Page last updated at 09:23 GMT, Wednesday, 19 May 2010 10:23 UK

Asylum seekers 'guilty until proven innocent'

By Stuart Nicolson
BBC Scotland news wesbite

Rima Andmariam
Rima Andmariam could be deported to Italy if she cannot prove her age

In a classroom at Glasgow's Anniesland College, a group of teenage students are working together to solve a puzzle set for them by their teacher.

Their enthusiastic laughter does little to betray the fact that they have fled to Scotland from some of the most violent countries on earth.

Among them is Rima Andmariam, a Pentecostal Christian who fled persecution in the east African country of Eritrea.

She was later unofficially adopted by a Glasgow couple who found her sleeping rough on the streets.

But Rima's dreams of becoming a civil engineer in Scotland hang in the balance as the UK Border Agency believes she is older than she claims.

Unless she can prove she is only 17 - which would see her classified as an unaccompanied minor - during her appeal hearing next month, Rima faces being deported.


These are people who are seeking protection from persecution
John Wilkes
Scottish Refugee Council

She is one of three asylum seekers featured in a new documentary to be shown on BBC Scotland, which asks whether the tough stance taken on mass immigration by politicians is at the expense of the most vulnerable people who have fled here to seek safety.

Rima's journey from Eritrea to Europe followed a similar route to that followed by thousands of other Africans.

Landing in Italy in July 2007, she was detained in a squalid refugee camp before managing to make her way to Calais in northern France, from where she was smuggled to Britain.

After a period of sleeping rough in Glasgow, she was taken in by Professor Alison Phipps and husband Robert Swinfen, but her future remains uncertain at best.

If she loses her appeal she is likely to be removed to Italy, as it was the first EU country to receive an asylum application from her.

Prof Phipps told the Truth, Lies and Asylum Seekers documentary that proving Rima's age will be almost impossible given the huge problems in Eritrea, where 30 years of conflict have almost completely destroyed the country's infrastructure.

Major concern

But the attitude of the authorities is often that asylum seekers are "guilty until proven innocent", Prof Phipps claimed.

She said Rima was trapped in an "impossible maze of bureaucratic complexity that defies understanding and defies logic, and is fraught with internal contradictions".

Prof Phipps added: "It is already unusual to have lost one set of parents in the way that Rima has experienced, but to be in a situation where you risk this again - we are terribly frightened about what can happen in the future and really it is just unspeakable the suffering that this is causing for her and for our family."

Library pic of African emigrants on boat
Rima followed a similar route to Europe as thousands of other Africans

Opinion polls suggest immigration remains a major concern for the public, with much of the controversy centred on bogus asylum seekers.

But the number of people claiming asylum in the UK has actually dropped in the past decade - as has the percentage of those applicants who are allowed to stay.

John Wilkes, chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, told the programme that asylum was often confused with the wider issues of migration and immigration.

He added: "What we are battling against all the time is to say that people who seek asylum are one part of that whole picture, and a very particular part - these are people who are seeking protection from persecution."

'Culture of disbelief'

The tactics of the UK Border Agency, which processes asylum applications, are criticised by some contributors to the programme, as is the policy of withholding benefits from failed asylum seekers, who are also prohibited from working.

The mental strain on those going through the asylum process is also highlighted in the wake of three members of a Russian family leaping to their deaths from the 15th floor of one of Glasgow's Red Road flats, where thousands of asylum seekers have been housed over the past decade.

Among the other stories featured in the documentary is that of Saeed Baghlani, who faces deportation to Afghanistan - because the authorities do not believe he is originally from there, as he claims.

Saeed Baghlani
The authorities do not believe that Saeed Baghlani is from Afghanistan

While 41-year-old Helen Bih, who fled Cameroon 18 months ago after claiming to have suffered horrific torture and sexual abuse, is shown struggling to have her case for asylum accepted.

The experience of all three asylum seekers, and others like them, points to a institutional "culture of disbelief" on the part of the authorities, according to Norma McKinnon of Medical Foundation Scotland, which helps victims of torture.

The UK Border Agency declined to take part in the programme.

But Sir Andrew Green, chairman of the Migration Watch pressure group, insisted the system in the UK was, if anything, too soft.

Sir Andrew said: "There is no question that a substantial number of [asylum seekers] are simply trying it on.

"If you come to Britain and claim asylum you have an almost 80% chance of staying, more often that not illegally - it is the failure to remove that is the real weakness of the system, and which encourages false claims.

"I don't think you can seriously claim we are too tough. I think it is clear that the dice are not loaded against an applicant. If anything it is loaded the other way."

Truth, Lies and Asylum Seekers will be broadcast on BBC One Scotland at 2245 BST on Wednesday 19 May and will also be available on the BBC iplayer.



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