Leading article: A system that could do much, much better

Thursday 27 March 2008 01:00 GMT

A comprehensive survey of Britain's asylum system has concluded that it "falls seriously below the standards to be expected of a humane and civilised society". The survey, conducted by the Independent Asylum Commission, catalogued inhumane treatment of detained asylum-seekers, difficulties for asylum-seekers in obtaining legal advice and gross inconsistencies in official decision-making.

These findings will come as little surprise to anyone who has followed the stream of revelations about the shortcomings of the asylum system in recent years. That they do not surprise, however, should not make them less shocking. Ministers should take the commission's interim recommendations, published today, as a blueprint for urgent action.

A central proposal relates to detention, which is seen as costly and often unnecessary. The commission says that, as a rule, pregnant women, children and torture survivors should not be detained at all. There should also be an end to "dawn raids" on families due for deportation. Such practices are traumatic and unnecessary. It also challenges the cost of detaining asylum-seekers and suggests that, for many, a system of regular reporting could be substituted.

The report singles out for particular mention inadequate – and sometimes intimidating – interpreting. It also finds that the system can be at once inhumane and insufficiently firm in dealing with those whose claims are refused. Because of restrictions on working and obtaining healthcare, too many people face destitution.

The most sweeping, and potentially transforming, recommendation relates to our overall approach. Britain, it notes, has an adversarial system analogous to the rest of the judicial system, whereas many other countries have an inquisitorial system, where a judge or independent panel considers the merits of a particular case. This is surely worth considering; the present way of doing things encourages many legitimate asylum-seekers to feel that the system is stacked against them. A more investigative approach might also improve the reliability of initial rulings, eventually reducing the number of appeals.

This report is not entirely negative. It credits the Border and Immigration Agency with making efforts to improve its work. In particular, it regards the new fast-tracking system as positive in so far as it assigns individual asylum-seekers a single case-worker. It warns, however, that fast-tracking can mean a rush to – usually adverse – judgment, particularly where especially vulnerable asylum-seekers are concerned. A little progress, then, but our asylum service still leaves an enormous amount to be desired.

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