Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Public Order (Amendment) Bill

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Therefore, unless any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.

Moved, That the order of commitment be discharged.--(Lord Dormand of Easington.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

16 Oct 1996 : Column 1690

Then, Standing Order 44 having been dispensed with (pursuant to Resolution of 15th October), Bill read a third time, and passed.

Asylum Applications: Designated Countries

3.23 p.m.

Lord Avebury rose to move to resolve, That this House deplores Her Majesty's Government's proposal to designate certain countries as subject to fast track appeals against refusal of asylum applications.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the new asylum order contains a list of countries in which, according to the Government,


    "there is in general no serious risk of persecution",
and which are therefore being designated as subject to the fast-track appeals procedure. That means that we are dividing states into two groups according to whether or not they are designated. In the larger group of countries which are not being designated it is to be inferred that there is in general a serious risk of persecution. But the idea of distinguishing between countries of that kind and countries of the kind that we are dealing with this afternoon is objectionable in principle and may also be unlawful, as I shall attempt to show.

The Government claim that up to the point at which a decision is made on an asylum application, the treatment of the applicant will be the same whether or not he is from one of the countries on the list. But nobody has the slightest doubt that by designating those countries as generally safe the idea is put into the minds of the officials who have to deal with the applications that the persons from those countries must be essentially bogus applicants. They will be influenced subconsciously by the very existence of the list.

Once a decision has been made and the applicant has lodged an appeal, a mere 10 days are allowed for the whole process of appeal: serving the papers; listing the appeal for hearing; and the decision by the appellate authorities. I submit that such a lightning process is manifestly unfair when complex issues relating to events in distant lands may arise and the refusal may need to be challenged on grounds which require communication with persons or organisations in the country of origin.

That is not to say that we argue for the prolongation of appeals. They should only take the time that they need. The Peat Marwick study showed that the real split was between "without foundation" cases and substantive appeals. The range was from 10 to 78 days in "without foundation" cases compared with 18 to 175 days in cases of substantive appeals. There may be some cases from the seven countries about which we are now talking that could be disposed of in 10 days without unfairness to the applicant. But it is wrong in principle to say that all applicants from certain countries will be afforded lesser rights of appeal.

16 Oct 1996 : Column 1691

In the UNHCR Executive Committee decision No. 8(XXVIII), Determination of Refugee Status, it was laid down in paragraph (vi) that:


    "if the applicant is not recognised, he should be given a reasonable time to appeal for a formal reconsideration of the decision".
The UK has complied with that decision and the appeal system is a necessary consequence of our adherence to the convention. Therefore, any discrimination with regard to the rights of appeal is a breach of Article 3, which says that:


    "The Contracting States shall apply the provisions of this Convention to refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin".

I noted the remarks made by the Minister in another place yesterday evening about my honourable friend's analysis of this provision. The Minister made the point in reply to my honourable friend that he had made an amazing blunder, because the article (which I quoted) refers to refugees and not to asylum seekers. If I may say so, it was the Minister who made an amazing blunder because she did not apparently understand that an asylum seeker can be a refugee, as the Court of Appeal found in the case of Alimas Khaboka v. Home Secretary (1993, IMM AR484).

Let me refer to that case briefly. It was found that the approach adopted by the Secretary of State must be substantially the same in all cases of applications for asylum. The applicant in that case submitted that he was a refugee both before and after his claim for asylum as such had been considered and accepted. In his judgment the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, referred to the UNHCR Handbook, which he quoted as follows:


    "A person is a refugee within the meaning of the ... Convention as soon as he fulfils the criteria contained in the definition. This would necessarily occur prior to the time at which his refugee status is formally determined. Recognition of his refugee status does not therefore make him a refugee but declares him to be one. He does not become a refugee because of recognition, but is recognised because he is a refugee".
So the term "refugee" includes someone who is only subsequently established as being a refugee. It follows that until an appeal is determined he has to be treated as though he were in fact a refugee.

