savings in trying to achieve this aim. He raises the issue of the logistics of providing legal advice for someone who has been advised for their asylum interview in London, and is then removed to live several hundred miles away. "What do you do about the client continuing to see an immigration adviser? It is well known that there is a dearth of competent advisers around the country in immigration, even before this dispersal has started."

While lawyers have generally welcomed the modernisation of the appeal system, which includes the right of appeal for anyone who claims that an immigration decision breaches the European Convention of Human Rights, this is not the main emphasis of the Home Office proposals.

By setting a six-month target for dealing with asylum applications, the Home Secretary has promised an end to time-wasting cases. The Home Office gives a case study showing how an individual came to England as a student in 1985 and spent almost three years launching repeated appeals until he was deported from the country earlier this month. The Bill would replace the current multiple rights of appeal with one single right.

Unfortunately, this promise has coincided with problems with the computer and telephone system at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, to bring application processing to a near standstill. A National Audit report due to be released on 24 March is expected to be damning. The Immigration minister, Mike O'Brien, has explained that the hold-ups are simply the result of a "massive modernisation programme" to produce "significant long-term improvements".

Another problem, says Mr Randall, is that "at the moment, most people who overstay, or who breach their conditions of stay in some way, will have an appeal before they are deported. What the Bill does is to sweep away all those appeals - unless they claim asylum. If you get caught, you are on the plane.

For the broader group who will still get an appeal, one-stop appeals could be defensible if they were truly comprehensive. But a large group of people will not have any appeal, or will have an appeal where they can't raise the important issues."

The consensus from the lawyers who will have to work under the new system is that it is to be hoped that the initial modernisation of the asylum process will not be as chaotic as the modernisation of the Home Office's computer system.

But by trying to solve the problems as the Bill proposes, the Government has also exposed itself to fiercer criticism. Mr Randall describes the solution as "an apartheid system. This is an extraordinary package brought by New Labour for the late 20th century, it will come as a substantial disappointment to many who voted for them, and many who were consulted by them."