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Reflections on a visit to the asylum screening unit

Date posted: 4 April 2017

by Rebecca Kuehler

 

When a person is in the UK and would like to claim asylum, they must do so by attending, in person, the Asylum Screening Unit (ASU) at Lunar House in Croydon. This is the first step on what is often a long and cumbersome journey towards claiming asylum in the UK. Ordinarily, lawyers and legal advisors do not attend the ASU with clients. Following massive changes to the legal aid regime in 2012, legal aid provision for immigration cases is very narrow. However, the legal aid regime still exists to cover asylum cases. Yet, the Legal Aid Agency usually does not provide funding for a lawyer to accompany a client to the ASU, which is often the first contact the client will have with the Home Office in their journey towards asylum.

 

I was lucky enough to be able to accompany a client to the ASU in March 2017, and it was certainly an eye-opening experience.

 

Lunar House is a 1970s tower block near East Croydon Station. It looms over Croydon with an air of foreboding. There are noticeably few trees in this part of Croydon, it is mainly and area of built up concrete tower blocks and new developments housing City workers and young professionals. Even Croydon is failing to escape gentrification, which acts as an odd contrast to the goings on in Lunar House.

 

The first thing to understand is that there is a risk that an application for asylum at the ASU might result in detention in the now infamous detained Asylum casework procedure. Some enter Lunar House with the hope of resolving their complex immigration histories – claiming asylum after years of overstaying in the UK. Others have recently arrived in the UK fleeing persecution in their home countries.

 

As legal advisors we address this by writing detailed representations for our clients to hand to the official dealing with their case at the ASU, outlining the reasons why our client should not be detained. However, it is the Home Office that ultimately decides whether or not to detain an individual.

 

As I approached the public entrance to Lunar House, I observed that the entrance is divided into the Premium Service Centre on the right and the Reporting and Asylum ‘services’ on the left. A cheerful Australian family entered on the right to attend their £500 ‘same day’ visa service appointment on the right while at the same time, on the left, a sombre and nervous group of people filed through security.

 

The ASU is located on the fourth floor of Lunar House. It stretches along a wide part of the building, with a long waiting room that is lined with interviewing rooms. One reports to a reception desk which is either manned by Home Office Officials or security guards upon entering.

My first impression of the ASU is that it comparable to Britain’s worst GP surgery. The atmosphere was of complete and utter apathy in light of a crisis. Whilst I am sure there must be staff working at the ASU who care about the people they deal with, this is not the impression that comes across.

 

I walked into the ASU reception behind a young man who did not speak English. He was alone. There was some dispute between the reception staff about a reference number that had been entered incorrectly in the Home Office system. One member of staff was accused of using the wrong reference in an incorrect form. The discussion lasted a few excruciating minutes, during which the young man in front of me started shaking – presumably because he thought they were arguing about him, or thought that he had done something wrong. The insensitivity displayed towards a vulnerable person undergoing a very stressful application process was shocking. Many people attending the ASU will have experienced torture perpetrated by state and non-state actors and these types of displays are totally inappropriate.

 

I approached reception and explained why I was there. I handed over our letter of representation and my client’s passport. We were given a number and told that my client would be asked to give his biometric details shortly.

 

After an hour, my client was summoned into a room to give his fingerprints. My client’s hand was taken by a gruff Home Office official and his fingers were rather violently thrust onto the electronic fingerprint reader. There was no discussion as to whether my client consented to being touched. I found this to be odd in an environment where it is quite obvious that it is likely that an applicant will have suffered some form of mental or physical abuse.

 

We were then told to wait. And what a wait it turned out to be. Having arrived at 9:30 AM, we were still waiting at 6:30 PM, an incredible 9 hour tedious ordeal, enough to sap even the most resilient spirit.

 

At the ASU, you are not given an indication as to the length of your wait. As ticket number after ticket number is called, you expect that your number will be the next. Indeed, the numbers are not called out in chronological order. There is a state of heightened anxiety which means that toilet breaks and trips to the vending machines are short and only taken in desperation.

 

There is a café in Lunar House, however it closes in the late afternoon when the nervous butterflies in the pit of applicants’ stomachs make way for hunger growls. After the café is shut, one’s only option is to buy food from overpriced vending machines, where the cost of two candy bars and a soft drink can amount to around £5. That is steep for an asylum seeker who may need to apply for Asylum Support which runs at around £36 per week. By about 6:00pm, all that was left in the vending machines were a few sad looking shortbread biscuits.

 

I observed the environment as we waited. The view from the window of the ASU is of the Lunar House car park – hosting an army of Immigration Enforcement vehicles – what a comforting sight.

 

The main decorative piece in the ASU was an explanation of the complaints procedure. I found this oddly reassuring; at least the ASU does not suffer from any illusion that it is providing a top notch service.

 

Of course, the best way to spend hours in the ASU is by making friends. We spoke to a family who had brought their luggage with them, expecting to be detained and not wanting to be without their belongings in detention. I spent a countless number of hours playing tic tac toe and hangman with a bright little girl sporting Disney-princess themed leggings. Children of different nationalities and backgrounds played games of hide and seek. A group of young boys crafted paper airplanes and then held a competition as to who could crash his in the most dramatic fashion, their parents watching on with grave expressions.

 

One by one, the families attended their appointments. As the sky grew grey outside, the ASU started to empty. The people who were left were mainly single men who had been in the queue with us that morning. There was a man who had undergone a leg amputation, sitting alone in rickety NHS wheelchair. I had observed him when I was on my way to stock up on vending machine snacks hours ago. At some stage someone had lifted him out of his wheelchair and laid him out on a row of seats. He clearly was unwell, yet there was no sign that he was being prioritised.

 

After hours of reminding the ASU staff that my client was still waiting, we were told at 7pm that my client’s appointment had been deferred. To think that my client would have to go back to the ASU, to endure further hours of nervous waiting, fills me with dread on his behalf. When I as the lawyer felt completely demoralised as a result of my day at the ASU – I cannot begin to imagine the stress my client must be feeling at the prospect of a further appointment. All that can be said is that at least we know to bring a picnic.

 

The asylum process should not be about inflicting further punishment and abuse through bureaucratic incompetence – it should be a first step on the road to recovery. Having attended the ASU, I worry for the well-being of survivors of torture, sexual violence and abuse.

 

Rebecca Kuehler

r.kuehler@wilsonllp.co.uk

 

Wilson solicitors LLP specialise in providing advice and representation to asylum seekers and if you require advice in connection with a potential claim for asylum please contact Dionne Smith on (020) 8885 7979 or by email d.smith@wilsonllp.co.uk