UK home to 1 million illegal immigrants

THE government is allowing illegal immigrants and asylum seekers to stay in the country because it fails to send staff to one in five appeal hearings.

Figures obtained under freedom of information (FoI) laws show that Home Office officials, who are supposed to defend decisions on asylum and immigration, failed to show up for 34,627 appeals last year, more than double the 2006 figure of 15,272.

Half of these hearings resulted in a victory for the appellant, up from just over a third two years ago. Many led to people staying who had been refused the right to remain.

The failure of the Home Office to send officials to fight its case was described as “inexcusable” by Chris Grayling, the Conservative shadow home secretary.

Grayling said: “It’s absolutely inexcusable for people who are in Britain illegally to avoid deportation simply because of Home Office incompetence. This has really got to be sorted out.”

It undermines claims by ministers that they have secured Britain’s borders. This month Alan Johnson, the home secretary, defended the government’s record and accused the Liberal Democrats of being inept on the issue.

Last week reporters spent two days at Taylor House in Islington, north London, one of the country’s busiest asylum centres.

On one day, 24 out of the 26 hearings went ahead without a Home Office presenting officer. On a second day the figures were 21 out of 26 unattended. Last year there were 171,000 such hearings nationwide.

A judge who was hearing the case at Taylor House of a Nigerian student fighting for the right to stay told her: “It is not my job to step into the shoes of the secretary of state and cross-examine you, but I may now be forced to do that.”

The Home Office also failed to attend an asylum appeal at the tribunal in London brought by the 19-year-old son of a former Iraqi intelligence officer who had worked for Saddam Hussein.

The teenager, who had been in Britain since 2007, claimed his life would be in danger if he had to return to Iraq. This is despite a previous Home Office decision that the children of former Ba’ath party officials were not at risk.

Last week the case of Zulfar Hussain, a paedophile who won the right to stay in Britain after claiming his human rights would be breached if he was deported to his native Pakistan, drew criticism of the immigration appeal system.

The 48-year-old is soon to be freed after completing half of a five-year jail sentence for abducting and sexually exploiting two 15-year-old girls. Hussain plied his victims, who were living in care and described as vulnerable, with drugs and alcohol. The Home Office admitted in a letter accompanying the FoI request that staff shortages meant it could not supply officers for all cases.

Immigration lawyers say the “farcical” non-appearance by Home Office staff significantly improves their clients’ chances of victory and judges say it undermines justice.

Simon Harding, a barrister with the London chambers of 36 Bedford Row, said: “These are Alice in Wonderland courts and you will rarely see a Home Office officer. In practice what it means is that fewer people are getting deported.”

Adam Pipe, a barrister in Birmingham, said: “Yes, there are times when you think, great, there is no one here from the other side.”

In the absence of a Home Office representative the judge has to rely on a written bundle of evidence provided by the Home Office. Some judges have been forced to ask lawyers bringing the appeal effectively to cross-examine their own clients by raising points of clarification.

Fokrul Islam, of the Oldham law firm Lawmans, said: “It is a farce because I am clearly not going to ask a client a question which will harm their case.”

Phil Woolas, the immigration minister, accepted that the government was not able to staff all the hearings. “As far as staffing goes, you do get peaks and troughs and sometimes there are shortages,” he said. “At the same time we are working through a huge backlog of cases. We always staff those cases where an individual is considered a threat to the public in some way.”

He added: “Often we choose not to fight a case because the circumstances of the appellant change.”