Minister under fire for attack on lawyers and charities over asylum

By staff writers
November 19, 2008

Lawyers, charities and church workers have described as "extraordinary" and "deplorable" comments by UK Immigration Minister Phil Woolas suggesting that people seeking asylum should not have access to full British justice.

In an interview with the Guardian, Mr Woolas described the legal professionals and NGO workers as "an industry", and said most asylum seekers were not genuinely fleeing persecution. He suggested that those supporting them were 'playing the system' and twisting the law.

But the Law Society, the religion and society think tank Ekklesia and NGOs working with asylum seekers, including the London-wide agency Praxis, have said that it is the British government who are playing fast and loose with the law and with basic standards of justice and compassion.

In his interview Mr Woolas said of an asylum claimant who had to go through six stages of appeal and finally won his case in law: "That person has no right to be in this country".

Simon Barrow, co-director of Ekklesia said: "It is utterly astonishing that a senior government minister should dismiss a court decision in this way, blame lawyers and others who give vulnerable people access to justice, and try to say that there is something wrong in appealing against the state's attempts to kick you out of the country. People win appeals because the system has failed them. Many more would do so if it was fair, according to those at the cutting edge."

Donna Covey, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said the appeals process was a vital safety net for asylum seekers who are "criminalised" on arriving in Britain. "Having your asylum claim rejected does not make you an economic migrant. For some nationalities, such as Eritreans and Somalis, almost half of refused asylum seekers have their cases upheld on appeal. These are people who would be in danger of persecution such as murder, torture or rape if sent back to the repressive regimes they are fleeing."

Vaughan Jones, director of the agency Praxis, which works with displaced people across London, who is also a United Reformed Church minister, described the statement from the new Immigration Minister as "a disturbing development."

"Asylum seekers and migrants are human beings with rights and it is quite proper and legitimate for the law to defend those rights and for people of good will to advocate for and support people in need, vulnerable to exploitation and potential victims of miscarriages of justice," said Mr Jones.

He continued: "Attacking the defenders of human rights is not the most edifying of stands, although it is regrettably not without precedent.

"There are many highly respected voluntary organisations and faith based organisations operating with integrity and within the framework of the law. Their work is well acknowledged and scrutinised by funders and regulators. Their activities should not be repudiated simply because they take a different stance on migration. A mature debate [of the kind Mr Woolas says he is asking for] does not begin with mud-slinging."

The Law Society, the governing body for solicitors, has accused the minister of running "against the rule of law" and making "unacceptable" comments.

Paul Marsh, President of the Law Society, said: "The issue of immigration is one for the politicians to debate, but central to that debate must be the fact that those seeking asylum can do so in a legal system that operates under the rule of law.

He continued: "There is no reason why anyone should be denied access to justice on the basis that they are from another country and seeking asylum, which is what the minister seems to suggest."

"When the Appeal Court has determined that an asylum seeker has a right to remain in this country, it is unacceptable for a Government minister to proclaim through the media that they have no such right."

Gulay Mehmet, chair of the Law Society's Immigration Law Committee, added: "For the minister to imply there is an asylum 'industry' demonstrates a lack of understanding of the difficult and demanding nature of practicing in this area of law, which often involves representing vulnerable clients who have been subjected to abuse and ill treatment by oppressive regimes."

The Minister should be publicly investigating his own government's bias against asylum seekers rather than attacking charities, human rights groups and lawyers for giving vulnerable people support, says the think tank Ekklesia.

Its co-director Simon Barrow commented: "Governments attack human rights workers when they have something to hide. The UK authorities have been rightly criticised for dawn raids, removal of children and other abuses of justice in relation to people seeking asylum - even refusing to accept the legitimacy of their own numerous legal defeats. It is this that needs public investigation."

Churches in Britain and Ireland have been outspoken in their support for asylum seekers, guest workers and other migrants who are being increasingly victimised by hysterical coverage in the tabloid press and what campaigners describe as "panic, over-reaction and systemic policy failure" within government.

In spite of recent hardline attitudes from the government, opposition Conservatives still accuse Labour of not being tough enough. Those working with asylum seekers and refugees are alarmed at a "consensus of scapegoating" against the vulnerable.

Mr Woolas' attack on asylum appeals has particularly annoyed NGOs and lawyers, who say that more cases might well be won if the system was fairer. Recently, for example, the authorities had to apologise for questioning the credentials and evidence of a highly reputable academic, a specialist on the Middle East, who had been invited to provide evidence in the case of a woman who was due to be deported to Lebanon.

The asylum and immigration tribunal had to withdraw comments it made about Dr Alan George in a judgment published on its website. His case is the evidence that expert witnesses are being sidelined as pressure to increase the number of deportations increases.

Mr Woolas' interview comes ahead of the release of figures which are expected to show a net increase in inward migration to Britain of some 200,000 in 2007. But those who oppose attempts to clamp down on people movements point out that it is the questions of injustice and inequality that force people from their homes which need addressing, that cycles of settlement and resettlement are variable, and that people in need should be treated with compassion not a cold shoulder.

There is also concern about the way the government is eliding general migration, guest workers, asylum seekers and refugees in its attempt to play "the numbers game" with anti-immigration media and pressure groups.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.