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Nine problems with the asylum system that Priti Patel can’t blame on anyone else
Credit: Parliament TV

Nine problems with the asylum system that Priti Patel can’t blame on anyone else

Priti Patel has Been Very Clear that the problems in the asylum system are other people’s fault (including me and my “activist lawyer” colleagues) and that her Package Of New Measures will sort them out. But what do the government’s own experts think?

Well, yesterday the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration released a report called An Inspection of Asylum Casework. The Chief Inspector is a body set up by statute, whose stated purpose is “to help improve the efficiency, effectiveness and consistency of the Home Office’s border and immigration functions through unfettered, impartial and evidence-based inspection”.

If that sounds dry, yes it is. But let’s have a look and translate some of the highlights into ordinary English. What they show is that many of the most fundamental problems with the asylum system — and the potential solutions to them — lie within the Home Office.

1. Quantity over quality

The report found that the Home Office prioritises making large numbers of decisions over getting them right. (“DMs” are Home Office decision-makers.)

Through focus groups, interviews and the ICIBI survey, inspectors found that morale among DMs was low. DMs cited pressure to meet targets and a lack of career progression within the role as key contributors to this.

Notwithstanding progress and work completed around culture as a result of Wendy Williams’ Lessons Learned Review [commissioned following the Windrush scandal]… such as the introduction of ‘face behind the case’ training and ‘good news stories’ about refugees, there remained issues. Some DMs told inspectors they worked in an environment in which they felt quantity was more valuable than the quality of substantive interviews and the decisions they made, and that they did not have the time to consider the ‘face behind the case’.

Decision-makers themselves told inspectors that targets and time pressure were “negatively affecting their ability to assess asylum claims”:

Sometimes I need to remind myself I’m dealing with real human beings not only the cases and try to maintain empathy all the time. But the stats pressure is haunting us, sometimes we may forget that.

The focus at all meetings and from higher ups is always about targets, business needs and InSight goals. You are never praised on the quality of a decision but, you are rewarded on the quantity.

With all the pressure for stats and targets, I look at a case and see a refusal or a grant and how quick I can do the work, not the person. Too many times I have seen an Iranian KDPI or Bangladesh Awami League claim and thought “here’s the same story another refusal”.

2. Chronic delays

The average time taken to decide an asylum claim has risen to 15 months as of 2020. It is nearly 18 months for child asylum seekers, even though claims by children are supposed to be processed more quickly. To make things worse, the Home Office has abandoned any “service standards”, or target timeframes, for deciding claims.

The number of those awaiting a decision has increased year-on-year since 2010, reaching an alltime high of 52,935 as of 31 March 2021. The length of time that asylum claimants have to wait has also risen, with the average number of days increasing from 233 in 2017, to 351 in 2019, and 449 in 2020. For unaccompanied asylum seeking children, it peaked at 550 days for those who received a decision in 2020.

Asylum Operations (AO) removed its service standard, to decide 98% of “straightforward” cases within six months, in January 2019… The lack of service standards undermines the substantial stakeholder consultation undertaken by the Home Office and has exacerbated delays…

As at June 2021, there was no service standard in place.

3. Lack of training

Home Office decision-makers are inadequately trained for their (very difficult) task. Their morale is low because of the pressure they’re under and so they keep leaving, to be replaced by obviously less experienced (and also undertrained) people.

The Home Office has not found a solution to the longstanding issue of high levels of attrition among DMs… Many DMs told inspectors, either through the inspection survey or interviews, that the training did not adequately equip them with the skills to conduct a substantive interview or make decisions.

In the words of the decision-makers themselves:

There is no morale amongst DMs, we are exhausted, undervalued and overworked.

The workload is too much. No matter how diligently or hard we work, it is never enough! The job is way too stressful.

4. Culture of disbelief

Too many officials seem to start by disbelieving asylum applicants and use insensitive and confrontational questioning at interviews, preventing people from coming forward with very personal and potentially traumatic details of their cases.

There was evidence of DMs openly disbelieving claimants in interviews and not responding appropriately to sensitive disclosures of personal information…

The Home Office recognises in its guidance and training that confrontational or insensitive questioning within the substantive interview is not conducive to a full or accurate disclosure, yet inspectors found examples of both in case files they examined. However, there was also evidence of good practice, where DMs adhered to the guidance contained in Asylum Policy Instructions (APIs), were sensitive in their questioning, and followed up on safeguarding concerns with referrals.

