There are some instances where it should be rare to be wrong. Asylum, where persecuted people should be given sanctuary should, I would venture, be one such instance.
For the last few months I have been examining the reasons why so many of the decisions to refuse asylum are being overturned by Immigration Judges here in the UK. Home Office statistics show that 25% of initial decisions to refuse asylum, are being overturned.
We examined a sample of 50 randomly selected cases and found that in the vast majority - over 80% - a flawed credibility assessment resulted in the wrong decision being arrived at. Essentially, it came down to flaws in the decision making procedures being used by the case owners. These were recurrent mistakes, which had the cumulative effect of chipping away at the credibility of our asylum system, not to mention costing tax payers, by resulting in a reliance on costly appeal processes.
Our analysis focused on refusal letters and appeal determinations in cases concerning asylum applicants from four countries with particularly high appeal overturn rates; Syria, Sri Lanka, Iran and Zimbabwe. For people who were wrongly refused asylum from these countries, the wrong decisions caused a great deal of anxiety and prolonged the period in which they are left in limbo
Amnesty and the Still Human Still Here coalition published our findings today in a report; A question of credibility: Why so many initial asylum decisions are overturned on appeal in the UK, which laid out the reasons why so many of the decisions are being overturned by Immigration Judges.
Citing the letters written to the applicants informing them of the decision in their case, and drawing on comments from the Immigration Judges who overturned the original decisions, the report identifies a number of key factors which contributed towards the consistently poor standard of these first-instance decisions.
In more than 80% of cases examined, a flawed credibility assessment resulted in the dismissal of the application. The approach adopted by some of the case workers was identified as a key factor in the flawed decision, wherein they would typically identify an action that they considered implausible, such as a minor inconsistency or a lack of documentary evidence, and then consider that issue in isolation.
The Immigration Judges who reviewed the initial decisions pointed out the shortcomings in the case workers' analysis and drew attention to their inflexible approach. Some of the decisions to reject the claim were made on such patently spurious grounds that they were embarrassing to read. In one instance a case worker had refused to believe an asylum seeker from Iran was a journalist, despite being presented with a journalism card as they had not been able to translate the card in the interview to confirm what it said. When it was subsequently translated it was found to be legitimate.
In another instance, the decision maker had not believed it possible that a Syrian would not be able to name all the countries that border Syria, but the Judge found it entirely plausible that an uneducated farmer from a rural area might not have that knowledge.
In another, a Syrian was asked a particularly testing question about which countries had opposed a resolution at the UN Security Council and as he could not answer it, his application was rejected - again the Immigration Judge found it entirely likely that a protestor from a rural town, might not know that. Indeed, I wonder how some of my colleagues would fare! Read these extracts from the initial letter and subsequent comments from the Immigration Judge to get a flavour.
"You answered that 'Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar' opposed a resolution by Arab and European nations in the United Nations Security Council for Syria's President to resign. Given that you claim to have been protesting in February 2012, it is not considered credible that you fail to answer basic questions regarding international politics correctly. It is not accepted that you have undertaken any role in political activities."
"If as claimed he has never had any education and has lived in a rural area without the benefit of electricity, it is just plausible that his information about his home country, as regards matters and events not within his immediate area, would be limited."
Whilst it is disappointing that the errors being made tend to result from fairly simplistic flaws in the process, that does have a silver lining, in that the remedy is also achievable. Amnesty and Still Human are making a number of recommendations as to how the process could be improved, including advising that; more flexibility be built into the asylum process to allow relevant materials to be properly considered; case owners have discretion to delay a decision or an interview in order to obtain relevant evidence; policy alerts on fast changing country situations should be issued to case workers and case owners should defend their own decisions at appeal so they learn from their mistakes. The report also recommends that access to free expert legal advice and representation should be guaranteed to all asylum seekers prior to their initial interview and throughout the asylum process.
The findings come just weeks after Home Secretary Theresa May announced that the UK Border Agency is to be abolished and asylum decisions brought back within the Home Office. It is hoped that the report will prompt a sea change in the way that cases are assessed.