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The Forgotten People Behind the Headlines: The Asylum Backlog

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The UK Border Agency is once again being slammed by the Home Affairs Select Committee in their report out today. And rightly so.

The Committee has again raised concerns about the backlog of asylum cases. Amongst the huge numbers of cases discussed, 25,000 people are still waiting to be told by the Border Agency how it proposes to resolve their unresolved claims, as the Home Secretary promised to do in 2006.

These 'cases' are of course real people, with real lives, many who have just been doing what they were asked to do. They will have claimed asylum as far back as the early 2000s, and having been told they were going to get a decision on their case, have been patiently waiting for a decision ever since. They won't have been able to put down any proper roots and rebuild their lives, let alone access the services or support they need.

We at the Refugee Council agree the UKBA needs to give these people a decision soon, but our main concern is that in their haste and desperation to meet their targets, they risk getting decisions wrong. These are life and death decisions and when the UKBA get it wrong, they are potentially sending people back to persecution, torture, or even death.

The Committee's report itself states that 13 people who were removed from the UK this year have since been granted asylum on appeal. They had been sent back to countries where their lives were at risk, including to Sri Lanka, despite the fact organisations including Freedom From Torture and Human Rights Watch have shown returnees risk facing torture there. We know from our own work at the Refugee Council, with women from Sri Lanka that many are refused protection here. A high proportion of the women accessing our therapeutic services for victims of sexual violence in 2011 were Sri Lankan, most had been raped or tortured, yet almost half were refused asylum in the UK.

It's therefore essential to get decisions on asylum cases right first time, both backlog cases and cases going forward. Allowing people sufficient time and support to give all the evidence they need to back up their case will help UKBA ensure they are not wrongly refusing claims. This includes giving asylum seekers early access to quality legal advice, which when cuts to legal aid come in in April next year, will prove even more difficult.

There also needs to be a culture at UKBA where an asylum seeker's word is believed, rather than automatically doubted. Research shows that this is a particular problem for women. We hear of women from Democratic Republic of Congo who have had their asylum claim refused because UKBA officials did not believe them when they said they had been raped - even though DRC has repeatedly been called the "rape capital of the world", including by the then UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict.

Other parts of the Committee's report didn't make the headlines, but are just as significant in terms of our clients' experiences of the asylum process. The report talks about the worrying treatment of asylum seekers with mental health problems in detention, with case-owners overruling the advice of doctors not to detain people who are unfit to be there. It also reports the rise in children being detained despite the government's insistence that they have ended the practice. This is something we have long campaigned against, and so were particularly horrified to read about the use of force on children and a pregnant woman at the new Cedars family accommodation centre in the recent Chief Inspector's report. If these are the risks facing children and pregnant women, how can the government justify detaining them?

The Committee's report just touches on the surface of the administrative problems at the Border Agency, and their policies that we are so worried about on behalf of our clients. It is time they addressed these issues, in order that those seeking safety here, as well as the general public, can have faith that the UKBA are running a fair, humane and effective process. We hope the Committee continues to scrutinise the Border Agency, until there is no longer any need to do so.