LETTER: Lilley's demolition of the asylum process

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From Mr David Bull

Sir: The conference season may produce many empty promises, but there is unlikely to be one more hollow than the Social Security Secretary's claim that the UK will continue "to help genuine refugees" ("Lilley to curb benefits for asylum-seekers", 12 October). The measures announced yesterday by Peter Lilley amount to an effective demolition of the asylum process, and therefore an abdication of the Government's responsibilities under international law.

Those fleeing persecution are not, of course, familiar with the complexities of UK immigration law and, accordingly, many have legitimate and wholly understandable reasons for applying for asylum only after entering the country, rather than immediately upon arrival. Having experienced state oppression first hand, and possibly still traumatised as a result, they may be fearful of authority and hopeful of seeking the help and support of friends, relatives and advice agencies before putting their fate in the hands of officials.

Mr Lilley's blanket curb on in-country applicants' access to benefits makes no allowance for this, and therefore constitutes a wholly unjustifiable deterrence to such genuine asylum claims.

The position of those who do apply for asylum immediately on arrival, however, is not much better. It is inevitable that the Home Office will make mistakes when determining asylum claims, and an effective appeals mechanism is essential to the rectification of unjust refusals. Last year, 235 people won their appeal against the refusal of asylum - 10 per cent of all appeals heard.

It is a matter of public disgrace that Home Office ministers should compliantly allow the Social Security Secretary to scapegoat refugees in order to hide the failings and inefficiencies in his own department. Despite huge increases in personnel, the number of cases dealt with by the HO asylum division has fallen in each of the past two years - from 35,000 in 1992 to 21,000 in 1994 - and delays in reaching initial decisions remain unacceptably long, during which time benefits will now be unavailable to most asylum-seekers.

It is these inefficiencies, and the resultant wastage of public funds, that ministers should be addressing.

Yours faithfully,

David Bull

Director

Amnesty International

London, EC1

12 October

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