16/10/2013 09:02 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

The UK Government Must Address Asylum System's Failings

Last week the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) produced a highly critical report about the UK's asylum system.

The report examines the end-to-end asylum process, from the screening of new applicants to the move-on arrangements for those granted refugee status.

It is possible to identify two major concerns running through all the findings: that the abiding poor quality of asylum decision making generates substantial and avoidable human and financial costs; and that the routine insensitivity and occasional callousness of the system exacerbate its essential dysfunctionality.

Both these concerns need to be addressed urgently.

In particular, the asylum process needs to get more decisions right first time. This means investing in the front end of the system by enabling applicants to put their cases clearly before the decision maker at the start of the claim, and ensuring that the decisions makers have the expertise and experience necessary to make truly sustainable decisions. In addition, a commitment to quality should be embedded in the system and monitored independently.

The suspicion, scepticism, incredulity and 'culture of disbelief' that pervades every level of the Home Office asylum decision making must be acknowledged and addressed by the Home Office, and replaced by the presumption that the benefit of the doubt applies to all claims, unless there are compelling reasons for refusing a claim.

Additionally, the interests of traumatised applicants must be safeguarded, in part by giving decision makers the flexibility to extend the time for determining a case where, for example, the referral for medical help or legal advice would lead to the claimant being in a better position to substantiate his or her claim.

This is particularly the case for those whose experience of persecution involved sexual violence, the details of which may be too traumatic or shaming to disclose to a Government official, without any appropriate support.

As the HASC recognises: "At a time when the criminal justice system is finally waking up to the needs of domestic and sexual violence, the asylum system should be doing the same."

Neither HASC nor the Refugee Council is calling everyone who claims asylum to be found a refugee, but everyone deserves the fullest examination of their case, with no pre-judgment.

Immigration officials make life or death decisions. They need to be in the best position to make that decision right first time.

Many of the report's findings reflect an accurate portrayal of a system in disarray, and make perceptive recommendations. Some of these at first glance may not seem terribly significant, but if followed, would have substantial positive impact on people's lives.

One such recommendation calls on the Home Office to allow pregnant and disabled asylum seekers to be screened in local offices rather than having to travel to Croydon to make their asylum claim.

We know that having very limited local screening processes has dire consequences. The report cites a shocking story of a heavily pregnant woman who was obliged by the Home Office's rigid policy to take an overnight bus from Scotland to Croydon to register her claim for asylum in person. As well as obviously being a terribly uncomfortable and costly journey, it was hugely and unnecessarily risky for mother and baby.

The woman ended up going into labour on the steps of the asylum screening unit in Croydon.

The Government should be ashamed that it has to be told by a parliamentary committee to consider the needs of pregnant women and to stop forcing them to move around the country like a piece of luggage for bureaucratic convenience.

Such practices are simple to change, and they must change now.

Broader recommendations on streamlining the support system for asylum seekers and improving the treatment of women within the system are also warmly welcomed.

Failing to treat asylum seekers with dignity and, simultaneously, failing to deal effectively and fairly with their claims has created an expensive and counter-productive bureaucratic nightmare that all too often denies vulnerable people the protection from persecution and oppression they desperately need.

The HASC report lays out a roadmap for change for the entire asylum system. We now need the Government to demonstrate the political will and leadership to use its recommendations as the basis for achieving an asylum system that is fair, efficient and commands public confidence.

Find out more about the Refugee Council's work here >>