Burdened by serious concerns for our jobs and livelihoods, deafened by screaming headlines about scandals in the Murdoch press, we are all in danger of becoming silent bystanders in a process of systematic damage to a fundamental principle of our society – access to justice.
The business of providing support for extremely vulnerable, often traumatised people, who come to our shores in search of sanctuary is essential, not only for individuals in need but for all of us who care about fairness and justice.
Just over a year ago, Refugee and Migrant Justice was put out of business. Now we are witnessing another provider of free legal advice to refugees go into administration. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons why organisations go out of business, poor management being one of them, but when it comes to legal advice for asylum seekers, this is not the case. The recent collapse of the Immigration Advisory Service, like RMJ last year, is due to cuts in legal aid.
Over the past decade, due to increasingly restrictive changes in legal aid funding, solicitors were no longer able to provide legal advice to refugees and migrants. A small number of charities and community law centres picked up the slack, and became saddled with unrealistic volumes of casework. As a result, at this moment it is impossible to make a referral for immigration advice, unless refugees are able to pay huge amounts of money themselves. They are not allowed to work so paying for legal advice is not an option for the majority of refugees, regardless of how skilled they are.
In an adversarial asylum system, it is almost impossible for refugees to prove their case without adequate legal representation. Individuals face hostile bureaucracy whose job it is to look for reasons and evidence why they do not qualify for protection. A few years ago I met an asylum seeker from Congo, who without speaking a word of English, let alone the knowledge of complicated rules and legislation, completed his application for asylum by himself using a dictionary. After his application for protection was refused, he again with his dictionary represented himself at an appeal hearing. He was unable to credibly communicate the horror of his experience of torture and because he had no legal representation he was condemned to years of destitution in the UK. Individuals, churches and charities who now support him where shocked that this kind of treatment was possible in modern Britain.
Political pressures, the toxicity of the immigration debate, the blame game, the numbers game and now the lack of legal advice all adds up to a complete denial of justice for refugees. And for many refugees this is not just a breach of their basic rights, it is not just about dehumanisation or lack of dignity, it is a matter of life and death.
The government’s promises to improve the decision making processes, to shift the culture of disbelief rampant in the UKBA, to make the process of applying for protection fair and straightforward, never materialised.
The practice of detaining children and families for a prolonged period of time, in prison-like conditions with no judicial oversight, is just one example of how easily the system becomes unsafe and inhumane. The Coalition government promised to end this practice, but charities and campaigners are nervously watching for loopholes that UKBA and their contractors could put in place to wriggle out of that promise.
The legal aid system is not perfect, but it provides minimum safeguards for those lost in the maze of immigration legislation. Now, under the cloak of savings induced by austerity measures, even that minimum of protection is taken away, and not only for migrants and refugees. Challenges funded by legal aid are often the only accountability mechanism to keep those who are supposedly working for us in check. Without the safeguard of good independent legal advice, no refusal of protection or subsequent deportation can be just or credible.
The most effective way of saving money on legal aid is to remove the need for it by improving the delivery of services and treating people fairly.
In the case of refugee protection there are three urgent interventions that the Government needs to implement to ensure access to justice for refugees:
1) Let asylum seekers work immediately so that they can pay for legal advice,
2) Provide good independent legal advice at the beginning of the asylum process in parallel to criminal justice system and,
3) Provide determination system that is fair, transparent, accountable, humane and fit for the purpose of protection.
Equality, justice and fairness now will save money for future generations. It will lay the foundation for a better, humane, principled society and more importantly, in the case of persecuted exiles, it will save lives.