From the age of 15, every time Sara saw a letter on the doormat, she would feel a pang of hope. Rushing to pick up the envelope, she imagined this was it; her life could now begin. But each time, for nearly 10 years, there was disappointment – it wasn’t her asylum decision.
Along with her mother and younger brother, Sara had fled to the UK aged 14. The family claimed asylum in Britain in 2008, but this was refused three months later on the basis of inadequate evidence. They submitted a new asylum claim, this time with the help of a lawyer. Then their wait began.
Sara completed her GCSEs and obtained a qualification in accountancy at college. She was ready to go to university but, as an asylum seeker, was unable to take out a student loan. She still had no decision on her protection claim.
At 20, she was offered her first accountancy job despite not having a degree. But, under Home Office rules, Sarah could not work while the decision was pending. Still they waited.
“I was suicidal,” says Sara. “I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t do voluntary work to take my mind off things. I can’t explain it. It’s like I was stuck. My life was frozen. I didn’t feel my life had any meaning.”
Court documents show that a clinical psychologist diagnosed Sara with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of “multiple traumatic events over the course of her lifetime”, with one factor being the “ongoing delay in reaching a resolution about her asylum case” that caused her “clear detriment and psychological harm”.
‘Inexplicable and unconscionable’
Sara, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is among hundreds of people who have waited nearly 10 years or more for a decision on their asylum claims, left in limbo while they wait for an answer. Data obtained by The Independent shows over 1,200 asylum seekers currently in the system have waited more than five years, with 399 more than a decade.
“Every day I would check my emails, the post. I just wanted to know,” says Sara. “It felt like I was waiting for something that was never coming. I was constantly worried about what would happen to us if we got sent back.”
The figures, provided in response to a freedom of information (FOI) request, include cases where appeals had taken place. In the notes accompanying the data, the Home Office states that the delays are caused by a number of factors including the complexity of the case, the paperwork provided by the claimant and the resources available to process the application.
Separate figures, obtained by the Refugee Council through an FOI request, reveal that the number of applicants waiting for more than a year for an initial decision – not including appeals – increased almost tenfold between 2010 and 2020, from 3,588 to 33,016. More than 250 people had been waiting for five years or more for an initial decision on their case, with dozens of children among them.
Sara, along with her mother and younger brothers – her mother gave birth to another son in 2013 – was living in Home Office asylum accommodation while they waited. She says the housing was “disgusting”.
“We had so many problems during those years with the accommodation, which was adding to our stress,” she says. “We lived on the second floor and there was a hole in the bathroom that you could see through to the lower flat. The front door was broken and even the wind would open it.”
people wait more than six months for a decision
In 2016, after waiting for a decision for six years, Sara contacted her MP, Labour’s Joan Ryan. After two years of chasing, the department responded claiming that Sara had never appealed her initial asylum refusal in 2009 – something it later admitted was inaccurate.
That same year, Sara got a new solicitor who began legal proceedings over the “inexplicable and unconscionable” delay and in September 2019 – nine years after claiming asylum – she was granted finally refugee status.
Following this decision, the Home Office was ordered by the courts to pay Sara £35,000 in damages for the impact of the delay on her life. The department apologised to Sara, but provided no explanation for the delay.
Now Sara works full time for a women’s refugee charity and has a partner and a child, but she says that adapting to life was challenging.
“It was really difficult when I got granted asylum. It felt like my whole life had been about fighting the Home Office for a decision, so when I got refugee status I couldn’t believe it,” she says.
“I got a job straight away, but people my age had all started working and having this kind of life years ago, and I started at a later point. I didn’t feel I could relate to people my age. It was really hard to adapt to this new life.”
‘Interminable bureaucratic process’
The Home Office previously had a six-month service standard on asylum decisions, but in 2019 it announced it was “moving away” from this to “concentrate on cases with acute vulnerability”. Its website still states that claims will “usually be decided within six months”.
Waiting times on asylum claims hit a record high last year, with 46,800 people waiting more than six months for an initial decision on their claim at the end of 2020 – a rise of 700 on the previous quarter and more than three-quarters of all applicants.
They threaten to send you back to the torture you left behind
When decisions do arrive, the majority are told they can stay in the UK. In the year ending June 2020, more than half of applications at initial decision resulted in grants of asylum, humanitarian protection or alternative forms of leave, rising to more than two-thirds after appeals.
Tony Smith, former director-general of the UK Border Force, describes the asylum system as an “interminable bureaucratic process” that “perpetuates cases indefinitely”.
“Some cases are hugely complex, with a huge amount of documents and materials submitted. The legislation is a mess – there are refugee conventions, human rights conventions, High Court judgements that have been laid down by judges over the last 20 years,” he says.
“There are manuals and manuals of guidance. You’ve got a library of stuff that you’re referring to for every case, every interview.”
The former civil servant says there is “a lot of fraud in the system”, but admitted that the Home Office also gets cases wrong.
“Of course we screw up sometimes, we’re a government department. The government doesn’t work systematically like clockwork. A caseworker may grant someone asylum who they shouldn’t have granted it to, and it could work the other way as well,” he says.
“But in my experience the vast majority of delays in casework are due to refusals. That is because there is always the possibility that ‘no’ will become ‘yes’ after a period of time. It may be that all the evidence wasn’t adduced at the interview stage or that the officer’s decision was wrong so people win their appeals.
