Criminal Cases Review Commission encourages migrants to challenge criminal convictions related to their entry, such as fraud or using false passports

An official Government body is helping asylum seekers quash their convictions for illegal entry to Britain in a move MPs fear could “undermine deterrence” and lead to thousands more arrivals.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) is running an unprecedented publicity campaign encouraging hundreds of migrants to challenge criminal convictions related to their entry, such as fraud or using false passports.

The commission has already helped more than 30 asylum-seekers to overturn their convictions – something which has allowed many of them to receive refugee status and stay in the UK. It is considering a further 60 cases.

The disclosures come after a Sudanese man was granted refugee status in Britain, despite facing criminal charges for walking through the Channel Tunnel. Abdul Rahman Haroun is charged with obstructing a railway after his 31-mile trek, which forced the tunnel to be closed for two hours, although prosecutors last week said they were considering dropping charges.

As well as advertising for asylum-seeker cases, the commission has waived its normal rules which insist that people seeking its help must first have tried to appeal through the courts in the normal way.

It has instead fast-tracked dozens of asylum-seeker cases, making up a large proportion of its workload. Despite massive demand from British citizens who say they are victims of injustice, almost a third of the people who the CCRC helped overturn their convictions last year were asylum-seekers.

“This is Alice in Wonderland,” said Peter Bone, Conservative MP for Wellingborough. “If you do this, you will undermine deterrence and encourage more and more people to come in by illegal routes. It will certainly increase the flow of people in the hands of the people traffickers – for an official body to be doing this is fundamentally wrong.”

The CCRC’s action is strongly promoted by its chairman, Richard Foster, who is also chair of the Refugee Council, which campaigns to “support and empower refugees” and “offer practical support to people who are seeking asylum.” The council has described the UK asylum system as “unfair and inhumane.”

Mr Foster, a former Foreign Office diplomat and civil servant, said the prosecution of asylum-seekers was a “worrying trend” and “not what one would expect from a ‘gold standard’ justice system.” He says there may be “hundreds” of such convictions and said he was “actively trying to seek out more cases.

The commission says it has to act because many asylum-seekers are being denied their rights under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, also reflected in British immigration law. This states that asylum-seekers are protected from prosecution for illegal entry provided they come “directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened,” “present themselves without delay to the authorities” and “show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.”

However, the commission and courts have interpreted the provision generously, often helping asylum-seekers who did not come to the UK directly from unsafe countries, but spent substantial time in other safe countries before arriving in Britain.

Among the cases the CCRC has referred back to the Appeal Court were those of Amir Ghavami and Saeideh Afshar, Iranian refugees convicted of entering Britain on fake documents. It emerged that the couple had first travelled from Iran to Thailand, where they spent two months, followed by three weeks in Tanzania, a week in Kenya and three weeks in Spain – all four of them deemed safe countries - before entering the UK. The pair admitted they were free to claim asylum in Spain but had decided they did not want to live there because they do not speak Spanish. Their convictions were quashed by the Appeal Court.

Another case taken up by the CCRC was that of Eyasu Mulugeta, an Ethiopian who entered Britain legally on a visitor’s visa using his own passport but then claimed asylum under a different name, pretending he had been smuggled into the country. He was jailed for 12 months for making false statements to gain refugee status. His conviction was upheld and he was recommended for deportation but he is still in the UK, 12 years after first arriving.

The commission also referred the cases of Yasin Bashir, a Somalian national who spent weeks in Kenya and Greece before arriving in Britain on a fake passport and Richard Sohe Nguidjol, who spent time in France before getting to Britain and claiming asylum.

In several cases, the commission’s intervention has enabled unsuccessful asylum-seekers to stay in the country or achive refugee status. Criminal convictions are a factor used in deciding asylum applications and the quashing of a conviction helps a person’s case to remain. Those sentenced to prison for a year or more are normally deported automatically but if convictions are quashed they can stay.

The CCRC has allocated significant resources to asylum cases despite MPs on the justice select committee saying it was “struggling to cope” with demand from British applicants after a 30 per cent budget cut in the past decade, leading to “increasing and unacceptable delays.”

The commission, an official body, was set up after the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six scandals to receive complaints from prisoners and others who say they are victims of injustice. Once a convicted person has appealed and failed themselves, the commission can investigate cases and refer them back to the Court of Appeal for a second try if it thinks there are grounds for a successful appeal.

Between April 2011 and April 2015, the latest published figures, the CCRC received around 5,650 complaints from non-asylum seekers, of which it referred about 85 to the appeal courts, a rate of 1.5 per cent. Over the same period it received around 70 complaints from asylum-seekers, of which it referred 32 to the appeal courts, a rate of 45 per cent. It is considering a further 60 asylum cases, including new cases since April 2015. Of the 36 cases the CCRC referred to the courts last year, 11, almost a third, were asylum-related.

For British citizens, the commission states that “applying to the CCRC before you have appealed will usually be a waste of your time” and “we usually tell people who come to us before they have appealed that they need to go back and try to appeal in the normal way.”

However, for asylum-seekers the CCRC does take cases before a first appeal has been heard. It has even printed leaflets and posters encouraging asylum-seekers to apply to it, and conducted outreach events with refugee organisations.
Mr Bone said: “There appears to be an extraordinary discrimination between the treatment of asylum-seekers and British applicants. This is something the Government needs to look at.”

A CCRC spokesman said that nearly all the asylum-seeker convictions it referred to the courts had been quashed, a sign that it had picked up a real problem. “That is happening because there clearly is an issue which we have spotted,” he said. “It is clear that the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts are getting it wrong and solicitors are giving wrong advice. There is an issue here we’ve spotted and we ought to raise awareness.”

Revealed: Government body helps asylum seekers quash convictions for illegal entry to Britain -