Case study from the report

At times during the interview, the DM was not objective and seemed to openly disbelieve the claimant on certain aspects of his account. Rather than simple open and closed questions, the interviewer asked questions which seemed to be more of a veiled comment, with a value judgement, such as:

“I cannot accept that reason because there are many people that are from African tribes that have documentation, I do not understand why this was not possible for you”.

The DM asked an excessive number of questions to confirm the claimant’s nationality. A hostile questioning style was used when asking the claimant details about his tribe. There was repetition of the same question despite the claimant clearly being confused. The interview appeared confrontational in the way discrepancies were put to them, for example:

“I have asked you if you had a Sheikh in your area and you said no, so why are you now saying you did have a Sheikh in your area?”

And:

“You have literally just repeated the question that I have asked you so please can you help me understand what you did not understand about this question considering you repeated it to me twice?”

When the claimant is describing an occasion where he was blindfolded and detained, the DM makes assumptions about how he might have behaved:

“Surely being frightened gives more reason to ask why something is happening?”

There was further insensitive questioning about torture, where the interviewer offered no reassurance or acknowledgement that it might be difficult for the claimant to talk about, contrary to guidance… to “investigate allegations of torture or modern slavery or other forms of ill-treatment with appropriate sensitivity”.

5. Rubbish refusal letters

Refusals of asylum often get the law wrong, misunderstand the facts, don’t understand the proper basis of people’s claims and make unfair judgments of people’s truthfulness or the authenticity of documents they produce.

The most commonly identified issues with refusal letters (RFRLs) related to: establishing the material facts of the claim and differentiating them from insignificant details; appropriately assessing the credibility of the claim; applying the correct standard of proof; and assessing documentary evidence provided in support of the claim.

6. Stereotyping LGBT+ people

LGBT+ asylum seekers suffer particularly from a lack of training for decision-makers, a tendency to disbelieve their accounts and an embarrassingly clichéd view of what it means to be LGBT+.

Asylum claims based on sexual orientation were acknowledged by many staff to be complex in nature, and some DMs said that they had neither the confidence nor skills to investigate these claims. The issues DMs faced with establishing material facts were exacerbated when the validity of the claim was reliant on a personal account rather than grounded in documentary evidence, and, where evidence was given, it was said to be more likely to be deemed and dismissed as ‘self-serving’…

On the issue of ‘self-realisation’, one organisation supporting LGBTQI+ asylum seekers told inspectors that: “The Home Office continues to have an expectation that LGBTQI+ people make reference to key milestones or ‘trigger points’ in respect of their self-realisation. More recently, the Home Office has been finding claimants not credible because they failed to provide an account of an individual ‘emotional journey of self-realisation’. The expectation that LGBTQI+ people seeking asylum have undergone such journeys or gone through milestones is problematic as it is based on stereotypes”.

7. Ignorance of country conditions

Decision-makers have little idea of what is going on in the countries people have fled from and have inadequate and often inaccurate sources of evidence.

In response to the ICIBI survey of DMs, 97% (198) of respondents said they referred to CPINs [Country Policy and Information Notes] when they were drafting a decision. Despite this, some felt that the content of CPINs was often “contradictory” and expressed frustration that they were not available for every country. DMs also told inspectors that many CPINs were “quite old” and in some cases, “you have to look at the news” to get information about a country.

A manager in the Country Policy and Information Team (CPIT) told inspectors that they were in need of more “appropriate funding and oversight”, and more senior staff with analytical skills, which “the decision making process would benefit from overall”.

Inspectors have been pointing this out for some time:

ICIBI made a recommendation in 2016 in its inspection of country information, which was then reiterated in 2018, referring to the need for CPIT to be better resourced. Further, in ICIBI’s 2020 thematic report on country of origin information, ICIBI highlighted that the small and under resourced CPIT team, “points to an under-investment by the Home Office in COI. Given that the department is dealing with increasing numbers of asylum claims, this is neither sensible nor acceptable”.

