UN criticises Home Office over refugees

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The Home Office, has been plunged into further crisis after being condemned by the United Nations for its treatment of asylum-seekers in a report which found serious flaws in the handling of claims from refugees fleeing persecution in Iraq, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe

It warned that the dismissive and disbelieving attitude of Home Office officials could lead to hundreds of refugees being returned to face torture and execution in their own countries.

The report will add to the growing sense of crisis at the Home Office, which John Reid, the Home Secretary, has described as "not fit for purpose". Mr Reid's predecessor, Charles Clarke, was sacked after it emerged that more than 1,000 foreign prisoners, including dozens of serious criminals, had been released without being considered for deportation.

The report by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which was published on the Home Office website yesterday, also raises concerns about male immigration officers interviewing victims of rape, sexual assault, forced marriage or domestic violence. But its most serious criticism is directed at the handling of asylum claims, and includes accusations of racial stereotyping and an ignorance of human rights law. The report says: "UNHCR also continues to observe frequent use of speculative arguments which potentially weaken Reasons for Refusal Letters. Such arguments demonstrate a failure to apply the correct methodology in assessing the facts as set out in the UNHCR handbook."

The report concludes: "This could be a reflection of a number of things, such as flawed credibility assessments, an application of the wrong standard of proof, a failure to apply objective country of origin information, the adoption of a narrow UK perspective or a refusal mindset where caseworkers appear to be looking to refuse a claim from the outset."

In one case an Iraqi's fear of persecution was dismissed because the Home Office told him that if he had really been threatened by an insurgency terrorist group he would be dead. The caseworker wrote: "If this group had targeted you to be killed, it is believed that they would have simply done so, rather than send you a letter to warn you and give you the opportunity to leave the area and/or leave the country. Your claim to have received such a letter, is not accepted."

A female asylum-seeker from Zimbabwe was told: "It has been believed that if supporters of the Zanu-PF had any real interest in you they would have ill-treated you in more of the several raids that you allege they conducted on your house, in search of your husband. This lessened the credibility of your claim that you would be ill-treated if returned to Zimbabwe."

The report says that in many cases, the applicant's story is dismissed on weak grounds.

It concludes: "UNHCR's continuing audit suggests misapprehension of key refugee and human rights law and principles remains common.

"Particular concerns include a lack of understanding of the concept of persecution, confusion between the Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights, continued reliance on speculative arguments and failures to properly consider relevant evidence provided by the applicant and/or their representative prior to the initial decision."

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "The Home Office is committed to further improving the quality of asylum decisions and look forward to working with the UNHCR to implement the recommendations where appropriate. We recognise that making accurate, well considered decisions on asylum applications is key to a robust, fair and firm asylum policy. More than 85 per cent of initial asylum decisions sampled by internal and external assessors in 2004/05 were found to be fully effective or better and four out of five new claims are now decided in two months rather than the 20 months it took in 1997."

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