December 2, 2021

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People seeking refuge in UK face ‘serious risk’ of injustice as Home Office plans more asylum outsourcing despite warnings

The Home Office has plans to bring in contractors to carry out asylum interviews and gather evidence for asylum claims (Stock)
The Home Office has plans to bring in contractors to carry out asylum interviews and gather evidence for asylum claims (Stock)

People seeking refuge in the UK face a “serious risk” of injustice as the Home Office plans to outsource another element of its immigration services, lawyers warn. 

The department says it has plans to bring in contractors to carry out asylum interviews and gather evidence for claims, which are used to determine whether applicants should be granted refugee status. 

But many of the firms in the running for this new contract – including G4S, Serco, and Sopra Steria – have been embroiled in previous scandals over handling of immigration services. 

Sopra Steria, which was contracted to run the UK’s visa processing system in 2018, was accused last year of overseeing a “substandard” operation that risked unlawful decisions and excluding people from the system because of “inflated prices and inaccessible services”. 

In 2017, nine G4S guards were suspended after they were filmed mocking and abusing detainees at Brook House removal centre, while Serco prompted outrage when it introduced lock changes in asylum accommodation in Glasgow in 2018.

In a letter to groups and charities working with asylum seekers on Tuesday, the acting head of asylum operations Dave Draper said the department was “scoping out and testing” the concept of using a third-party supplier to conduct asylum interviews and gather evidence, in a bid to “get the system moving again” following a suspension of the process during coronavirus.

One supplier will be selected for a pilot programme, which will involve carrying out real asylum interviews over a six to eight week period, to establish whether it would function as a longer-term service and to identify areas of improvement, said Mr Draper.

Several of the government’s strategic suppliers – which include Serco, G4S and Sopra Steria – have already confirmed that they have capacity to assist them, the letter states.

Refugee charities and lawyers said that while the current delays on asylum decisions needed to be urgently reduced, outsourcing the process to private companies – particularly those previously criticised for poor treatment of immigrants – was “hugely risky”.

Sonia Lenegan, legal director at the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association (ILPA), said the idea of private companies profiting from the asylum process was “completely abhorrent”.

“While the delays in asylum casework are concerning and do need to be addressed, the answer cannot be to outsource these processes,” she added.

“The Home Office has a very poor record when it comes to outsourcing immigration activities, from G4S and immigration removal centres to the ongoing problems experienced with UK Visa and Citizenship Application Services and the ability to access free appointments.”

Sonya Sceats, chief executive of Freedom from Torture, said the move was “alarming”, adding: “Asylum decisions often turn on what happens in the interview and there is a real risk of forcible return to torture if mistakes are made.

“Freedom from Torture’s report Beyond Belief shows that even experienced case workers can fail to spot signs of trauma and struggle to elicit difficult disclosures from survivors.

“Outsourcing such a sensitive process to a commercial provider and severing the link between the interview and the decision-maker is a dangerous move that could jeopardise the Home Office’s commitment to make the right decision first time and push more people into the appeal system.”

There is already concern about the way the Home Office conducts asylum interviews and processes decisions. Figures show that more than half of immigration and asylum appeals are now successful, with over 23,000 people seeing their refusals overturned after appealing decisions in the 12 months to March last year.

A report by Freedom from Torture earlier this year found that Home Office case workers had employed “poor questioning technique” and were “likely to default to disbelieving the survivor” during asylum interviews, with sensitivity and professional approach to claimants “not always maintained”.

Stephen Hale, chief executive of Refugee Action, said that while waiting times for decisions on asylum claims needed to be brought down “urgently”, outsourcing the process was “hugely risky”.

“The human cost of getting this wrong would be huge. The Home Office must ensure there are robust safeguards in place to ensure decisions are fair and effective,” he added.

Alasdair Mackenzie, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, said: “Interviewing people, who are often traumatised, about their asylum claims calls for great skill and sensitivity. Those are qualities which have all too often been lacking in firms to which the Home Office has outsourced its functions in the past.

“Inadequate or insensitive interviewing techniques can mean that important information doesn’t come out at the right time and can cause additional distress to already anxious and traumatised applicants. The risk of injustice from these proposals is serious and very concerning.”

The Home Office has been approached for comment.

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