The selection of the seven countries in the list was obviously intended to deter frivolous applications from countries which generate large numbers of applications. That was the reason, I remind your Lordships, why Nigeria was on the original list floated by the Home Office, with 5,800 applicants in 1995--far more than any other country. It was only when there was a public outcry that Nigeria was removed from the provisional list. The countries that remain, however, though not perhaps in the same league of human rights violators, are by no means without fault, as I hope we shall see this afternoon.

I shall refer solely to the case of Bulgaria, hoping that other noble Lords may deal with some of the other countries on the list. It is painful to me to have to record that Bulgaria, itself a victim of the Zaptiehs and Mudirs of the Ottoman oppression, chronicled unforgettably by Mr. Gladstone in The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East, should now have become the oppressor in terms of its own minorities, set against a background of human rights abuses in general.

16 Oct 1996 : Column 1692

The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights lists a number of areas of concern in Bulgaria: lack of independence of the judiciary and the inadequate judicial system; denial of fair trial and the violation of the rights of persons detained; ill treatment by the police; absence of freedom of expression, of assembly and of association; attacks on freedom of religion; lack of protection for minorities; the death penalty; and bad prison conditions. The IHF discusses in some detail the restrictions on the media and the ways in which the government enforce them. Strict control is exercised over state radio and television. When, last November, 34 journalists from the most popular radio station protested against interference with programme content, the deputy director, who was accused of instigating the protest, was fired. Later, seven other signatories were also dismissed. There is a law of criminal libel in Bulgaria which has been invoked against journalists for criticising public officials; and the state exercises indirect control over newspapers through its monopoly of newsprint.

The Home Office country assessment on Bulgaria is an interesting document. It reproduces large chunks of the US State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 1995, and in the case of freedom of speech and the press lifts six paragraphs verbatim, with no acknowledgement to the US State Department. The State Department reports are an excellent starting point, but if the Home Office is to publish material of that kind, it might consider looking at other sources as well. Amnesty International, for instance, has expressed deep concern about the use of Article 148(1) of the Penal Code, which provides special protection for public officials against alleged defamation, to prosecute journalists. The Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN also raised the case of the most recent victims of that law in its case list for the first half of 1996.

On freedom of religion, the Home Office again plagiarises the State Department report, making one minor syntactical alteration to the first sentence and leaving out three paragraphs dealing with specific examples of religious discrimination. Among those are the exclusion of all but Orthodox students from the Department of Theology at Sofia University, the confirmation by the Council of Ministers of the refusal to register certain religious groups and the charge that the police break up the meetings of the groups which have been denied registration.

The Home Office note once more lifts the text of the State Department report verbatim in its sections dealing with religious and national minorities. Here, though mention is made of each of the main minorities, the problems that they face are not fully covered. The refusal of identity papers to ethnic Turks who left Bulgaria at the height of their persecution under the communists and have now returned is not mentioned; neither is the authorities' appointment of Nedim Gendjev, formerly the chosen leader of the Moslems under the communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, to be chairman of the Moslem Supreme Religious Council and their discrimination against the anti-Gendjev faction.

16 Oct 1996 : Column 1693

The Home Office mentions the authorities' refusal to recognise the Macedonian minority, in spite of the 1992 census having recorded 7,000 people identifying themselves as Macedonians. A much better treatment of this subject, if I may say so, and of minorities in Bulgaria generally is to be found in the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board's paper, Bulgaria: Ethnic Minorities, published in 1995. If the Home Office policy is, as it appears to be, to plagiarise other people's work, it should certainly take a look at the Canadian research. It is readable, thorough and well referenced, whereas the Home Office briefs do not contain a single reference--that applies not only to Bulgaria but to other countries as well.

Perhaps I may suggest--I should like an answer from the Minister when she replies--that we ask the Canadians, the Americans and any other allies who have been making their own countries' assessments whether we could have some more formal arrangements between us to produce common assessments, even on a more frequent basis, by pooling our research and information capacities and producing one document which will be used uniformly throughout all the countries so as to improve the uniformity of treatment of asylum applications.

