Joint Committee On Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


47.  Memorandum from the Refugee Council

INTRODUCTION

  1.  The Refugee Council welcomes this opportunity to contribute to the Joint Committee on Human Rights' consideration of the desirability for a Human Rights Commission to be established in the United Kingdom.

  2.  The Refugee Council is the largest organisation in the United Kingdom working with refugees and asylum seekers. We not only give help and support to asylum seekers and refugees, we also work with them to ensure their needs and concerns are addressed by decision-makers.

THE NEED FOR A HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION

  3.  The right to asylum—the right to be free from persecution—is a basic human right. This year, the Refugee Council celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees which, over the years, has helped to protect millions of ordinary people.

  4.  The Refugee Council, other refugee organisations and human rights groups, backed by a number of reports, have expressed concern that the human rights of asylum seekers and refugees are not being respected properly in the United Kingdom. The Joint Committee may be aware that criticisms about the voucher system and the lack of access to legal advice for asylum seekers, for example, have been made by the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Amnesty International and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ("Reception Standards for Asylum Seekers In the European Union", UNHCR, Geneva, July 2000).

  5.  It is not possible for established bodies, such as the Commission for Racial Equality, to address all the issues facing asylum seekers and refugees because of statutory or other limitations.

  6.  It is our view, therefore, that a Human Rights Commission, working closely with other bodies with special responsibilities for particular rights, would be a significant step towards fostering a human rights culture in the United Kingdom and, in defending the human rights of asylum seekers and refugees, would help protect the right to asylum from being undermined.

  7.  A Human Rights Commission could also fulfil an important role in monitoring and investigating the extent to which the human rights of asylum seekers and refugees are protected and advise government and Parliament of necessary reforms in law (existing and proposed), policy or procedures. It should also be able to take test cases and make interventions in cases where it is in the public interest that the law or actions be challenged or clarified.

  8.  For example, despite widespread criticism of the practice, the Home Office is currently rejecting a significant proportion of asylum applications on the grounds that the applicant did not complete (in full and in English) and return (within a rigid ten day deadline) a form outlining his or her asylum application prior to interview. These asylum applications, even if they are from countries which the Home Office accepts pose significant risks, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, are rejected without having their merits considered. Many applicants issued with such refusals appeal to the Immigration Appellate Authority at great expense and at further delay. A Human Rights Commission could investigate whether such a practice had the effect of abridging the human rights of asylum seekers and inform Parliament and the public of its findings and recommendations.

  9.  The Human Rights Commission may also wish to investigate the detention of asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are currently unable to challenge the lawfulness of their detention before a court and the many of those detained are in prisons, sometimes amongst convicted prisoners.

  10.  The Refugee Council believes creation of a Human Rights Commission would be particularly beneficial to efforts to promote public awareness and understanding of human rights issues, including our responsibility to protect the human rights of others. On this last point in particular, the Refugee Council is aware there exists hostility in the media and in many members of the public towards asylum seekers and refugees. Despite the fact that asylum has been high on the political agenda, much of this intolerance is based on ignorance of even the most basic facts.

  11.  For example, a Mori poll in the Reader's Digest magazine (November 2000) found that although a majority of respondents believed that refugees come to the UK because they regard is as a "soft touch", many based their views on incorrect assumptions on how much support asylum seekers receive. Respondents, on average, believed that asylum seekers receive £113 a week to meet their essential living needs. The real figure is £36.54 a week for a single adult.

  12.  The Joint Committee may also wish to examine recent reports by the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Council of Europe's European Commission against Racism and Intolerance. Both bodies criticised politicians for failing to educate public opinion on asylum issues.

  13.  It is likely that the people most in need of a body like the Human Rights Commission to help safeguard their human rights will also be those, such as asylum seekers, least able to access it due to a range of information and resource barriers. It is therefore essential that the Human Rights Commission be mandated to pay particular attention to the needs of such groups.

RESOURCES

  14.  It is necessary for the success of the Human Rights Commission that it is resourced fully to carry out its functions. We would expect it to be empowered to conduct investigations; to require people to provide information; to require people to cease conduct which the Commission considers to be unlawful; to conduct legal proceedings; to issue Codes of Practice; to conduct research; to engage in a range of activities designed to heighten awareness within their remits and other such activities deemed necessary.

SUMMARY

  15.  For the reasons outlined above, the Refugee Council welcomes the Joint Committee's consideration of this important question and believes there is an overwhelming argument for the establishment of a Human Rights Commission.

29 June 2001



 
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