Nick Clegg: There's got be a fairer way to treat asylum-seekers

We need an effective and compassionate approach to asylum
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The Independent Online

The attitude of a government towards asylum-seekers reveals a great deal about its moral compass. The issue is not, as Tony Blair shamelessly sought to suggest for the past 10 years, whether a government is "tough" enough on asylum-seekers. It is whether we are able to separate justified pleas for asylum from unjustified claims, deal speedily and efficiently with those whoare not justified, and with compassion and humanity towards those who are. On that simple test alone, the Labour government has got it spectacularly wrong.

Last week it became clear that the Government will press ahead with the deportation of asylum-seekers to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country steeped in violent chaos, despite an impending legal challenge. Next week it will add a host of new countries to the so-called "white list", where asylum applications are assumed to be, in the technical jargon, "clearly unfounded", and rejected applicants must return to the country they fled before they can appeal. That list of "safe" countries will now include Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mauritius, Montenegro, Peru and Serbia, with Gambia, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mali and Sierra Leone.

These changes come on top of continued attempts to deport people to Iraq, Sudan and Zimbabwe. This comes despite a description of Zimbabwe by a government minister just yesterday as a place of "misery, poverty and oppression", a "tragedy" and the administration as "incompetent and venal". Fortunately, the courts have intervened to halt the return of Darfuris, and ongoing appeals mean deportations to Zimbabwe are temporarily suspended.

Many of those who cannot be removed because of these court decisions, but have been refused asylum, are left in a legal limbo and condemned to a life on the streets. Meanwhile, the UK has refused to admit any of the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees living in Jordan and Syria, and has turned down thousands of applications from those few Kurds who have made it to Britain. Even Iraqi refugees who worked as translators for our troops have been refused access to the British Embassy in Jordan.

And the rush to deport people to Congo before the courts rule against the practice is not without precedent. The ruling that suspended deportations to Khartoum - thanks to evidence from one rejected claimant who was sent back and apparently tortured - was preceded by extensive anecdotal evidence of a round-up of Sudanese asylum-seekers the Government wanted to deport while they still could.

All these inhumane decisions have been prompted by the Government's desperation to appear "tough" on asylum-seekers.

Of course, the fact that the 21/7 bombers had all been granted asylum does enormous damage to public confidence in the asylum system. The knowledge that some of those who have sought protection from the UK have gone on to abuse our hospitality is devastating. But we must not allow the acts of these criminals to prompt us to abandon long-held British traditions, honouring our international obligations, to provide protection for refugees fleeing persecution.

The asylum crisis that faced us in the late 1990s - with massive backlogs of cases, and refugees waiting years for claims to be assessed - was almost entirely due to administrative incompetence. While there remain flaws in the system, largely due to a culture of refusal which leads to poor decision-making, the situation has changed dramatically over the past five years. In 2006, there were 23,520 asylum-seekers entering the country, mainly from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran and Zimbabwe. This represents a drop of 9 per cent from 2005, and is the lowest level since 1993. Nearly 60 per cent of initial decisions, at the last count, are now made within two months.

Yet more could be done to strike the right balance between fairness and efficiency. The Liberal Democrats have led calls for a fully independent asylum agency, emulating the successful Canadian model in which contested asylum decisions dropped dramatically because the system was perceived as being fairer and more efficient.

We need a fair, effective and compassionate approach to asylum. Every case should be decided on its individual merits. We should find ways to accommodate some of the refugees we have helped to displace in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we should be flexible about halting temporarily deportations to countries that are manifestly dangerous, instead of exploiting every last legal loophole to remove people.

The Prime Minister has pledged to use his moral compass in leading our country. If that compass is working, it must surely direct him to a wholesale review of our asylum policies.

The writer is the Liberal Democrats spokesman on Home Affairs