My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for securing this debate. The detention and treatment of asylum seekers is an area of major contention. Asylum and immigration are often treated as a single issue. It is important to distinguish between those who have a genuine motive for seeking asylum and those who simply want to enter Britain for emigration purposes. We have a duty to genuine asylum seekers but not to those who wish to enter Britain on dubious grounds.
Britain has a proud history of granting asylum to people fleeing persecution and violence, as a signatory of the 1951 Geneva Convention. In some circumstances, it may be difficult for an applicant to prove that they are a genuine case and a sophisticated system is needed to ensure that undeserving applicants who pose as vulnerable citizens are not granted asylum.
We should take pride in our status as a participant of the United Nations Convention against Torture. Reports have estimated that torture takes place in 132 countries around the world. Although I have the utmost compassion for victims of torture and persecution, it is essential to strike the right balance between accepting applicants and deporting applicants under the asylum procedure.
The situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo tells us that a change of government does not always lead to the end of violence. This implies that the international community has a duty to put pressure on the Governments of unstable countries to ensure that a change in regime delivers an end to the persecution of citizens.
More stringent checks should be carried out by immigration officers prior to making a decision to place a person in detention. Greater transparency in the process is a priority, especially as there is no maximum period of detention. This situation does not sit well with many asylum applicants and could be perceived as breaching Article 8.2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
It has been reported that the average length of stay in an immigration removal centre varies between 16 to 61 days. However, research produced earlier this year revealed a case of an asylum seeker who was detained in a centre for approximately eight years prior to deportation. There is a genuine risk that those held in detention centres for longer periods are more likely to abscond or enter illegal employment.
Britain and Denmark are the only European Union members who have chosen to opt out of the EU returns directive, which implements a time limit of 18 months for detaining individuals. This decision has not proven to be effective. The varied periods of detention reported to date reflect the failures inherent in the decision not to set a detention limit. Several other EU countries successfully deport applicants while adhering to the requirements of the ECHR. Will the Minister give due consideration to enforcing a maximum period of detention for asylum seekers and migrants?
It is not in the best interests of asylum seekers or our communities to detain citizens for such long periods of time. The average cost to the taxpayer for each individual held in a detention centre for a week is estimated to be £812. I welcome the decision to introduce fast-track and super-fast-track systems at Oakington, Harmondsworth and Yarl’s Wood for detainees where claims are decided within three to seven days. My only caveat is that the process for these accelerated applications should be subjected to thorough investigations, where the complexity of cases is taken into account prior to reaching a decision.
Centrally held data on detainees should also provide details of the number of asylum seekers in the criminal justice system. It is a shocking indictment of the current scheme that accurate data for the number of offenders without leave to remain in this country are not available. It is right that asylum seekers or immigrants who commit offences while awaiting decisions should be deported. We must not convey the message that we will give residency to those who show a flagrant disregard for our laws.
The mental health of asylum seekers must be taken into account when deciding on whether they are suitable for detention. Genuine asylum seekers, by their nature, have been subjected to sustained torture, violence and persecution. We therefore have a duty to ensure that if we decide to place applicants in detention centres, this does not compromise their mental and emotional health.
The British Medical Journal has reported that a majority of detainees who are held for long periods are more likely to acquire mental health problems and has also implied that lengthy detention can aggravate existing difficulties. In extreme cases, some detainees have engaged in self-harming or, in tragic circumstances, a number have committed suicide. These are wholly undesirable outcomes which serve as a reminder that we must honour our commitment to vulnerable citizens. It is also essential to provide staff in detention centres with adequate training as these establishments often house both asylum seekers and migrants. Can the Minister say whether this is implemented?
An effective border security system is the only way to prevent people from illegally entering Britain. Immigration benefits our country. However, it also places a strain on our population and resources. Economic migrants played an important part in developing a number of our industries, such as the National Health Service. Despite the socio-economic benefits of immigration, it is important for us to implement a system that is both prudent and fair.
It is clear that Britain was not prepared for the influx of citizens resulting from the 2004 enlargement of the European Union. It is only sensible that an annual limit is thus placed on the number of non-EU migrants. It is vital to enforce such restrictions as we consider the impact of the rising population on our infrastructure and local communities.
I have come across a few cases of people who have been granted asylum in Britain from countries which do not have a history of persecuting their citizens. I was particularly surprised by the details of a case I read as the grounds for asylum were, in my opinion, unfounded. This relates to a request for asylum from a Jamaican citizen. What are the grounds on which the application was approved?
It is worth stating that we have a duty to our citizens to grant asylum only to those in genuine need of sanctuary. Asylum and immigration share similarities in that they both require compromise and understanding from our citizens. It is crucial that governments do not abuse this responsibility.