[The Guardian] The new arrivals The new arrivals ‘A lottery’: asylum system is unjust, say Home Office whistleblowers Three former staffers describe ‘cut and paste’ decisions and rushed, biased interviews with asylum seekers

The British asylum process is a lottery and many asylum interviews are rushed, biased and resolved by “cut and paste” decisions by overworked Home Office staff, whistleblowers have told the Guardian.

Former staff employed in deciding asylum claims said some colleagues had a harsh, even abusive, attitude towards applicants, mocking them to one another and employing “intimidation tactics” during interviews.

As a result, the whistleblowers said, the asylum system was in effect a lottery, depending on the personal views of the decision-maker who picked up the file. They said some staff took pride in rarely, if ever, granting asylum.

“I know some people that have left, they had been here a few years, [who] only did one or two grants of asylum, which in my eyes is just absurd,” said one former caseworker.

“It’s just a lottery,” said another. “Because if you’ve got a caseworker who was particularly refusal-minded and was determined to catch you out then you’re going to have a hard time … There was one particular guy who had a reputation for never granting anything. He kind of took pride in that as well. On the one occasion when he did grant someone, I think someone brought him in a cake.”

The latest revelations come a month after Home Office staff told the Guardian that the asylum directorate was in a “constant state of crisis” because of overworked staff and a huge backlog of around 50,000 cases.

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The Guardian spoke to three former decision-makers or caseworkers. Each was employed at different regional offices and stopped working in these roles in 2016 or 2017.

All said they had tried to do their jobs fairly but struggled owing to productivity targets that one described as “ridiculously unrealistic”.

Decision-makers are required to complete 225 interviews or decision reports a year.

“It affects the quality of the decisions,” said one whistleblower. “By the time you have been through the photos, the file, the news reports, it’s three o’clock and then you have to draft a report [a decision on someone’s claim, which can often be more than 20 pages long]. Can you do that in two hours?”

Another said: “People cut corners. You would have your own stock paragraphs that you would put into refusal minutes. So say you had come across a particular kind of case and you had that one again, the incentive to get the work done would be to just make the same decision on the case.

“In effect you aren’t doing things on a case-by-case basis. Say you have someone who has come from Eritrea and deserted the military … you might just say, well, I’ll just sort of cut and paste the decision I did last week.”

Another said: “If you’re a good caseworker and if you’re doing the job properly then the system is fair. But because we’re so stretched for time and we’re so stressed and underpaid, then often things aren’t done thoroughly. So decisions are rushed … There are some incidents where people have been refused where they should have been granted, in all honesty.”

The high turnover rate among staff made work difficult, all three told the Guardian.

A report published in November by the chief inspector of borders and immigration in November said the number of asylum decision-makers had fallen from 319 in January 2016 to 228 in July 2016. Numbers increased back to 352 by March 2017, but the report said more than a quarter of staff had quit over a six-month period.

Home Office decision-makers often also conduct interviews, which are the main chance for people to explain the reasons they are seeking asylum.

Despite the importance of the interviews, all three whistleblowers said they were routinely unprepared for them.

“I’d like to ideally investigate the case, look at their country – is there sufficiency of protection? Can they relocate?” said one. “Because we’re so rushed, we pick up the file … you’re just looking at the screening interview quickly, then you go straight into the interview often feeling very unprepared.”

Another said: “Sometimes you don’t get the file before the interview, so you don’t know what the case was about. You’re really starting from scratch. You’re asking really open-ended questions like: ‘Can you tell me why you left X?’”

The Guardian saw transcripts of interviews where it was evident the caseworker knew very little about the case. This included never having heard of the persecuted minority ethnic group the person was from and on which their claim was based, and making basic errors such as confusing the city of Quetta in Pakistan with the state of Qatar.

As a result of all he had seen, one whistleblower said he would not trust the Home Office to deal with his claim fairly if he had to apply for asylum.

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How do you get asylum in the UK?

Two of the whistle blowers also talked about a culture of disrespect among some colleagues towards asylum seekers.

One said an asylum seeker had provided photographs showing marks of torture on his body as part of his claim. After the interview, these photographs were shared among Home Office staff, some of whom made jokes about the fact that the man’s anus could be seen in the pictures.

That whistleblower also recalled instances in which caseworkers would return from interviews and make flippant comments about a person’s claim that their family had been murdered.

“Some of it was gallows humour, but other things you look back on and think: ‘Nah, that was never right, was it?’”

One of the whistleblowers said an attitude of cynicism towards asylum seekers became “a part of you” and that many caseworkers looked at asylum seekers as liars.

“A lot of asylum claims are not legitimate and you get used to that … but you still need to keep an open mind because there are genuine cases where people need protecting,” he said.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK has a proud history of providing protection to those who need it and we do not recognise these outdated claims being made against asylum decision-makers.

“Staff receive extensive training on considering asylum claims, supported by ongoing mentoring, and are fully aware of the importance of making the right decision on the evidence available. There is no evidence to suggest that there is a refusal culture or a culture of intimidation, and every case is considered on its individual merits.

“Asylum decision-makers are allocated time to prepare for interviews, which are fully noted and digitally recorded where possible. The notes are agreed with the claimants, who then receive copies. Through our quality audit process we continually update guidance and training for staff.”

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