“The question is: how do we balance the need for firm immigration controls with the need to grant genuine refuge to those who need it?”
‘I didn’t know if I was going to survive’
A dearth of access to legal advice for claimants is a concern. A number of restrictions to legal aid brought in over the last 20 years have made it more difficult for asylum seekers to access free legal advice. Research by Refugee Action in 2018 found there had been a 56 per cent drop in the number of providers offering legal aid representation for immigration and asylum law since 2005.
Victor Mujakachi, 60, was granted refugee status last year after an 11-year wait. The Zimbabwean national had fled political persecution in his home country, but he was initially refused asylum in 2010 on the basis that his evidence was not strong enough.
Unable to afford a lawyer and not eligible for legal aid, Mujakachi appealed the decision in court with no legal representation. He subsequently made three fresh asylum claims within three years, again with no legal representation, all of which were refused.
Mujakachi, who now works for an asylum support charity in Sheffield, was faced with deportation in 2019, at which point he was able to access legal advice in the immigration detention centre and had his removal cancelled. He then submitted a fresh asylum claim with the help of a lawyer and was granted refugee status in 2020.
Reflecting on his first few asylum claims, he says: “I didn’t get any legal representation at all. I presented evidence but it wasn’t put in legal language. I presented the same information that I presented to the court in 2019 when I was granted refugee status.
“I would have got asylum if I’d had good legal advice back then. If I had explained my case better with a legal representative, I think I would have been understood better.”
The Home Office says the Zimbabwean national’s original claim for asylum was “correctly rejected”, and that it was his more recent claim made in 2019 which was accepted after his circumstances “substantially changed”.
The 60-year-old describes his experience of the British asylum system as “shocking and upsetting”, saying: “You leave a country where your life is under threat, you come to a country where you believe you’re going to get protection, and they don’t believe your story. They threaten to send you back to the torture you left behind.
“I was living under this cloud of uncertainty. I didn’t know if I was going to survive beyond my asylum claim. I was faced with this climate of disbelief and thrown into this state of limbo.”
Time and again we see examples where comments have been made on decisions which just don’t match up to people’s lived experiences
Responding to the FOI data, a Home Office spokesperson told The Independent it was committed to ensuring asylum claims were considered “without unnecessary delay”, but that some cases could be “more complex and take longer to process”.
They said that as part of the department’s “new plan for immigration”, announced in March, it would ensure the “broken” asylum system was “fit for purpose”, by taking steps to increase capacity and focusing on process improvements to deliver decisions “more efficiently”, including prioritising older claims and those made by more vulnerable individuals.
Immigration barrister Colin Yeo says the fact that anyone has been waiting for an initial decision after five years or 10 years is “truly appalling” and describes the growth in the backlog of asylum claims in recent years as a “colossal failure by successive ministers”.
He criticised the government’s new asylum plans, which Priti Patel says will see refugees who arrive in Britain via unauthorised routes denied an automatic right to asylum and instead forcibly removed to safe countries they passed through on their way to the UK.
The Independent revealed earlier this year that France, Germany and Belgium have ruled out making such deals – which experts say will lead to the asylum claims of vulnerable people in the UK being delayed for even longer.
Yeo says: “It means that genuine refugees have their lives put on hold and remain separated from their relatives while living on destitution levels of support in disused barracks, while those who do not have good cases also get to stay in the UK for prolonged periods.”
‘I was questioning my existence’
Jamie Bell, of Duncan Lewis Solicitors, who represented Sara, says asylum seekers routinely experience “unexplained” delays after submitting what are ultimately successful further submissions on their claims, leaving them unable to contribute to society and in a “constant cycle of waiting and malaise”.
“Complex fresh claims often get pushed to the bottom of a pile and will not be looked at without cajoling. There are wild discrepancies in response times; happily with some claims, you may a decision within three months, otherwise you may have to keep pushing for years,” says Bell.
I was living under this cloud of uncertainty. I didn’t know if I was going to survive beyond my claim
“Unfortunately there is an impetus on legal representatives to have to chase the Home Office repeatedly. You have to be patient but also mindful of what a hopeless situation your client is in whilst they are waiting. If the legal representative sits back and does nothing, you end up with years of delays. It shouldn’t be that way.”
Daniel Sohege, director of Stand For All human rights consultancy, says there appears to be a “culture of disbelief” within the Home Office, where applications are “denied based on preconceptions rather than the evidence provided“.
“It almost appears at times as though the Home Office is deliberately looking to reject claims. Time and again we see examples where comments have been made on decisions which just don’t match up to people’s lived experiences,” he added.
“The delays have a profound effect on asylum seekers mental and physical health, but very little is done.”
Although Sara now has refugee status, she is still traumatised by the nine-year wait. “It’s that psychological damage that it does to you. When the Home Office was saying I had never made an application, I was questioning my existence. Who am I? Do I really exist?
“Whenever I apply for something now – even just to get a bank account or something – if it gets delayed a bit I get into a panic.
“I know there are a lot of people who have waited even longer than me. It damages your whole life. It’s not just those nine years but also the years to come. The impact it has on your life is forever. Yes I got refugee status and I got some damages, but this isn’t over for me.”