Asylum-seekers and Coronavirus in the UK: risking life for status
The ongoing requirement for asylum-seekers to register their claim for asylum in person reveals the Home Office's misplaced and onerous emphasis on biometrics collection at the expense of asylum-seekers' health
- Despite the pandemic, asylum-seekers are still required by the Home Office to physically register their application for asylum at selected venues
- This requirement persists even in the face of legislation allowing for the suspension of biometrics collection in the event of a public health emergency
- Exposing asylum-seekers to coronavirus can be a death sentence in circumstances where they have real concerns about NHS charging and data-sharing with the Home Office
Today, migrant communities in the UK already face multiple well-documented obstacles in accessing healthcare, not least because of charges to access the National Health Service (NHS), as it is the case for non-EU migrants, and legitimate fears of data-sharing between the NHS and the Home Office.
In the current pandemic, in addition to these concerns, asylum-seekers face an impossible choice: risk exposure to coronavirus, or be unable to apply for asylum.
Individuals seeking to claim asylum after entering the UK are required to attend an asylum screening interview at an Asylum Intake Unit to register their claim as the first crucial step in the process. This process entails broad questioning, as well their biometrics (fingerprints and photographs) being captured as part of the Home Office's security checks. If at the screening it is found that an individual is entitled to apply to asylum in the UK, a substantive interview to assess the merits of her application is then scheduled. In response to the Covid-19 crisis, the Home Office has either paused face-to-face substantive interviews or chosen to carry them out remotely until further notice. However, the requirement for asylum-seekers to attend screening interviews - a pre-condition to get to the substantive interview stage - in person is yet to be relaxed.
This means that asylum-seekers wishing to trigger the asylum process cannot do so without risking exposure to Coronavirus. Importantly, failure to attend a screening interview prevents asylum-seekers from being considered for emergency asylum support. For some asylum-seekers, the stark choice is not between coronavirus and delay in obtaining status - it is between coronavirus and destitution.
Subordinating asylum-seekers' health to the Home Office's compulsive need to carry out security checks is yet another symptom of the hostile environment. Forcing asylum seekers into a legal limbo by effectively preventing them to file their claim means they are forced into destitution and, due to fears of data-sharing or charging, may not seek healthcare if they need it. The Home Office should ensure that asylum-seekers have the option to trigger the asylum process remotely and pursue their applications without being required to fulfil biometric security checks for so long as the pandemic remains a threat to public health.
The asylum-seeking process in the United Kingdom - and Europe generally - is a data-intensive process reliant on biometrics. In 2013, EU legislation was enacted requiring states to collect fingerprint data from asylum-seekers no later than 72 hours after their application was filed. This fingerprint data would subsequently be uploaded into a central fingerprint database for asylum-seekers accessible to member states: Eurodac. To this day, Eurodac enables border authorities to run an asylum-seeker's fingerprint through the system, and determine the EU member state responsible for processing that asylum-seeker's application. A Eurodac hit enables authorities to lawfully deport the asylum-seeker to the country where his fingerprints were first taken.
By the time the Eurodac legislation came into force, the United Kingdom had been taking fingerprints from asylum-seekers for over 15 years.
People shouldn't have to choose between status and health
Despite calls for screening interviews to be minimised or replaced by avenues to remote registration, the Home Office has failed to take action to protect asylum-seekers who now have to balance the risk of exposure to coronavirus against the benefits of filing their asylum claim or, for those facing destitution, choose between exposure and survival.
Given the circumstanes in which most people flee their countries, a large number of asylum-seekers are destitute at the time they attempt to apply for asylum. While their application is decided, subject to the fulfilment of a set of requirements, asylum-seekers may be entitled to asylum support in the amount of £37.75 per week. Though a meagre income, this amount is essential for survival - particularly at a time when access to basic goods is limited. Asylum-seekers may also be granted temporary accommodation while their application is processed. In order to access emergency support or emergency accommodation, asylum-seekers must register their asylum claim, i.e. attend the screening interview and provide biometrics. That is hardly a choice.
The fact that the UK government, like many others, is facing an unprecendented public health crisis does not mean that the impact of such extraordinatory circumstances on the migration system were unforeseen. Indeed the Eurodac legislation - which remains binding on the UK until exit day from the European Union - allows states to derogate from the 72 hour period to obtain asylum-seekers' fingerprints on account of measures to ensure the protection of public health.
It is therefore possible for the Home Office to *lawfully* suspend the collection of biometrics while continuing to process asylum applications, and resume biometrics checks after the health grounds cease to prevail.
In the absence of legal obstacles to do so, the Home Office should enable asylum screening interviews to be conducted remotely, so that asylum-seekers wishing to do so may progress their applications without having to risk exposure to coronavirus - and postpone the collection of biometrics to a later stage.
Although one may only speculate as to the reason why the UK government has chosen to risk the health and welfare of asylum-seekers, the neglect of asylum-seekers' welfare is not a novel issue. An inevitable consequence of the hostile environment is for the interests and welfare of asylum-seekers to be subordinated to budgetary considerations. Running an asylum-seekers' fingerprints in the Eurodac database for a match may reveal that that asylum-seeker's application should in fact be processed somewhere else, as the law requires asylum seekers to apply for asylum in their first country of entry into the European Union. The benefit of allocating an asylum application to another member state seemingly overrides, to the eyes of the Home Office, the cost of an asylum-seeker potentially becoming infected with Covid-19.
By allowing this state of affairs to persist, the Home Office is at best misguidedly placing emphasis on the collection of biometrics over public health concerns. At worst, it is discriminating against asylum-seekers in the fulfilment of their right to health.
Biometrics are not the panacea - and "mission creep" is around the corner
Data-intensive solutions to manage migration erode migrants' agency in what is often a dehumanising, undignified and time-consuming process. The EU-wide system under Dublin III requiring asylum applications to be processed in the first EU country of arrival has been found to be inefficient and inhumane. Similarly, research has shown that the removal of asylum-seekers to their first country of arrival pursuant to Dublin III regulations often fails asylum-seekers with special reception needs.
In the UK, the collection of biometrics is considered to be consensual and therefore lawful on the basis that asylum-seekers are given a form (IS86) outlining what the fingerprints will be used for, with whom they will be shared and when they will be destroyed. However, the provision of biometrics is hardly voluntary where it is made a necessary pre-condition to access to vital support and the right to remain. Importantly, refusal to provide fingerprints constitutes a valid ground for the police to arrest an asylum-seeker without a warrant.
Biometric data can easily be subjected to re-purposing: whilst originally it may have been gathered for migration control purposes, it may later be used for law enforcement purposes. This phenomenon is known as "mission creep". In the UK, as part of their screening interview, asylum-seekers aged 16 or over will have her biometric details checked against fingerprints held on a police database, IDENT1. This follows an announcement by the Home Office in 2018 that it would merge IDENT1 with the Immigration and Asylum Biometrics System (IABS) database, yet further evidence of the increased policing of migrants.
The merging of protection and law enforcement purposes at the expense of the former is also gaining traction at EU level: a proposed amendment to Eurodac legislation expands the scope of the fingerprint database to assist with the control of irregular immigration.
The Covid-19 crisis should be taken as an opportunity for governments to re-assess over-reliance on data-intensive systems at the expense of society's most vulnerable. In the short-term, however, governments should strive to ensure that they take steps to protect the health of every individual on their territory, regardless of status.