Hostile Environment

For most refugees, seeking asylum is a long and slow process, robbing them of agency and forcing them to relive past trauma. Even the judges presiding over the system have had enough.

Words: Phoebe West
Illustration: Paul Willoughby

In the summer of 2019, a first-tier asylum tribunal hearing was held for a young man named Habtamu who had left Ethiopia alone, aged 14, to seek refuge in the UK. Nobody in the courtroom asked for details about what his interests were — his favourite band, what subjects he enjoyed at school, or what he hoped his life might look like when he grew up. Instead, they wanted to know about the scars on his body, what keeps him awake at night, and why his PTSD was the worst the doctor providing evidence on his case had ever seen.

“What a person says in their screening interview is used as a litmus test for the authenticity of their story thereafter. Any inconsistency is used as a way to disparage their credibility.”

In 2015, there were protests in Habtamu’s village in opposition to the government’s plans to extend the territory of Addis Ababa into the surrounding Oromia region. Despite being the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo have suffered a long history of exclusion and forced assimilation by the Ethiopian government, and its “master plan” sparked violent clashes with the Oromo people as they made their grievances heard. Being of Oromo ethnicity, Habtamu was accused of instigating a particular demonstration. He had not taken part, but as he was walking home he was rounded up by the authorities and taken to a building where he was detained and tortured.

Three days later, Habtamu was released. When the police came to his family home the following week, he made a plan to flee the country knowing that if he stayed, he and his family would be in danger and possibly killed. When he finally heard from them a year later, it was to receive news that his father and brother had been captured. At this, he described falling to the floor — the knowledge overcoming him.

Habtamu told his story from behind a table, hands in lap — visibly shaking when he reached for the plastic cup of water in front of him — identified by a fixed plaque marked “appellant”. To his right sat a barrister helping to fight his case, and on the left a representative from the Home Office attempting to refute it. Above them all sat Judge Draft, beneath the royal coat of arms and the words “dieu et mon droit” — “God and my right”, the motto of the British monarch. A clerk sat behind them completing a sudoku, her chair fixed to the beige wall, chewing the end of her pen between numbers.

Since the 1990s, UK governments have pursued ever more restrictive policies towards asylum seekers, refugees, and undocumented migrants, increasing barriers to entry as well as withdrawing entitlements to social rights in an attempt to disincentivise settlement. Since 2010, this has been achieved through a set of policies known as the “hostile environment”, which prevent people from accessing education, work, housing, benefits, bank accounts, healthcare and drivers’ licences. Such is the perceived threat posed by asylum seekers that policies in the UK seem designed less to protect their human rights and more to protect the public and the state from them.

When a person arrives in the UK and makes a claim for asylum, they must first attend a “screening interview” with the Home Office. After that, they’ll be asked to attend a “first reporting event” followed by an “asylum interview”. Based on those meetings, together with any documentary evidence they are able to provide, the government makes a decision on their legal status — either allowing them to stay in the country as a refugee (a status valid for five years) or ruling that they must leave as a rejected asylum seeker. The time between appointments, interviews and decisions can span many months, sometimes more than a year, and varies considerably. During this time, asylum seekers are not eligible for employment or benefits under UK law. Instead they must rely on successful applications for housing and a weekly allowance from the government of £37.75.

Habtamu’s initial claim for asylum was rejected by the Home Office, and he was now asking the courts to reconsider, three years after his first claim and four years after leaving his home. Of the claims made for asylum in Britain in the year ending September 2019, 48%, or 19,480 claims, resulted in a grant for protection (59% were offered asylum, 6% humanitarian protection, and 35% were offered alternative forms of leave and resettlement). In the same year, the proportion of asylum appeals allowed through tribunal court was 43%.

Initial decision-making in the UK Home Office has long been acknowledged to be a problem, explains Lou, the Director of an organisation in the South of England providing legal support to asylum seekers and refugees. “It has been a point of contention within the sector for a long time. I don’t dispute that it’s a difficult job: the targets are insane, morale and the work culture within the Home Office is appalling, turnover is really high. There’s a culture of disbelief, so people who are minded to take their jobs seriously and give due consideration and weight to people’s claims are almost actively discouraged from doing so.”

Imagine for a second that you are an asylum seeker — you have travelled away from everything you know, towards a place that will try to prevent you from entering — often having experienced things that are difficult to fathom. You don’t have a clear understanding of the asylum-seeking process (labyrinthine in form, the laws and regulations are shifting constantly) and your English-speaking skills are bare. You have a justified fear of authority, and PTSD makes recalling information extremely difficult. You are put in a room with a couple of strangers, a lot of dense paperwork in complex language, and told to “briefly” state your reasons for being there. Given how the interview is carried out, and the instructions which are provided to interviewees at the time, this is problematic, says Draft. “They are told to be really brief and stick to the bare bones of the story. It is a real contradiction”.