Bulgaria has not signed the Council of Europe's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and, as the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee says in its report, Human Rights in Bulgaria 1995, the generally low level of standards for the protection of ethnic minorities fell even further in 1995. Paradoxically, the end of communism and the partial restoration of freedom of expression led to the open expression of hatred and violence against minorities, and particularly the Roma. Neo-Nazis targeted gypsies as well as foreigners and law enforcement officers either took no action over racist assaults or in some cases actually sided with the attackers. Quite a few examples are given in the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee's report; and in the Human Rights Watch/Helsinki report, Police Violence and Arbitrary Confinement, descriptions are given of gratuitous attacks on Roma children by racist policemen.

The latter report also describes the so-called "Labour Education Schools" in Bulgaria, which are essentially penal institutions where children as young as eight are compulsorily detained by administrative procedures for minor offences or because someone has assessed them as being uncontrollable. Half the children in those establishments are Roma, though only 4 per cent. of the population were identified as belonging to that group in the 1992 census. The State Department, and hence the Home Office which copied it word for word, ignore all problems relating to children's rights and those of Roma children in particular.

It is estimated that there are between 12,000 and 14,000 street children between the ages of eight and 17 in Bulgaria, most of them Roma. There are reports of severe police brutality against those children, both physical and sexual. The police make no secret of their racist hostility towards Roma children.

16 Oct 1996 : Column 1694

The Bulgarian Government's violations of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and their treatment of Roma children in particular should have been known to the Home Office, even though the Bulgarian authorities have done their best to prevent human rights observers investigating those matters. Human Rights Watch expresses,


    "deep concern over the lack of openness and co-operation demonstrated by governmental authorities towards external attempts to monitor conditions",
while Amnesty International, in its latest report, Bulgaria: Shootings, deaths in custody, torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement officers, complains of the authorities' refusal to provide copies of the prosecutors' decisions or autopsy reports. Yet there is plenty of evidence from unofficial sources and Amnesty, like every other investigating agency, finds that many of the victims are Roma.

The list of ethnic, religious, political and human rights groups, some of whose members may suffer well-founded fears of persecution in Bulgaria, is long. Few of them may reach our shores, but that does not mean that when they do we should treat them less favourably than asylum seekers from most other countries. They are entitled to exactly the same rights as the citizens of other countries, both on first consideration and at the stage of appeals against refusal.

There are other ways of speeding up the process of asylum without breaking our obligations under the convention, many of which are detailed in the Peat Marwick report, which would apply to all asylum seekers, and some of those are being implemented already. The reduction in the number of applications this year should also allow the appellate authorities to catch up with the backlog. We may not be able to prevent the implementation of two-tier appeals this afternoon, but we can demonstrate the absence of both principle and necessity in the proposal before your Lordships. Not a single bogus asylum seeker would be allowed in as a result of retaining the single-tier appeal system; but some genuine applicants are likely to fail because of the additional hurdle they will now have to jump. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House deplores Her Majesty's Government's proposal to designate certain countries as subject to fast-track appeals against refusal of asylum applications.--(Lord Avebury.)

3.36 p.m.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, many of your Lordships who sat patiently throughout the long and extensive stages of this Bill will be amazed, as I am, that it has come back yet again after the endless files and papers had been neatly put away before the Recess. I find the Motion extraordinary as, in Committee stage during what I was told was one of the longest debates held recently in this Chamber, Parliament gave its view and voted. The part of the Bill concerning the fast-track system, Clause 1, was agreed by the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee. It agreed also that it could be dealt with by the affirmative procedure.

