UN refugee agency calls for reform of UK’s ‘flawed’ asylum system

The United Nations’ refugee agency has identified significant failings in the UK asylum system, warning that officials were being forced to do “too much, too quickly, and with inadequate training”.

The UNHCR said it had either seen or been informed about “numerous risks to the welfare of asylum-seekers”, with trafficking cases overlooked and victims of torture being detained.

The comprehensive audit of the system praised Home Office staff for their work under difficult conditions, but said that corners were being cut and workloads were unsustainable.

The Home Office said “significant improvements” had been made since the audit was carried out in 2021 and early 2022.

“The current registration and screening systems expect staff to do too much, too quickly, and with inadequate training, facilities, guidance and oversight. As a result, much of their hard work is wasted, and the system frequently fails to achieve its goals,” the UNHCR audit said.

The report said that the UNHCR “observed or was told about numerous risks to the welfare of asylum-seekers, including instances of trafficking and vulnerability being overlooked and teenage children and victims of torture and trafficking being detained”.

“Registration and screening records were often incomplete, inaccurate, or unreliable, and laws and published policies were not complied with.”

The review said “central aspects” of screening interviews were routinely delegated to interpreters, there were no formal quality assurance systems and different practices were followed in different locations.

“For all of these reasons, there is a real risk that decisions based on information collected at screening will be flawed,” the report said.

The UNHCR said rules to make an individual’s asylum claim “inadmissible” if they came through a safe third country and the plan to send some asylum-seekers on a one-way trip to Rwanda made the reliability and fairness of the screening system more important.

It warned that making decisions on who is sent to Rwanda using the same screening process “will lead to errors, causing distress to individuals, delays, and well-founded litigation”.

Vicky Tennant, UNHCR Representative to the United Kingdom, said: “Fair and efficient asylum systems help ensure that refugees are able to access the protection they need and to start rebuilding their lives.

“Equally important, they help maintain public confidence by allowing governments to pursue arrangements for the return of people who are found not to have international protection needs.

“Flawed and inefficient screening procedures are currently undermining the UK’s asylum capacity – placing vulnerable people at risk and adding to the pressure on public resources.”

The UNHCR put forward 28 recommendations for reform of the system to make it fairer, more reliable and efficient.

A Home Office spokesman said: “This report is based on an audit that took place in 2021 and early 2022. Since then, significant improvements have been made to the processing of small boats arrivals.

“Tug Haven is no longer in use and specialist facilities have been made available to accommodate young people, including unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

“Our staff are working relentlessly to safely register and screen unprecedented numbers of migrants arriving in the UK illegally.

“We are pleased that their professionalism was praised and thank the UNHCR for their report.”

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: “The UNHCR report exposes a host of failures in Home Office initial asylum processing that are holding up the system and contributing to the damaging delays.

“Yet Conservative ministers have still rejected policies such as fast-track triage for clearly unfounded cases which Labour has demanded for months.

“The Home Secretary needs to stop posturing and start fixing the asylum system she and her party have broken. Labour has set out plans for a cross-border police unit, fast-tracking to clear the backlog and a proper deal with France on safe returns.”