Explainer: how does the UK decide who gets asylum?

“Oh, not that one. Surely?” Reuters

In recent days, accounts have emerged of asylum seekers in Middlesborough being targeted for abuse because of distinctive red doors on their accommodation, while a plan to have them wear red wristbands was hurriedly scrapped in Cardiff. Clearly, asylum seekers in the UK are still too often deeply stigmatised. And it seems that at least some of that stigma stems from misunderstandings of what asylum is and how they have won it.

When it was reported that Abdul Haroun, the Sudanese man who walked to the UK through the Channel Tunnel in summer 2015, had been granted asylum and released on bail, the responses from certain quarters entirely missed the point of what asylum is all about.

Eurotunnel’s spokesman said Haroun’s case would encourage others to follow his example, while UKIP’s defence spokesman described it as “reward[ing] him with the ultimate prize of… asylum”. But asylum is a right, not a “prize” or a privilege; claiming it is by definition a defence against criminal charges of entering a country illegally.

But what is true is that not everyone who applies for asylum gets it. Rates of acceptance vary dramatically between national groups. In 2014, 87% of Eritrean applicants, 86% of Syrians, 79% of Sudanese and 55% of Iranians got refugee status.

So how does the Home Office actually decide who gets asylum and who doesn’t?

Jumping the hurdles

The process begins with a long and often hostile asylum interview, during which adult applicants are usually without a legal representative and the interviewer decides what they believe.

Next, the authorities consider what’s called “country of origin evidence”. The Home Office has its own Country of Origin Information Service which compiles reports on the countries generating the most asylum applications. These quote (at length) from other reports such as the US State Department’s reports, fact-finding missions, UN materials, and organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and smaller organisations within the country in question.

The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration criticised the country of origin information reports in 2011 for failing to accurately reflect the country situation. It was also claimed that caseworkers used the reports “selectively or otherwise inappropriately in decision-making” giving rise to a “real risk of inaccurate decisions being made”.

Next, the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal can decide a country guideline case. Academics and others give expert evidence about countries of origin: whether a person’s language fits with being from a particular clan or country, the treatment of certain minority groups there, the chances of prosecution for blasphemy and so on.

Home Office case workers and tribunal judges must follow country guideline cases unless there are good reasons not to, such as some specific risk to the particular person or a change in home country conditions. The case law and country evidence are summarised in Operational Guidance Notes.

So the case of MM (Darfuris) Sudan tells us that all non-Arab Darfuris are at risk of persecution, while Coptic Christians in Egypt and Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan are at risk if they fulfil certain conditions. Iranians from the Bahai faith are at risk, too.

It’s not quite that simple. Reuters/Darren Staples

A person can still be a refugee even if they’re at risk from fellow citizens rather than state authorities, if the police and courts will not protect them. Women at risk of domestic violence may be refugees if they come from countries (like Pakistan) where the state refuses to take action. So the country evidence might be about the attitude of the police towards women or legal cases concerning honour killings.

On the other hand, a recent case, AA (Article 15c) Iraq, says that there is a serious risk of harm from indiscriminate violence in certain parts of Iraq. However, the case also says that most Iraqis can move to Baghdad for safety (called internal relocation), meaning they do not get asylum in the UK. One problem, of course, is that country guideline case law and background evidence do not change as quickly as conflicts do – especially when the events affect ordinary citizens rather than leaders or high profile figures. Sometimes that means the Home Office starts ignoring country guideline cases altogether.

A good example is what has happened to people applying for asylum from Eritrea.

Changing course

Eritrea’s country guideline case says it’s illegal to leave the country without an exit visa. All Eritreans aged 18 to 54 (men) and 47 (women) must do indefinite military service amounting to forced labour. To make sure they comply, exit visas are refused to anyone over seven years old; those who leave illegally are harshly punished.

That meant Eritreans were almost routinely granted asylum in the UK – at least, until March 2015, when the Home Office started relying on a report from the Danish Immigration Service (DIS) that claimed conditions in Eritrea were now much better, and that return was safe.

Suddenly Eritrean applicants in the UK started being refused asylum, largely on the basis that the Eritrean authorities had apparently said they (probably) wouldn’t torture or enslave anyone.

This report was discredited even before the Home Office started using it. The two researchers in whose name it was published resigned from the DIS in protest at what they described as pressure, distortion and over-simplification. The grant rate to Eritreans has now dropped to 39%. The number of asylum appeals rose to reflect that, with all the financial and human costs attached.

Far from a “prize”, asylum is a right. But even though it’s often a matter of life or death, the process is still obstructed by too many bureaucratic hurdles – and still relies on the ability to win over a Home Office apparently often disinclined to believe applicants.