16 Oct 1996 : Column 1695

Once again we have a Motion that may look appealing to some at first reading, yet, like so many other parts of the Bill, has been misunderstood. Like the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, I should like to say a few words about Bulgaria, one of the designated countries of destination. It is covered by the Motion:


    "That this House deplores Her Majesty's Government's proposal to designate certain countries as subject to fast-track appeals against refusal of asylum applications".
The Motion does not relate to any other part of the Bill. I single out Bulgaria as it is one of the countries of which I have a small knowledge. But I am afraid I take a totally different line to that of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall--a time when eastern and central Europe were full of dreams and hopes of a free and democratic future--life alas has been very difficult. The challenge of the transition from a command economy to a market economy was not as simple as was envisaged. It was, despite the difficulties, a relatively peaceful transition. But the people of Bulgaria have suffered and are still suffering tremendous hardships. Having been a prosperous, fertile country before the communists, it is today a country, after two years of socialist government, suffering tremendous poverty. It is not fulfilling the IMF agreements and will probably need humanitarian aid this winter. Even though recently a past Prime Minister, the socialist MP Andrei Lukanov, was murdered, political murders are not unknown. Nor are they any reason to take Bulgaria off the list. We all remember President Kennedy's assassination, yet naturally America would not warrant similar treatment. Here I have to disagree yet again with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. Bulgaria has held free and democratic elections and is preparing at this moment for the next presidential elections on 27th October. It has a new democratic constitution, democratic institutions and an independent judiciary. This is not a country where there is a serious risk of persecution. Economic hardship yes, but not persecution.

We should not forget that Bulgaria is an applicant country to the European Union. It also has the European agreement on trade. Bulgaria is party to the 1951 United Nations convention, a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights and a member of the Council of Europe. That this Motion should propose taking Bulgaria off the designated list is ludicrous.

Designation does not amount to a blanket ban on applications from designated countries. We should not forget that all claims will continue to be considered on their individual merits. Applicants will continue to have an in-country right of appeal before removal to their country of origin. Designation is simply about speeding up the processing of the appeals of large numbers of applicants from countries that are considered to be generally safe.

Since the Bill has passed, the fall in the number of applications has been substantial. We are no longer seen as the soft touch in Europe. It is surely right that Britain should remain a sanctuary for people fleeing persecution--a safe haven but not a soft touch. That is

16 Oct 1996 : Column 1696

heartening as we want to see genuine asylum seekers helped as quickly as possible. I oppose the Motion and urge your Lordships to do likewise.

3.42 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon: My Lords, I wish to take issue very gently with the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings. My understanding of this afternoon's debate is not that we are rehearsing arguments which we rehearsed during the debates on the Asylum and Immigration Bill but that we are taking issue with the Government over the designation of certain countries on the so-called white list, the list of countries which are believed secure. I wish to speak about Pakistan, a country with which I have some personal links. My earliest memories are of what was then northern India. One of the markets in the great city of Lahore bears the name of my grandfather. Every time I meet anyone from that city I ask whether the market still goes by that name and I am assured that it does--Tollinton market.

I want to use as the basis of what I am going to say about Pakistan the assessment which has been produced by the Asylum Directorate. This information is intended as a background for those concerned with the asylum determination process. The assessment states that in 1995 there were 1,675 determinations, of which only 25 received exceptional leave to remain and only 10 were granted refugee status. Presumably it is on the basis of those very small numbers that the Government have decided that it is a secure country--since the vast majority of determinations did not give either refugee status or exceptional leave. But it is worth looking for a moment at the groups from whom asylum seekers come.

According to the Asylum Directorate document, since the return to power of Benazir Bhutto's government the majority of asylum applications have been from people claiming to be Ahmadis--I shall have a little to say about them in a moment--and there have also been a number of applications from members of the Mohajir Quami Movement (the MQM), which may be roughly translated as the national movement for refugees. There is a constant trickle of applications from members of Sindhi nationalist groups, Christians and Pakistanis who claim to have been persecuted because of their sex or sexual orientation.

