LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Some of those seeking asylum in Britain have been forced to wait up to 16 years for a decision on their claim, according to a report by lawmakers that criticised long delays, poor decision making and the insensitive treatment of women in the asylum system.
The Home Affairs Committee, which scrutinises the government's domestic policy, also raised concerns about sub-standard housing given to asylum seekers, the risk of destitution they face and the pressure on gay applicants to prove their sexuality.
The all-party committee also said that wrong decisions by border officials could, on the other hand, lead to Britain "harbouring war criminals and terrorists".
Last year there were 21,955 applications for asylum in Britain, and initial decisions were taken on 18,423 of them, the report said. A further 12,632 cases have been concluded, but 3,523 cases are still awaiting an initial decision.
"The asylum system is overburdened and under severe pressure. The backlog of asylum cases that should have been cleared by 2011 has reached 32,600, with some people waiting up to 16 years for a decision," committee chairman Keith Vaz said. "The system needs to work, otherwise applicants are trapped in a cycle of helplessness and vulnerability."
Asylum seekers should be checked against national and international law enforcement agency and security databases to ensure that "we are not harbouring those who intend us harm," he said.
The report said the number of people being forced to wait longer than six months for a decision on their case was rising, and that initial rejections of asylum claims were being overturned at a rate of almost one in three.
"The Committee has confirmed what so many of us have been saying for years,” said Asylum Aid's policy and research manager, Debora Singer, who gave evidence to the committee during its 10-month inquiry. “If the Home Office (interior ministry) can't get asylum decisions right first time, the system will remain a shambles."
MPs were right to be alarmed at the numbers of asylum refusals being overturned, Singer said in a statement.
"We see this every day: women fleeing rape who are arbitrarily disbelieved by the Home Office, people escaping the world's most violent conflicts whose claims are rejected on the flimsiest grounds," she said.
"These failings hit the most vulnerable the hardest. It can't be right that judges are then forced to clear up after this mess thousands of times a year."