A pile-up of shameful contradictions
A report ignoring Algeria’s appalling human rights record is being used to send refugees back to face an uncertain fate
Melanie McFadyean, Wednesday November 24, 2004, The Guardian
Journalists whose stories criticise the asylum process are often approached by refugees desperate to talk about their cases. Always, they produce sheaves of paperwork. As you pick your way through, you see what these individuals, often damaged by the events which forced them into exile, are up against. Layers of bureaucracy, laws designed to exclude them, officials hardened to their task, confusion, contradictions – a morass.
The most recent of these was an Algerian refugee – let’s call him Hassan – who contacted me to say he had spotted an anomaly in the current Home Office country information policy unit (CIPU) report on Algeria: a single sentence which may have had devastating consequences for hundreds of Algerians rejected by British authorities in the last three years.
CIPU reports are used by adjudicators and Home Office case workers in deciding whether someone claiming asylum goes or stays. These professionals, as one adjudicator told me, rely heavily on the country reports. They are overworked and operate amid a « culture of heartlessness ». Typically, he says, adjudicators get case papers at 10am, hear appeals at 11am, and then have only one day in which to consider four cases. They have to assume that the country reports on which they rely are accurate.
The offending line in the Algerian country report was written by Brian Davis, a Canadian diplomat, for his country’s immigration services after a trip to Algeria in 2001. « To the knowledge of the persons I met, » he wrote, « and to the local UNHCR office, there has never been any problem encountered by persons returned to Algeria. »
Hassan, whose two appeals for asylum have been rejected, says this sentence was cited both times. A 45-year-old teacher and musician, Hassan was involved with the Front Islamique Salut (FIS) in opposition to the government in the early to mid 1990s. But as a Sufi he is against violence and fundamentalism and fell foul of both some of his former comrades and the secret services. Eighteen of his family and friends had been killed, and in 1996 he fled.
Hassan couldn’t believe that the Algerian UNHCR would say deportees encounter no problems. He was told by the Geneva headquarters: « Only the HQ in Geneva is responsible for establishing UNHCR’s position related to refugees worldwide ». So had Geneva sanctioned the statement from the Algiers office? The man in Geneva wouldn’t say.
When questioned, he did acknowledge that « it would seem the statement would be too strong because we are rarely informed of what happens when cases are returned ». The official position is that « there is a re-emerging concern that persons who are returned to Algeria may face hostile treatment ».
Hassan has wandered into a pile-up of shameful contradiction. The CIPU report, while saying nobody encounters problems on return, also says: « Given the nature and degree of violence that prevails in Algeria, extreme caution should be exercised in considering the return of rejected cases. » This is reinforced by Amnesty International, which found that « torture in Algeria remains prevalent and systematic in nearly all cases involving alleged links to what the government describes as ‘acts of terrorism or subversion' ». Amnesty says security forces « repeatedly tortured political activists arrested … protesting against [the] government ».
Causing even more confusion, a recent email to Hassan from UNHCR Canada says the position, dating back to 2002, is that there are some rejected cases that still encounter problems upon return to Algeria. And yet the Canadian diplomat’s assertion that « there has never been any problem encountered by persons returned to Algeria » has been reproduced in every CIPU report for nearly three years.
It gets worse. The CIPU report also says: « Although no formal study has been carried out, all the interviewees believed they would have heard if such persons encountered serious difficulties … none has complained of their treatment by Algerian authorities. » They add that relatives would let it be known if someone has suffered. Unlikely: people often have no idea what has happened to refugees. Besides, many are scared themselves. The Algerian foreign ministry, the CIPU report continues, « advised that ‘deportees’ encounter no problems upon their return to Algeria ». What foreign ministry would say otherwise?
Last month, Immigration Advisory Services (IAS) published an analysis of 15 CIPU reports, including the one on Algeria. They expressed « serious doubts » about their validity, said they suffered from « unbalanced representation, serious breach of objectivity, inclusion of blatant political opinion and unattributed statements ». Of the Algeria report, IAS said the « use of out-of-date material is particularly problematic ».
IAS blasted the reports for excluding information that might help asylum seekers, and for putting a positive « spin » on reports by NGOs that are actually critical of the countries concerned. « We looked at 23 of the 35 reports and they seemed to be written with a view to rejecting asylum seekers, » said Colin Yeo, a senior immigration lawyer at IAS.
In September, shortly after the IAS research came out, the government announced measures to improve the standard of country reports. They also reduced the number produced from 35 to 20 of the top asylum-generating countries. Algeria is not included, which leaves one wondering if the last risky report will be the one which adjudicators continue to use.
One can speculate about the influence the Canadian report may have had. Last year 550 Algerians claimed asylum here. Only five were granted refugee status and 30 temporary leave to remain. This year 370 have applied for asylum, 350 have been rejected.
By the time this is in print, Hassan may have been deported. He can’t bring himself to articulate his fears.
· Melanie McFadyean writes extensively on immigration and asylum issues