Page last updated at 17:51 GMT, Monday, 27 October 2003

Asylum law plans attacked

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Online

Organisations which help asylum seekers have reacted angrily to the government's plans to make immigration laws tougher.

Among the measures in a consultation paper published on Monday are punishments for asylum seekers who have destroyed their passports, and plans to shorten the appeals process and restrict access to legal help.

Cameroonian Gabriel Nkwelle
Cameroonian Gabriel Nkwelle benefited from the appeal system
Amnesty International said doing away with one tier of the appeals process could lead to people being sent to their death in oppressive countries.

Refugee Affairs Director Jan Shaw said: "Further proposals to restrict appeals also risk jeopardising the lives of asylum-seekers who already suffer from poor initial decision-making and need safeguards against return to torture, imprisonment or even death.

"Rather than 'cracking down' on asylum seekers, the government should be working to make the decision-making process more reliable and the safeguards against hasty return more robust."

Amnesty said that during 2002, one in five initially-rejected asylum applications were won on appeal, meaning 14,000 people had had their cases judged wrongly.

It would also be wholly objectionable to criminalise people who have fled from countries where they face persecution
Alison Stanley
Immigration solicitor

Cameroonian opposition party activist Gabriel Nkwelle was one person who benefited from the asylum appeals system.

He told BBC News Online: "We the opposition managed to expose that the elections [in Cameroon] were not clear and fair. I was locked up in a police cell five times... we had to flee."


Mr Nkwelle - who was held in a number of detention centres in the UK - said he had had a number of court battles and been threatened with deportation over the course of three years before he eventually won refugee status.

"Changing the appeals procedure could undermine the rights of asylum seekers and it is going to be stressful. Changing it will not help," he said.

Immigration law expert Alison Stanley, of Bindmans solicitors in London, said the move to punish people for destroying their travel documents was illegal under article 31 of the 1951 convention on refugees.

She told BBC News Online: "It is against the terms of the refugee convention to impose sanctions on people if they enter illegally.

"It would also be wholly objectionable to criminalise people who have fled from countries where they face persecution and are unlikely to have proper documentation or have been told by people to get rid of it."

She said many cases were initially turned down because the Home Office said forms had not been filled in on time or appointments had been missed.

'Life and death'

But many of these later transpired to be the result of Home Office incompetence, Ms Stanley insisted.

She added: "If the Home Office made decisions in the first place that were upheld it wouldn't be of such concern that the government is once again tinkering with the asylum appeals procedure."

Rachel Watson, spokeswoman for Refugee Action, said it was important not to forget when considering "ill thought out legislation" that people's lives were at stake.

"We must not forget that asylum law is about offering protection to people who could have imprisoned, tortured or even killed.

"The reason why judges are allowing asylum applicants to proceed to higher courts is because they are aware of the gravity of decisions involved.

"These are literally matters of life and death."

video and audio news
The BBC's Daniel Sandford
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27 Oct 03 |  UK Politics

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