The UK refugee system, which has been modified numerous times in recent years, is neither just nor efficient.  Minister Kenney’s proposal to model Canadian reforms on the UK system is ill-advised.

Professor Colin Harvey,1 an expert on the UK system, has commented:

“There are serious and ongoing human rights concerns with the approach adopted in the UK to asylum law and policy over the last decade. It is not a model to be recommended for Canada. The UK’s model of deterrence and restriction has fed a general climate and culture of disbelief, with negative implications for all refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. Fairness has been compromised in the UK’s overarching desire to reduce the numbers of asylum applications. The strategy has not worked even in its own terms, and the Canadian government would be best advised to have the self-confidence to continue to develop a Canadian model of refugee protection anchored in humanitarian principles of fairness, effectiveness and respect for the human rights of all. This is the type of model that stands the best chance of securing efficiency and effectiveness in the longer term. I hope Canada will have the good sense not to follow the UK’s lead in this area of law and policy.”

Many changes in the UK asylum system have been introduced in the context of sensational media reporting, widespread misinformation and a marked politicization of the issue.  This is the worst possible context for making well-considered policy changes, so it is not surprising that the UK system is not working well.

We can see that the UK has been struggling to create a functioning system by the frequent legislative changes:

1999: Immigration and Asylum Act
2002: Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act
2004: Immigration and Asylum (Treatment of Claimants, etc.)  Act
2006: Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006
2007: UK Borders Act
2008: Criminal Justice and Immigration Act
2009: Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act

In addition, there have been numerous policy and practice changes, including the introduction in 2007 of the New Asylum Model.

“[P]oliticians in the UK have responded to a media and public outcry by producing ever more restrictive legislation on asylum.  Far from helping improve the asylum system this legislation has made it harder to determine genuine need, leading to a lack of confidence in the process.”  Centre for Social Justice2

Widely reported problems in UK system include claimants being unfairly screened into a fast-track process, where they are unable to present their cases properly, detained claimants unable to present their cases properly, inadequate legal aid and poor quality first-instance decision-making.  Many critics charge that concerns about controlling numbers have taken precedence over deciding who needs protection, and have led to institutional bias against claimants.3

“The British Refugee Council is concerned by reports that Canada may be looking to replace independent decision making with decisions by immigration officers, replicating some of the most restrictive elements of the UK asylum system. While there are elements of the UK system that work well, fast-tracking and prejudging asylum claims, detaining refugees who have committed no crime, returning people to countries where they are not safe, and restricting refugees’ ability to have a fair hearing of their asylum claim are not among them. Canada should not seek to introduce UK policies and practices that have been condemned by international bodies including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and that make it incredibly difficult for refugees to have their claims heard fairly.” Gemma Juma, British Refugee Council

Widespread destitution of failed refugee claimants has become a major issue in the UK.  Many cannot leave the UK because it is not safe for them to return to their home country, but they are without government support or the right to work.  A year ago the British Red Cross estimated that there were at least 26,000 destitute failed asylum seekers, living on Red Cross food parcels.4 There is significant public support for these individuals in part because of lack of confidence in the system.

“Over the past few years there has been a growing resistance to the government’s attempts to deport failed asylum seekers. From Manchester, from Sheffield, from Belfast, from Bristol, the Home Office is being bombarded with requests from British people all over the country asking for asylum seekers to be given another chance.” Rachel Stevenson and Harriet Grant5

The problem of destitution of refugee claimants attracted the attention of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights.  In its 2007 report, the Committee concluded that “by refusing permission for most asylum seekers to work and operating a system of support which results in widespread destitution, the Government’s treatment of asylum seekers in a number of cases reaches the article 3 [European Convention on Human Rights] threshold of inhuman and degrading treatment [...] We have been persuaded by the evidence that the Government has indeed been practising a deliberate policy of destitution of this vulnerable population.”6

“… the treatment of asylum seekers falls seriously below the standards to be expected of a humane and civilised society.” Independent Asylum Commission7


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1. Head of the Law School at Queen’s University Belfast, a Human Rights Commissioner for Northern Ireland and author of ‘Seeking Asylum in the UK: Problems and Prospects’.

2. Centre for Social Justice, Asylum Matters, December 2008, p. 33,

3. The slogan used by the Home Office in announcing their New Asylum Model was “Swifter Decisions - Faster Removals” – a slogan that suggests that fairness and refugee protection may well be sacrificed.  Press release, 18 January 2006,

4. The Guardian, “Land of no return”, Rachel Stevenson and Harriet Grant, 13 June 2008,

5. Ibid.

6. House of Lords and House of Commons, Joint Committee on Human Rights, The Treatment of Asylum Seekers,  Tenth report of Session 2006-2007, 30 March 2007,   

7. Independent Asylum Commission, Interim Findings - Fit for Purpose Yet?, March 2008,  p. 2,