Content warning: Torture.
To be granted refugee status, asylum seekers must demonstrate why they need protection. In the UK, they give evidence in an interview with a Home Office caseworker, where they detail how they have been treated in the past and why they fear further persecution in the future, if returned to their home country. This is considered, along with any other available evidence, to assess whether it is probable that their story is true, and if they need protection. Following this interview, the case worker then makes an initial decision on whether to grant asylum.
In 2019 a joint publication by Freedom from Torture and Survivors Speak Out  documented the persistent failure of the Home Office to adequately address the poor quality of this decision-making despite over 15 years’ worth of evidence from many different sources   proving it defectiveness. In Beyond Belief  a newly released report throws light on how this process is still fraught with difficulty, leaving those at the heart of it feeling unheard, dehumanised, and re-traumatised.
The Beyond Belief report has 4 key findings:
- Caseworkers often failed to apply the principles and standards for asylum interviews previously set out in policy guidance meaning torture survivors were unable to give a full account and explain the relevance of their evidence. There was consistent evidence of poor questioning technique, prejudgment of the claimant’s credibility, and a failure by caseworkers to maintain a sensitive and professional approach to claimants at all times.
- Caseworkers repeatedly neglected to follow up a disclosure of torture appropriately, they did find out more or inform claimants of the option to seek support or treatment as well as medical evidence documenting their experience.
- Caseworkers did not continually reflect the individual circumstances, needs and vulnerabilities that the torture survivors brought into the interview. This suggests a failure in their duty to diagnose and respond to the individuals at the centre of the process.
- Home Office guidance requires a “positive and secure environment” in which claimants are treated with “respect and humanity, dignity and fairness” . This was not maintained in numerous cases. Several torture survivors described leaving the interview feeling dehumanised, re-traumatised and despairing of getting a fair decision.
These finding come 2 years after the Windrush Lessons Learned Review  urged a change from the “culture of disbelief and carelessness”, clearly this is being ignored with deadly consequences for torture survivors desperately seeking refuge in the UK. A wrong decision often means the forced return of an asylum seeker to their home country where they face unimaginable suffering and even death. A typical case study is that of Issac. He fled his home country in central Africa and sought protection in the UK after he was tortured for attending anti-government demonstrations.
During his “interrogation” (as opposed to the interview he was supposed to have) Issac was asked over 300 questions in 4 hours while sat at a chair with no water. When he bravely spoke of his past torture and abuse it was neither acknowledged nor followed up on. The caseworkers fast interviewing style meant he was unable to explain parts of his story and when he tried to provide documents as evidence following his interview they were refused. His asylum claim was denied, and he now waits on the verdict of Freedom from Tortures attempted appeal. Should it fail he faces near certain death following deportation.
As he put it following the verdict “It was an interrogation… There is no compassion with the Home Office”. This is quite the understatement. The full report contains the part testimony of survivors. While Freedom from Torture have attempted to leave descriptions of torture vague it is in places necessary to describe the physical, sexual, and mental abuse some asylum seekers suffered and the dismissive and mocking way in which these claims were treated.
Freedom from Torture along with other campaign groups has provided a set of recommendations that should be implemented immediately to avoid cases like that of Issac in the future.
For operational staff and Home Office managers:
- Shared Responsibility Caseworkers must give the claimant opportunity during the interview to establish the relevant aspects of the claim and explain any apparent inconsistencies without unnecessary interruption and redirection. Where this has not happened in the past claimants must be given another opportunity to present their case. The Home Office must amend the Asylum Policy Instruction on Asylum Interviews to include guidance on reflective questioning.
- Torture as a key material fact Caseworkers should acknowledge a disclosure of torture when it is made by claimants, they should support the claimant to describe what happened to them as far as they are able to without causing undue distress. Interviewers should be obligated to signpost for assessment, treatment, and documentation if torture is disclosed. The Home Office must amend the Asylum Policy Instruction to clarify that a lack of coherence, consistency and recall by a claimant does not necessarily damage a claim’s credibility on the understanding that torture can often cause memory problems.
- Needs of vulnerable interviewees When asking about torture and other sensitive matters, caseworkers should explain the purpose of the questions and ask for active consent. Staff must be trained to recognise the importance of appropriate verbal and non-verbal communication – including body language – during the asylum interview. Claimants with concerns about an individual caseworker should have the opportunity to explain their concerns. An open and accountable complaints procedure should be guaranteed. After the interview, the caseworker should reflect on how the claimant experienced the interview with reference to the principles and standards in the guidance. The caseworker should also reflect on the way they experienced the interview, especially if traumatic or sensitive events were discussed. Caseworkers must ensure that regular breaks are provided during interviews that exceed two hours. Caseworkers must not express a pre-judgement or scepticism during the interview when probing apparent inconsistencies or an implausibility.
- Interpreting Provision The Home Office must guarantee a pool of interpreters representing the full range of required languages and dialects. The caseworker should brief the interpreter on the case before the interview, especially in situations where sensitivity may be required. Any concerns about the quality of the interpretation must be taken into consideration and redressed before a decision is made on the asylum claim.
For Civil Servants in the Home Office:
- Interpreting Provision Senior civil servants in the Home Office must promote a genuine learning culture that actively seeks to act on the evidence of system failures. The Director General of UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) should work with those with lived experience of the asylum system to establish and embed an expert panel to inform Home Office understanding of the effectiveness and impact of the process on claimants, and to assist with the re-design of the asylum policy and process. Casework managers should have regular audits of interview practice, including random monitoring of interviews, and anonymous consultations with people with lived experience of the interview process. Any decisions associated with an interview that is found to be below the quality standard must be reviewed. If poor quality decisions persist then interviewers and/or their managers must be removed from these roles.
For Oversight Bodies:
- The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration should undertake an independent public audit into asylum interview practice with full cooperation of the Home Office. Survivors of torture, and others with experience of the asylum interview process should be among those given an opportunity to provide evidence. The Home Affairs Select Committee should review Home Office handling of the standard of proof and assessment of credibility, including analysis of interviewing practice, as part of its regular scrutiny of the work of the Home Office. The Quality Protection Programme of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees should consider how the findings of this research align with the findings resulting from its own recent review of the standard of proof within Home Office training materials.
While this report was compiled prior to the lockdown from the Covid-19 pandemic its finding remains as relevant as ever. As a result of the social isolation measures introduced by the government, the asylum process is in a state of near paralysis and face to face interviews have been suspended. This temporary hiatus in the interviews means there is a golden opportunity to remedy the plethora of shortcomings. Failure to do so means the unnecessary suffering and possible torture and death of so many innocents.
What can we do?
Spread the word on social media using this article or any of the Freedom from Torture reports referenced.
Write to your MP.
Tell torture survivors you support them by clicking the heart after reading their stories.
Sign Freedom From Torture’s declaration.
Sign up and agree to help with this campaign post lockdown.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to start your own group
- – Freedom from Torture (2020) “BEYOND BELIEF: How the Home Office fails survivors of torture at the asylum interview”
- – Freedom From Torture, Survivors Speak Out (2019) “Lessons not Learned: the failures of asylum decision-making in the UK”
- – UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ (2006) “Quality Initiative Project: Third Report to the Minister”
- – Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (2017) “An inspection of asylum intake and casework, April-August 2017”
- – Conservative Party Manifesto (2019)
- – Hansard “Windrush Lessons Learned Review” HC 673 1156 (2020).