Author: Kate Lyons
The Home Office has left some people waiting more than 20 years for decisions on their asylum claims, according to data obtained exclusively by the Guardian, in delays charities say are unacceptable and “utterly barbaric”.
Seventeen people received decisions from the Home Office last year on claims they had submitted more than 15 years ago, four of whom had waited more than 20 years for a decision. The worst case was a delay of 26 years and one month after the person initially applied for asylum.
The data, obtained under freedom of information rules, refers to the time the Home Office takes to make an initial decision on an asylum claim. It does not include any extra time taken for an appeal or fresh claim.
Asylum seekers are not allowed to work while they wait for a decision on their claim. They are provided with an allowance of £37.75 a week. There are reports of people forgoing meals in order to afford phone bills so they can communicate with their families in their home countries, being forced to travel everywhere on foot, including to meetings with solicitors and to charities, or going without winter clothing.
The Home Office provides accommodation, most often a room in a shared house with other asylum seekers, but lodgings have routinely been criticised for being of poor quality, having infestations of rats, mould and bedbugs and being located in the poorest parts of towns and cities. In a damning report last year, Yvette Cooper, the chair of the home affairs select committee, said asylum seekers’ housing conditions weredisgraceful.
“Forcing some people to wait more than 15 years for a decision on their asylum claim while banned from work and living below the poverty line is utterly barbaric,” said Stephen Hale, the chief executive of Refugee Action.
Of the decisions the Home Office made in 2017, 18,189 or 75% were taken within six months of application, 2,832 took between six months and a year, 3,059 between one and three years, and 243 between three and five years.
Of the 40 people who waited more than five years to receive an answer, seven were granted asylum or another protection visa, 22 were refused and 11 either withdrew their application, left the country, or died while waiting for a decision. They came from a range of countries, including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Somalia and Yemen.
“This is just the wait for an initial decision,” said Maurice Wren, the chief executive of the Refugee Council. “Many people must face a lengthy appeals process if their first claim is refused.”
Of the initial refusals that went to appeal last year, 35% were overturned by a judge. For some nationalities the rate of successful appeals was above 50% and for Yemenis the figure was 70%.
The Home Office has a six-month target for deciding on asylum claims it deems as “straightforward”. A report by the chief inspector of borders and immigration last year revealed, however, that almost half of the claims lodged were classified as “non-straightforward”, exempting them from the six-month target.
Hale said the long delays, and other failings of the asylum system caused “immense damage to people who come to this country seeking safety”.
“We spoke to refugees forced to wait years for a decision on their asylum claim,” he said. “Many were being treated for anxiety and depression, as they struggle to survive on little over £5 a day for prolonged periods of uncertainty. Prevented from working or studying, they feel hopeless, isolated and excluded.”
Wren said: “This is not a temporary admin problem, but the predictable outcome of a system that all too often gives little or no thought to the human consequences of its actions. “People’s lives are put on hold, forcing them to live in limbo and uncertainty.
“This is totally unacceptable. These figures underline the pressing need for a major overhaul of the way we treat people seeking refugee protection in the UK.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “UK Visa and Immigration aims to decide straightforward asylum claims within six months but there are some claims that raise complex issues and cannot be decided within six months for reasons outside of our control. We aim to decide these cases within 12 months.
“Asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute are provided with free, fully furnished accommodation. We also cover utility costs and provide a cash allowance to cover other essential living needs.”
‘The worst experience of my life’
Ana Asatiani, 29, left her home in a former USSR country she prefers not to name with her husband and daughter in 2013. She claimed asylum upon arrival at the airport, but waited five years for the Home Office’s decision.
“Waiting all that time was the worst experience in my life,” she said. “No one took responsibility to explain why there was such a delay in our case. They have not even apologised for making us live in a limbo for a total of five years.
“These years have affected me in many ways. I trained as a lawyer, but unable to work here, I feel my education is wasted. Waiting for an answer for five years destroyed my mental and physical health.”
Asatiani said her experience had caused her to doubt the UK, which she had always believed was a place where human rights were protected. “So much that I always think: thank you for accepting me to this country, but please don’t make my life worse than the one I had before, when I faced persecution in my country. I don’t understand [why] the immigration system of the government is so wrong,” she said.