A lack of credibility is the most common reason for the Home Office to reject an asylum claim, but the Home Office goes out of its way to discredit asylum seekers’ evidence. What a person says in their screening interview is used as a litmus test for the authenticity of their story thereafter. Any inconsistency with that record is used as a way to disparage the credibility of the asylum seeker. “They have a sort of formula,” explains Draft, often quizzing appellants, not to elicit facts, “but so as to impugn them morally in some way.”

A harrowing story needs to be backed up with hard evidence, but providing proof of imprisonment or torture can be near impossible. “When someone has proof of being trafficked,” says Zoé, a lawyer with the organisation Safe Passage, which works to help unaccompanied child refugees access their legal rights, “I feel a sense of relief.” And yet, having tracked down such evidence, the Home Office will “find a way to be suspicious”, says Draft, often declaring evidence inadmissible for convenience.

“Since the 1990s, UK governments have pursued ever more restrictive policies toward asylum seekers, refugees and undocumented migrants, in an attempt to disincentivise settlement.”

Things are improving though, says Lou. For example, “Women are now not routinely expected to sit through their Home Office interviews and disclose details of rape and torture with their young children in the room, which used to be commonplace.” Rape will also now be considered torture in case law and in asylum appeals, which was not the case either when she started working in this area. “So those are small but important wins on principle.”

The 1951 Refugee Convention requires that to be granted asylum, a person be unable to return to their country of origin due to a “well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinions”. Country guidance reports are commissioned by the Home Office to provide information about the political landscape and realities of a particular country. If a person’s experience doesn’t match with the context on file, their case becomes immeasurably more difficult to prove.

Ethiopia’s country guidance report featured heavily in Habtamu’s case from both sides. The Home Office wanted certain information from 2007 disregarded; at more than a decade old they said it should no longer bear weight on the case, and that Habtamu’s detention, lasting only three days, placed him outside of the necessary risk category that would prevent his return home. His defence pointed out that the country guidance remained good, despite its age, and that the Home Office’s Country Policy and Information Note, Ethiopia: opposition to the government, October 2017, actually pointed to things getting worse for the Oromo in the intervening years.

In 2015, the UK government published new guidelines on Eritrea that were based heavily on a discredited report by the Danish government. A report commissioned by the Independent Advisory Group on Country of Origin Information (IAGCI) described it as “misleading and biased” and at odds with the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office reports on Eritrea. Despite clear evidence that the report should not be relied upon, the Home Office refused to accept the recommendations of IAGCI, resulting in a rate of 86% of appeals on refusals of Eritrean claims being overturned by the courts in the first quarter of 2016.

In spite of their clear fallibility, maintaining a narrative in keeping with country guidance is essential to proving the plausibility of a person’s story. Inconsistencies are a “no-no”, says Draft. The voices of “experts” are relied on heavily to bolster or undermine the trustworthiness of a claim. Without them, the testimonies of asylum seekers count for little.

“When someone has proof of being trafficked, I feel a sense of relief.”

As leaders the world over introduce draconian immigration policies and migrants continue to shoulder the blame for waning infrastructures, they face a growing challenge to be heard. In this moment, Covid-19 has seen the re-emergence of the nation state as supreme and hard borders enforced. Even in regions which previously promoted free movement, borders are now presented as an antidote to the global pandemic, making the challenge for asylum seekers harder still.

In the UK, migrants across the country are afraid to access healthcare for fear of unfair treatment, hidden fees and sharing of their personal data. Policies including “no recourse to public funds” and indefinite detention prevent thousands of people from realising their human rights as they struggle through a health crisis. While the government has temporarily adjusted some of its policies — halting evictions and emptying immigration removal centres across the country to protect the most vulnerable — it is a reminder of how urgently reform to these systems is needed, and how capable authorities and communities are of enacting it.

Habtamu’s appeal was finally accepted by Judge Draft. He now has refugee status in the UK. Legitimised in the eyes of the state, only now — almost five years after leaving his home — does he have the opportunity to put the past behind him and perhaps entertain aspirations beyond simply surviving. The engineered complexity of the hostile environment has stolen years of his life, only to obscure a fundamental truth: there is no such thing as an illegal or bogus asylum seeker — to apply for asylum is a human right.

(The names in this article have all been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.)

This is article is from Weapons of Reason’s eighth issue: Conflict.
Weapons of Reason is a publishing project by Human After All, to understand and articulate the global challenges shaping our world.

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