Sometimes people try to come up with their own country information, with mixed results:

A legal representative said that they had noticed “a widespread problem” of “random and unstructured internet research by caseworkers”. They provided a number of examples, including one client’s decision letter, which “asserted that internal relocation to Lahore would be reasonable based on research carried out on a holiday and tourism website and an online directory of local businesses”, leading the DM to conclude the claimant would be able to find employment as a dairy farmer, mentioned in this directory, despite no previous experience in this type of work.

8. Inadequate quality control

The report found that the Home Office has inadequate targets for the quality of decisions and is failing to meet even these. Quality control measures, supposed to ensure wrong decisions aren’t made, are done inconsistently by undertrained staff. The HO has zero capacity to analyse or learn from them.

To help with understanding the extract below: DQ1 to DQ5 are scores given to asylum decisions by internal assessors. DQ1 is the highest/best score and DQ5 is the lowest/worst. 

The two methods of first line quality assurance employed by AO are Second Pair of Eyes (SPoE) and Calibre, a systematic quality assurance tool.

AO [Asylum Operations] was frequently hitting its target to “ensure random sampling of 3.5% decisions”, but not to “achieve a rating of DQ1 or DQ2 in 75% of agreed quality audit samples with no assessments being rated DQ4 or DQ5”. The latter target is unambitious given that to achieve it, one in four decisions would have to be rated as DQ3, meaning it contains “one or more” significant errors…

Multiple recommendations, including from internal assurance reports and the UNHCR, referenced the need for those conducting Calibre and SPoE assessments to have training. In June 2021, this was still work in progress.

SPoE: Inconsistencies

Inconsistent advice was frequently raised as a key issue… One DM said: “One tech[nical specialist] has looked at it and said it was fine, and another looked at it and they said it was the wrong decision; if they can’t decide what the right decision is, how am I supposed to?”

This sentiment was repeated in decision making units (DMUs) across the country…

9. Not learning from Windrush

The Home Office is still failing to implement one of the key recommendations of the Windrush Review, intended to ensure that asylum seekers are seen as people and not just files of paper.

Notwithstanding progress and work completed around culture as a result of Wendy Williams’ Lessons Learned Review… such as the introduction of ‘face behind the case’ training and ‘good news stories’ about refugees, there remained issues. Some DMs told inspectors they worked in an environment in which they felt quantity was more valuable than the quality of substantive interviews and the decisions they made, and that they did not have the time to consider the ‘face behind the case’.

Comments from DMs in their responses to the ICIBI survey and during focus groups strongly indicated that they felt under pressure due to targets, and that they were “instructed to focus on numbers, and not people”, contrary to what the messaging behind the ‘face behind the case’ training encourages.

Can the Home Office be redeemed?

This report shows that the Home Office is pretty much as dysfunctional as an organisation can be. Poor training and staff retention, poor management, poor performance monitoring, poor capacity to respond to prior criticism — all leading to terrible outcomes.

There’s nothing new here, of course. The report reflects many long-standing complaints of NGO and lawyers, and the Chief Inspector himself repeatedly referred back to previous inspections which made many of the same findings.  So what’s the underlying problem?

One reason that is politicians like to keep changing laws: it’s a process they feel they understand. It gets headlines about Crackdowns and Toughness and so on. They are often less interested in (and even more rarely good at) the dull but necessary task of administering the existing system smoothly.

Another is that an organisation undergoing huge cultural change requires leadership. The Home Office doesn’t get that. Arguably it never has, but it certainly isn’t getting it from Priti Patel, who’s more concerned with looking tough and blaming other people.

A third reason is that we are talking about asylum seekers. The government wants to make life tough for them. It thinks its voters want it, and probably many do. The government has the resources to reform things, but has no interest in doing so. Nor is anyone with any significant influence, for instance in the media, consistently pressuring it to, even after the Windrush scandal.

Lastly, the Home Office is probably beyond reform. The contradictions in having to uphold human rights laws whilst acting “tough” are probably too much for any organisation, certainly one as badly led as this. It should just be abolished.

Alasdair is a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, where he specialises in immigration and asylum law, particularly involving complex issues such as mental health and exclusion from refugee status. Before coming to the Bar, he was among the founders of the charity Asylum Aid, of which he was Co-ordinator from 1990 to 2002.