The appalling chemical attack, suspected of being perpetrated by Abdul Ezedi, an Afghan who is understood to have come to the UK in the back of a lorry in 2016, and was granted asylum in 2020, has led to a predictable outcry from Conservative politicians, who insist that the UK is a “soft touch”. They demand tough measures.
Robert Jenrick, the former immigration minister, called for the case to be a “watershed moment”, writing: “Either you want this tragic farce to end, and are willing to pursue the tough measures necessary, or you don’t” – seemingly throwing down the gauntlet to the prime minister.
The home secretary, James Cleverly, has said he is looking into the case. He would be wise not to rush into action but look, instead, at the different factors at play as well as the wider context – including how the asylum rules are already very stringent.
It’s important to understand that Ezedi twice had his asylum claim looked at by Home Office caseworkers and on both occasions they rejected it. They did this not because the bar is low, as former home secretary Suella Braverman has claimed, but, on the contrary, because it is high. What’s more, the Nationality and Borders Act that became law less than two years ago introduced a higher burden of proof for asylum cases and the soon to be commenced Illegal Migration Act will end the right to asylum for those who arrive in the backs of lorries.
There has been a lot of focus on Ezedi’s conviction for a sexual offence in 2018, which resulted in him being given a suspended sentence – and being placed on the sex offender register for 10 years. Home Office guidance is clear that persistent offending or offences that cause serious harm, including sexual offences, prevent a person from being permitted to stay in the UK and granted asylum. This guidance was applied when the Home Office looked at Ezedi’s asylum claim for the second time in 2018 and it was turned down.
When caseworkers rejected his asylum claim they will have also taken into account the fact that he said he had converted from Islam to Christianity and that put him at risk of persecution in Afghanistan. Home Office guidance for asylum decision-makers on matters relating to Christian converts sets out a robust set of requirements to be taken into consideration. It states: “Ultimately evidence even from a senior church member is not determinative.”
The final decision to grant him asylum was taken by a tribunal judge when reviewing Ezedi’s appeal. The right to appeal is entirely legitimate and it is not unusual for appeal judges to find flaws in decision-making, including that key information was overlooked or missed. In this case, the judge focused on his conversion to Christianity and the fact he would have been at risk from the Taliban if he was returned to Afghanistan. There has been a lot of media focus on the evidence from a priest who reportedly told the tribunal he was a committed Christian.
There are, of course, legitimate questions to be asked about the tribunal’s decision and what evidence was considered. The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, has questioned whether the Home Office made “representations during the appeal hearing that the individual should be denied asylum because of his offending history”.
Government sources told the Times that Ezedi’s case was a “margin call” based on the Christianity claims. Without being able to review all the tribunal papers, it’s difficult to take a view on the decision.
More fundamental questions are being asked about whether the case should ever have been considered in the first place. Following a toughening of the rules three years ago, asylum refusals are now mandatory in cases when the individual has been convicted of an offence and sentenced to a prison term of more than 12 months. Some Conservative MPs have called for this to be changed, demanding immediate deportation for asylum seekers who have committed a crime.
But indiscriminately withdrawing the right to refugee protection simply because a person transgressed the law in any way would be disproportionate and unjust, because it could lead to people being deported for trivial crimes. Indeed, a refugee legitimately needs to be given protection. They should face the consequences for law-breaking separately and not be subject to a double punishment.
It’s important that the Home Office examination of the case also looks at the wider circumstances. The mother whose two children were also attacked was reportedly in a relationship with the perpetrator. Did she raise concerns about her safety with the authorities, and if so, what action was taken?
We know from our work at the Refugee Council that where there are cases of domestic abuse in families, social services are not always willing to get involved. Safeguarding thresholds are high and our staff can struggle to get social services to engage. Given the huge financial and caseload pressures facing council social care departments, this is not surprising.
There are also questions to be asked about what integration support was put in place for Ezedi when he was granted refugee status and what contact he had with the authorities, especially given the fact he was on the sex offender register. Were opportunities missed to address any behaviours that might have triggered concerns?
Whatever review is carried out into Abdul Ezedi’s case, it should not be rushed – and the subsequent steps need to be proportionate. Knee-jerk responses to high-profile cases tend to result in hasty, ill-thought-out and often wide-ranging reforms by ministers under pressure to act. This must be resisted.
It is right to look into the case and consider what could have been done by the authorities to safeguard the victims. But it is wrong to exploit it to drive forward an ideological attack on the asylum system. That won’t safeguard anybody.