Home Office tells Afghan and Yemeni asylum seekers they can return safely
The Home Office has told asylum seekers from some of the world’s biggest conflict zones that it is safe for them to return there, the Guardian has learned.
A 36-year-old from Yemen and a 21-year-old from Afghanistan have both had their asylum claims rejected by government officials on the basis that they would not be at risk in their home countries.
The disclosure follows the case of a 25-year-old Syrian asylum seeker who was told it would be safe for him to go back to Syria.
The Home Office’s own guidance as well as that from UNHCR warns of the dangers of returning refugees to countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen.
The Syrian man, who sought sanctuary in the UK in May 2020, was told by a Home Office official who rejected his asylum claim that it would be safe for him to return.
He fled forced conscription into Bashar al-Assad’s army in 2017, saying that he would have been forced to kill other Syrians. He said that if he is forced back to Syria he will be targeted as a draft evader, arrested, detained and killed.
While the Home Office has accepted he did flee forced conscription, the refusal letter states: “It is not accepted that you will face a risk of persecution or real risk of serious harm on return to the Syrian Arab Republic due to your imputed political opinion as a draft evader.”
However, the day after the Guardian approached the Home Office for comment about the case, the man’s lawyers received a letter retracting the decision. “It has been concluded that the decision to refuse your client’s protection claim is not in accordance with the Home Office’s published country policy position and is therefore withdrawn with a view to granting asylum,” it said.
The Guardian has further learned of an asylum seeker from Yemen who was told by the Home Office in a refusal of his asylum claim in June 2021 that he could return to his country because officials “do not accept that there are problems in Yemen”.
The asylum seeker, 36, an accountant who is married and has two children, has various physical and mental health problems, but the refusal letter states that there is “a substantial public health programme in Yemen”. The health infrastructure in Yemen is severely battered and non-existent in some parts of the country.
“I was so depressed and disappointed with the decision. All aspects of Yemen are a disaster,” the asylum seeker said. His lawyers have appealed against the decision but there are significant backlogs and the man has yet to be given a date for his appeal.
In a third case a 21-year-old Afghan man who arrived in the UK as a 16-year-old boy after fleeing forced conscription by the Taliban at his madrassa has been informed by Home Office officials that they want to revoke the refugee status he was previously given and return him to Afghanistan because he has a cannabis-related conviction.
The Home Office letter, dated 15 December 2021, states that the Taliban are now the de facto authorities in Afghanistan. It adds: “It is not considered that they [the Taliban] would still have an adverse interest in a low level person such as you.”
UNHCR said that, while it cannot comment on individual cases, it calls on states to suspend forcible returns of asylum seekers “to countries that remain volatile, lack sufficient security or are unable to offer adequate human rights protection”.
A spokesperson added: “Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria are among the countries which UNHCR recommends forcible returns should be avoided. While conflict has subsided in Afghanistan, a humanitarian emergency is ongoing, making forced return inappropriate. In both Yemen and Syria, the dire humanitarian context is compounded by conflict and insecurity.”
Anita Vasisht, head of immigration at Wilsons solicitors, the firm representing the Syrian asylum seeker, said: “The hard and harsh fact is the Home Office did refuse the claim and that decision did cause distress to the client. The refusal decision forced us to lodge an appeal on the client’s behalf which meant the tribunal had to wastefully direct its resources to handling this appeal matter. This is yet another shocking example of terrible and unlawful decision-making on the part of the Home Office.”
Jamie Bell of Duncan Lewis solicitors, who is representing the Afghan refugee, said: “In the context of the ever deteriorating security and humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, it is deeply concerning that the Home Office have seemingly indicated without foundation and in breach of their own policies that Afghanistan may be safe for those who have been previous victims of the Taliban.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We do not routinely comment on individual cases. All asylum claims, including those from nationals of Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan, are considered on a case by case basis, based on the facts presented by the claimant.
“That is the case regardless of the claimant’s country of origin and the prevailing situation there. We will not return anyone to countries where they have been found to be at risk of persecution or serious harm.”
• This article was amended on 14 January 2022 to correct the spelling of Anita Vasisht’s name.