Interestingly enough, the final sentence in the paragraph points out that applications from the Pakistan People's Party, the party now in power in Pakistan, have virtually disappeared. That does not seem to me to make out the case that the vast majority of applicants from Pakistan are economic migrants. If that were the case, why do they all come from groups which claim to be under threat? Why, since the PPP came to power, have applications from that group virtually vanished? This surely indicates that people come to this country to claim asylum not because they are looking for a better standard of living but because they believe themselves, rightly or wrongly, to be under threat in their own countries. I cannot answer the question why they are not granted either refugee status or exceptional leave to remain. It may well be that the threat is to the group rather than to a particular individual and they have not made out their case for being treated as refugees with a

16 Oct 1996 : Column 1697

threat of individual persecution. But I believe that there is need for research into the background of those who apply for asylum in this country.

We have for a long time been debating whether those who apply are coming through genuine fear and a feeling of genuine threat or because they are seeking a better way of life. We do not know the answer to that question and as far as I am aware there has been no research which would enable us to determine it. Research has been undertaken by the Home Office on those whose applications have been accepted. The research shows that those who were granted refugee status came broadly from professional classes. They were articulate and they were normally in opposition to governments, as indeed one would expect from people of that background. These people bring considerable benefit to this country, but I am not aware of any research into the background of those who apply generally. I would invite the Government to initiate research into the background of all applicants so that once and for all we can have some basis of fact on which to determine whether the language of bogus and economic migrants is true or whether, as some of us claim, people come to seek asylum because they are in genuine fear.

The MQM is a group whose core membership is made up of those who came from the present country of India during the 1947 conflict and found themselves in Sindh among an indigenous population. There has developed over the decades a conflict between these two groups. The Home Office assessment of what is happening in the area reads as follows:


    "over the last eighteen months there has been extreme violence in Karachi and elsewhere in Sindh. The main reason for the violence is the confrontation between the MQM and the government, but ethnic and sectarian violence is also a feature. Elsewhere in Pakistan, there have been incidents of sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni Muslims (and on occasions between Muslims, Ahmadis and Christians). There have been several bomb explosions in Pakistan over the last year".

I draw attention to the words "extreme violence in Karachi and elsewhere in Sindh". That is borne out by a report of the US Department of State dated March 1996 which gives details of the violence. It states:


    "The number of extrajudicial killings, often in the form of deaths in police custody or staged encounters in which the police or paramilitary forces shoot and kill the suspects, increased in 1995. Most such killings occurred in Sindh province in clashes between the Government and factions of the MQM. In trying to restore order in Karachi, the Government regularly used excessive force, including torture and alleged encounter killings, against MQM activists. The rate of politically motivated murders in Karachi reached an average of 10 per day in July; by the year's end, over 1,800 people had been killed".
That bears out what the Home Office says about the extreme violence in Karachi.

The point is also borne out by what Amnesty International has said although its emphasis is slightly different. Its document of February 1996 stated:


    "While law enforcement personnel appear to be responsible for some of these human rights violations, there is strong evidence that armed opposition groups have also perpetrated torture, hostage-taking and killings in Karachi".

16 Oct 1996 : Column 1698

Amnesty International is concerned that the Government do not seem sufficiently strong in terms of stamping out those human rights abuses. So the situation in that part of Pakistan hardly seems to bear out the contention that it is a safe and secure country.

I turn to two other groups among which asylum seekers are found. The first is the Christian group. The Home Office document claims that certain minority groups are under threat, among which are Christians. There is no strong or government-led opposition to Christians, but as individuals they nevertheless suffer some persecution, particularly because of the blasphemy laws. Those laws mean that those who apparently blaspheme against the name of Mohammed are subject to the death penalty. Christians do not believe that the prophet Mohammed was the final prophet and their faith would require them to say so. Two Christians, Salamat and Rehmat Masih, were found guilty in the Lahore sessions court of blasphemy and were sentenced to death. That case received a high profile in the international press and the Lahore high court acquitted them of blasphemy when it found that insufficient evidence for conviction was presented. However, another Christian, Anwar Yaqub Masih, arrested in 1993 on the same charge, has already served two years in the Faisalabad district prison awaiting the conclusion of his trial. As far as I know, he remains in prison to this moment.

