On 1 June 1997, Amnesty International issued a report "Panama/Colombia Refugees: the right to escape from death" urging the Panama authorities not to resume forced repatriation of refugees to Colombia where they faced near certain death. Weeks earlier the New Labour government was elected in Britain, promising an asylum policy that would be faster, firmer and fairer.
Home Office Statistics
As we know statistics can be manipulated to show many things. Yet there is no doubt that the Home Office’s own Asylum Statistics demonstrate a clear pattern of increasing official hostility to asylum seekers over the last four years of Labour government.
In 1999 there were 71,160 applications for asylum, with a slight increase to 76,040 of applications in 2000. The number of Home Office initial decisions tripled over these two years from 33,720 to 110,065 – thus it is certainly true that processing became faster.
At the same time, as the figures show, there was a sharp deterioration in successful applications. In 1999 37% of applicants were recognised as being refugees and granted asylum. A further 12%, although not recognised as a refugee, were nonetheless granted exceptional leave to remain. One year later only 10% of applicants were granted asylum, with a further 12% receiving exceptional leave to remain. In other words in just one year the rate of Home Office rejections leapt up from 52% to 78%.
And so the number of people effected by negative decisions was far greater due to the faster processing. In 1999 11,025 applicants were rejected, in 2000 this had shot up to 76,850 rejected applications. Nearly seven times more applicants were refused asylum in 2000 than in 1999! How could this be fair? It is incredible to suppose that suddenly there were seven times more ‘bogus’ applicants arriving. Rather this qualitative shift reflects a dramatic hardening in government policy.
This hardening is reflected at every stage in the process. Asylum seekers have the right to appeal the Home Office’s original decision, and the case goes before an adjudicator.
It is meant to be a fair process. But the proportion of appeals dismissed by adjudicators is 82%. More than four out of five appellants have their application rejected for the second time. Less than one in five appeals are successful.
Refugees Flee Human Rights Violations
Human rights violations in Colombia are the worst in the western hemisphere, and by some indicators the worst in the world. It is the human rights emergency that is generating an exodus of people fleeing imminent death. The violence has got seriously worse over the last four years of labour government, and yet it is harder than ever for Colombian refugees to gain asylum.
In the first three months of 2001, more than seven out of eight Colombian asylum seekers were refused. Of the 300 Home Office decisions made on Colombians this year, only 15 applicants (5%) were recognised as a refugee and a further 20 applicants (7%) were granted exceptional leave to remain. 265 applicants, (88% of the total of Colombians) were refused. These figures have no relation to the merits of the applicants’ cases. Colombian refugees report that their evidence is not even read by immigration officers. If this is not institutionalised racism, what is?
Moreover, this policy of asylum denial is also an extension of the government’s foreign policy, it is another form of British collaboration with the fundamentally undemocratic and repressive Colombian state.
The rejection rate for Colombians is worse than the average rejection rates. In the first three months of this year there were a total of 46,875 Home Office decisions. Of these 36,350 (78%) were rejections, only 3,945 applicants (8%) were granted asylum and 6,580 (14%) exceptional leave to remain.
Britain’s tightening of the screw against Colombian refugees is reflected elsewhere in Europe. Spain and Italy have just introduced visa restrictions for Colombians.
Bottle Up and Go
A key component in Britain and Europe’s hardening policy is that refugees should be managed in their country of origin or in their region. This ‘bottle up and go’ policy has two advantages for the western powers. On the one hand it is a means of concealing the human suffering, and on the other it provides a pretext for their new readiness for military intervention.
Colombia exemplifies both strands. There are two million internal refugees in Colombia.
The international league table of internal displacement, read suffering, is dominated by African countries. Colombia is the exception, lying equal second with Angola, behind Sudan which alone has four million internal refugees (see The State of the World’s Refugees by UNHCR, p215). Notably, these three countries are all targets of multinational exploitation of their oil and mineral resources, a primary driver for their ‘internal’ conflicts.
Colombia’s internal refugees, los desplazados are the invisible victims of its civil war, and remain completely vulnerable to assassination, disappearance and other forms of human rights abuse. They are fighting to become visible, for their voice to be heard. On 10 April Reuters reported an occupation by 100 refugee squatters of the International Red Cross offices in Bogotá. This is one person’s story, "Sanjuan, who owned a general food store in her jungle village of Norosi, became desperate begging at car windows on Bogota’s busy streets and joined a crowd that stormed the building to demand food, homes and medicine in January last year. She now lives with 15 people in an office of broken furniture and unplugged computer desktops that has one toilet, a bucket for bathing and five beds improvised from upturned archive cabinets."
Plan Colombia’s fumigations have accelerated internal displacement, forcing refugees to flee to neighbouring countries. In one week of April alone 600 refugees arrived in Ecuador. Armies and paramilitaries now cordon off Colombia’s southern provinces to intercept and drive back the desperate refugees.
Refugee Rights – A Class Problem
As well as a fundamental issue of human rights, the refugee problem is also a class problem.
There are two classes of Colombian ‘refugee’, the rich and the poor. The poor become driven out and hunted down desplazados. Rich Colombians are sought after customers, they are being forever enticed through adverts in glossy magazines to buy condominiums as bolt holes in the USA.
There is a steady trickle of the ‘entrepreunerial class’ to Miami. The emigration of prosperous Colombians is linked with the phenomenon of ‘capital flight’. An estimated $2 billion has been transferred from Colombia to the USA in the last two years. While the elite to buy their way in through property ownership, the US state is clamping down on poor immigrants and refugees. Colombians now need visas to get into the USA, even to transfer from one US airport to another. On 4 April two stowaways hiding in the landing gear of a Miami-bound cargo plane were killed when the plane was forced to make an emergency landing.
You should not send people to death
The rich western states are systematically closing off escape routes for poor Colombians and all others from oppressed countries genuinely fleeing persecution. That this is in direct contradiction to the spirit and letter of the 1951 Refugee Convention. So now they want to undermine the Convention.
All we can say after four years of ‘fast, firm and fair’ asylum policy is to repeat Amnesty’s urgent plea, but this time direct it squarely to the Labour government – YOU SHOULD NOT SEND PEOPLE TO THEIR DEATH.