The Home Office published new guidelines outlining a streamlined procedure for dealing with child asylum applications. The policy described in the guidance appears to be intended to assist the Home Office in meeting Rishi Sunak’s commitment to clear the asylum backlog by the end of 2023.
The policy applies to legacy applications submitted before June 28, 2022. It also only covers applicants from the top five high-grant countries for children’s claims at the moment, which include Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Syria, and Vietnam. The guidance states that this new process might be rolled out to other nationalities in the future, depending on its effectiveness.
Both unaccompanied and accompanied children fall within the remit of the new policy and it also applies to children who have turned 18 whilst waiting for an asylum decision.
Preliminary Information Meetings
The policy introduces a new step in the asylum process, the preliminary information meeting. This meeting can occur at any time after the child has had their welfare interview, regardless of whether or not their statement of evidence form has been submitted.
However, the policy suggests that this meeting take place two weeks after unaccompanied applicants are placed in local authority care and two weeks after accompanied applicants’ asylum claims are registered (although the latter will apply to all cases under this policy as it only covers claims which were registered before 28 June 2022).
Essentially, the meeting between the child and a Home Office decision maker where the responsible adult (i.e. a social worker or guardian for unaccompanied children and a family member for accompanied children) will also need to be present. Although legal representatives can attend, the policy emphasises that the meeting will not be delayed to ensure their attendance.
A preliminary information meeting is an opportunity for the decision makers to ask questions covering the child’s nationality, the basis of their claim, their family background (and to establish whether family tracing will be appropriate) and to ask the child questions about the evidence that they submitted as part of their claim.
The only obvious difference between this meeting and a substantive interview is that the decision-maker should not raise any issues of credibility during the meeting. Although the meeting will not be audio recorded, applicants will be given a written transcript afterward.
Following the conclusion of the meeting, the decision maker will consider whether asylum can be granted or whether additional information is required (for instance, if any credibility issues need to be clarified). The policy makes it clear that no negative decisions can be made following a preliminary information meeting and that an applicant must be given the opportunity to clarify any issues at a substantive interview.
If a positive asylum decision cannot be made after the meeting, the applicant will be asked to attend a substantive interview.
hen this is necessary, decision-makers should aim to employ shorter, more focused interviews that address specific areas of concern. Yet, the policy makes it clear that it is permissible to decision-makers to use longer substantive interviews if this is needed to decide the claim.
Is the new policy going to help clear the backlog?
The Home Office implemented this new policy in an attempt to reduce the asylum backlog and deal with legacy cases that predate the reforms made by the Nationality and Borders Act last year. It’s unclear how this will be useful in practise. Children applicants are currently expected to attend a welfare interview, during which they are asked basic questions such as their country, the location of their family, and why they are seeking asylum in the UK. Following these interviews, children are asked to submit a 42-page statement of evidence form that asks very comprehensive questions about the child’s background, asylum case, and trip to the UK. At this point, youngsters will typically provide extensive witness statements to the Home Office. Normally, the form and statement should be filed within 60 days of the date of the welfare interview. The following is a list of words that will be used to describe the situation.
The Home Office organising substantive interviews – is what causes the delay in these instances. At now, many asylum applicants, including those who are unaccompanied, nevertheless wait many months to get their substantive interviews arranged. While the new policy emphasises that preliminary information meetings are not substantive interviews, the practicalities of organising them, as well as the procedures and problems that decision-makers must discuss, sound quite similar.
Whilst the aim to remove the backlog of ongoing asylum applications is good, it is hoped that the introduction of these sessions will not only constitute another administrative hurdle generating further delays in decision-making. A legitimate alternative may have been for the Home Office to explore making decisions based on welfare interviews, statement of evidence forms and witness statements in these situations, considering the amount of material that they already include and the high rate of asylum approvals in these cases.