Therefore, although not government-directed, there are persecutions against Christians, but more particularly such persecution is directed against Ahmadis. They are a group who claim to be Moslem but because they do not believe that Mohammed was the final prophet, that claim is not accepted by other Moslems or by the government of Pakistan. The Home Office document says that that group is recognised as a minority religious group. That is entirely right, but that is precisely the point. The Ahmadis do not believe themselves to be a minority religious group. They believe themselves to be part of the majority Moslem movement.

The Home Office document goes on to say that applications for asylum from Ahmadis are given "very careful scrutiny". It was that phrase that gave me pause for thought. If, indeed, it is the case that the advice from the Asylum Directorate is that applications for asylum from Ahmadis are given "very careful scrutiny" and if it is also the case that a large proportion of asylum applications come from people claiming to be Ahmadis, how is it that the country can be designated as "secure and safe"? How is it that a fast-track approach can be designated for those people when, by the admission of the Home Office, their cases have to be given special scrutiny?

It seems to me that the Home Office document itself makes out the case that Pakistan is not a secure country. That is apparently reinforced by the view of the Foreign Office. There is a report of correspondence between the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary on this matter expressing the view of the Foreign Office that the situation of the Ahmadis does not warrant the country of Pakistan being placed on the secure white list. Whatever view may be taken of the existence of the

16 Oct 1996 : Column 1699

white list, I hope that I have said enough to show that the placing of Pakistan on that list is based on insecure evidence. If the Government were to say that the rest of that country were secure and settled, the answer surely is that the applications are not coming from the rest of the country. They are coming precisely from those communities and parts of the country where there has been shown to be unrest and violence. I believe that to be a very insecure determination. I hope that the Government will reconsider their decision to include Pakistan on that list.

3.56 p.m.

Lord Bethell: My Lords, this is a very sensitive issue and it is a pity that your Lordships seem so divided on it. I would assume that on the general issue before us we are very much in agreement. We all accept, I presume, that this country has a tradition of offering a haven to the politically persecuted and we would want that to continue.

We are proud of our role as the people who gave sanctuary to refugees from France, to the Huguenots and others who came here at the end of the 18th century. We are proud of our history and of the sanctuary that we gave to the Jewish refugees from Hitlerism in the 1930s. A quarter of a million refugees were allowed into this country then, the same number as were allowed into the United States of America, which is much larger. We are proud of the help that we gave to the Polish nation at the beginning of the 1940s and in 1945 when Prime Minister Churchill decided that no Pole should be forced to return to Poland, which had fallen under Communist rule. We are less proud, I suggest, of our role in 1945 when very large numbers of Russians in this country were forced to return to the Soviet Union and were subjected to horrific treatment by Stalin's government.

However, while bound by our international obligations, we are also cognisant of the fact that we have only limited resources. I am touched by the observation of the Home Office that its staff who are bound to deal with applications for political asylum have increased eightfold since 1988. Of course, that does not mean that we have any excuse for going back on our international obligations, but I believe that we should look carefully at how we consider such cases.

My noble friend Lady Rawlings spoke about Bulgaria. I should like to concentrate on Poland, a country that I have visited many times and about which I have a certain amount of knowledge. However, before turning to Poland, I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister can clarify a question about Cyprus. It seems strange to find Cyprus on the list and being designated as a member. I wonder whether Cyprus as a whole has been included, whether the Turkish-occupied part of Cyprus is to be included on the proposed white list or whether such inclusion relates only to the territory held by the forces of the Republic of Cyprus. May we have a little more information about the inclusion of Cyprus on that list?

As far as concerns Poland, I believe it is right that that country should be on the list. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, would agree with that, were

16 Oct 1996 : Column 1700

it not for the fact that he objects to the whole principle of the white list. I am glad to see that the noble Lord nods his head.

Since the disappearance of the communist government in 1989, there have been many great achievements in human rights in Poland. Poland had a bad human rights record under the communist government, although it was not as bad as that in some other communist countries. However, I suggest that since 1989 Poland, while not perfect--no country is in this regard--has had a record far better than most in Europe. Yet in 1995, 1,210 people applied for political asylum. None has been accepted. I conclude that this is because a number of Polish people have tried to use this route to enter the United Kingdom and circumvent the immigration rules.

The history of the Home Office and Polish entrants into this country has had its ups and downs in recent years. It will be remembered that until 1992 Poland alone among the new central European democracies required its citizens to have visas before they could come to the United Kingdom. For some strange reason, Poland is still excluded from the au pair system, whereas citizens of Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and other countries have access to that system.

It is thought that the Poles are more than usually likely to try to circumvent the immigration restrictions and enter this country through the back-door. The fact that 1,210 Poles applied for political asylum in 1995 lends credence to that belief. It indicates that large numbers of Poles want to come to this country, perhaps because there is already a large Polish community here and there are strong links between Poland and this country.

I wish that more Poles could come and live in this country. A large number of British people of Polish origin return to Poland and take advantage of the improved conditions in the land of their ancestors because of economic and political changes. It would be good to have an exchange of citizens between this country and Poland on a temporary or permanent basis. However, since that is not so, I suppose that the normal immigration rules must be imposed on Poland, just as they are imposed on the others on the list.

I hope that I have made my point clearly enough, even to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, whose concerns in this matter I treat with the greatest respect. The noble Lord would probably not put Poland down as a serious human rights violator, even though no country is perfect and Poland is not perfect. The noble Lord will correct me if I am wrong, but I do not believe that there is now an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience in any Polish gaol. While there have been some manifestations of Right-wing nationalism, chauvinism and even anti-semitism (although there is hardly any Jewish population left in Poland), I do not believe that the government of Mr. Kwasniewski or the government of his predecessor, Mr. Lech Walesa, can be placed at the bar of the accused in respect of any of these concerns.

Our resources are limited but I hope that we will continue to be generous in giving the right of political asylum to those who are persecuted for political or

16 Oct 1996 : Column 1701

religious reasons. The Home Office is entitled technically speaking to try to find the most effective ways of implementing its guidelines in the acceptance or refusal of applications for political asylum. I believe that it makes good sense to have countries like Poland on a fast-track system on a white list.

4.5 p.m.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, I too should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on introducing this important debate. I do not believe that, with the modesty of his introduction, he deserved the persecution that was then poured upon him by the noble Baroness. To balance that, I should like to thank the noble Lord who has just spoken for his remarks about the consensus in this House on human rights, regardless of the detail. I have been among those who have had serious misgivings about various aspects of the new legislation, such as the fast-track procedure.

I believe that the new background briefs, while intended to give guidance, work against the interests of genuine asylum seekers and send out the wrong signals about our understanding of current events overseas. Most of the 60 organisations which reported in April to Sir Iain Glidewell's panel--whose work I enormously respect--would put it a lot more strongly than that. They are saying that in the process of tightening our asylum rules we are glossing over flagrant abuses of international law and human rights.

A letter from the Minister dated 6th September reassures me that these briefs "do not preclude" the assessment of a well-founded claim where the evidence is convincing. I should hope not. I am not surprised to see that once again genuine asylum seekers (if any of them get as far as this under the new rules) are being handicapped. For various reasons, they are being treated as a category apart, condemned by the new procedure before they have time even to establish a claim. Ten days is simply not enough time. This could have very serious consequences for them in their own country if they are returned because it will add to the profile that they already have. In the case of children, this could be in breach of more than one UN convention.

Let us consider India. Most of us here have a great affection and admiration for that country and its democracy and institutions. Most of us have been pleased to see the development of a strong human rights lobby in India. But this does not mean that we must go along with the Home Office myth that India is generally a safe country to which asylum seekers can be swiftly returned if their applications are late or their documents are out of order. I submit that noble Lords would want to look at each case on its merits. We all know that there are many dangerous situations along India's frontiers and even inside the country, where remote local police stations can be a law unto themselves. It may be a vast country geographically, but that does not mean that asylum seekers can easily hide or escape, especially if they have already crossed an international border.

16 Oct 1996 : Column 1702

I do not want to quarrel with the country assessment itself because I believe that it is the principle that is wrong. I am sure that some will find it useful. But there are a number of passages which I find worrying. For example, it contains such phrases as,


    "Most of India is generally peaceful";
and,


    "There are areas of great poverty ...poor farmers have an economic motive in claiming asylum";
and again,


    "There are occasional tensions between Hindus and Muslims".
I do not envy those who are charged with writing these briefs, but they must know that they are very brief indeed, perhaps even insulting to the intelligence of an adjudicator. Is this really, as the Minister says, the context in which consideration will be given to individual claims?

I will remind the House of the areas of conflict. In Jammu and Kashmir there are still hundreds of deaths every year from all aspects of terrorism and counter-terrorism. A recent report by the US State Department mentions a high level of extra-judicial killings of suspected militants by the security forces, as well as numerous cases of torture and incommunicado detention. Incidentally, India now has a National Human Rights Commission, but it has only limited powers to investigate these abuses.

In Punjab, where the activities of Sikh militants have been a major threat to law and order, any Sikh who expresses sympathy for a separate state, or even attends a rally for such a purpose, risks instant detention and may be risking his life. The Sikhs are a significant group among the UK asylum seekers. A new report by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, which has surveyed the group in detail, shows conclusively how even torture victims may suffer from the fast-track procedure. That is important and I hope that the Minister can give the foundation a specific reassurance on the matter, remembering the critical vote on torture which was carried in this House.

Other sources of persecution in India include Assam, Nagaland and Tripura; the Naxalite rebellions in north-east India; and the communal violence which still simmers in Maharashtra, Gujarat and UP.

The number of asylum seekers from India has fallen, but it is hard to say whether that reflects the level of violence or the new legislation. Her Majesty's Government may feel some satisfaction that the numbers of new claims from Africa and Asia have fallen and that the backlog has been reduced. But that surely indicates the deterrent factor of the new procedure rather than the invalidity of the claims which are being processed. The fast-track procedure is bound to give asylum seekers a reduced service and thus less chance of receiving a fair hearing. That presumably is the red flag which the Government want to hoist to deter future asylum seekers, sending the message that they would rather not receive any at all.

We are speaking now of only small numbers of people getting into this country, contrary to the innumerable press reports which have exaggerated the

16 Oct 1996 : Column 1703

situation. I am told that out of the 2,675 Indian decisions made so far this year, only five cases have been accepted and only 15 have been given exceptional leave to remain. The equivalent numbers for the former Yugoslavia were 745 and 225; that is 670 out of a total of only 1,485 decisions.

I am not making a direct comparison; it would be invidious. However, do not those numbers give some indication of a possible imbalance--even, I would argue, a degree of discrimination--in the procedure? That imbalance is itself a form of discrimination because it adds to the climate of disbelief which already works against the genuine asylum seekers. That imbalance was neatly described by Mr. Alex Carlile in another place last night as, "the rotten apples in the scales". We cannot get away from the fact that speeding up the procedure creates that imbalance.

Finally, I am concerned, as are many organisations, about our reputation as a place of refuge. How can we maintain our tradition of hospitality if we start sweeping clean whole territories on the map? I wonder what the old India hands in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office privately think about the briefs from the Home Office. I wonder how much time the case workers and adjudicators spend on them when they obviously need much more detailed information to determine a particular case. I know what the genuine asylum seekers think of them--that they are just another form of misrepresentation and prejudice which stands in their way.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page