I want to raise the case of Omid Farivar and his family, who are asylum seekers from Iran living in my constituency. Over the years that I have been in the House, I have dealt with many hundreds and probably thousands of asylum cases. Some have been distressing, and some disturbing, but probably none has been worse and more worrying than this one. I have therefore written to the Home Office and the Minister on a number of occasions, and have asked for a meeting with the Minister, which he refused. I am therefore bringing the case to the Floor of the House to try to draw the Minister's attention to this case's extremely distressing features, which inspire compassion, in the hope that I can get him to reconsider.
All of us who deal regularly with asylum cases know that there has been a continuing hardening of attitudes in the Home Office in recent years, and a growing unwillingness on the part of Ministers to use the discretion given them by Parliament to deal with cases that truly arouse compassion. I still find it hard to believe, however, that any UK Minister, let alone one who claims to be a Labour Minister, can possibly refuse this case. If I do not achieve a reconsideration by the Minister, my concern is that the doctors of my constituent's 13-year-old daughter fear that she is unlikely to reach the age of 14 and extremely likely to commit suicide. I will come to the evidence of that in a moment. In addition, her father, if returned to Iran, is very likely to be executed.
I should stress that I am anxious not to identify the family too closely. I have given the name of my constituent, and I hope that that will not cause ramifications. The obvious reasons for my hesitation are those of privacy and concern for the mental health of the daughter, but also that the family are fearful of any consequences of publicity here for their family in Iran. My regional television company, Central television, was anxious to take up the case and interview the family. Although that might have helped them, they refused, because they fear what might happen at home if they draw attention to themselves.
My constituent is a graduate in chemical engineering. For a time, he was a lecturer, and then became a development and research manager in a substantial factory. His wife is also a chemical engineering graduate, production manager and part-time chemistry teacher. Obviously, the family are highly educated and were living comfortably in Iran.
In February 2003, however, my constituent was involved in a road traffic accident in which a child was seriously injured. That was obviously a tragedy, but it turned into a nightmare for the family, because the boy was the son of a high-ranking member of an Islamist group referred to in Iran as Hizbullahi—as I understand it, all such groups are fanatically supportive of the Government, but this particular group is especially fanatical, tends to enforce Government rules, and is known as Feshar. My constituent tells me that its members are hard-line militant enforcers of Islamist rules.
After the accident the police went to the scene, talked to witnesses and took my constituent to a police station, where he was held for three days. The father of the boy then went to the police station and claimed that my constituent had knocked the boy over on purpose. He kicked and beat him. At first the police were inclined to stop that, but when the political-activist senior figure said that my constituent had knocked the boy over on purpose they joined in, and he was beaten very severely.
On the second day, my constituent was asked to sign a confession. He resisted, but was beaten more and then gave in. The confession stated that he had deliberately injured the boy because he was trying to harm the father, and that he had been drinking alcohol. That was all completely untrue, but he signed the confession because he was beaten. He was then taken to court, and was detained while they waited to see what would happen to the boy. He was in prison for two to three weeks; then the boy sadly died.
My constituent's family experienced great difficulty in getting any solicitor to represent him because of the political position of the boy's father, but eventually they found a solicitor who secured his release from prison on bail. When the boy died, however, he was detained again. The court then ordered him to pay blood money or be executed. Obviously he accepted the order to pay blood money, but in such cases the offended party must agree. The boy's family would not accept blood money, but said they would agree to accept it and would not demand execution if my constituent agreed to engage his 11-year-old daughter to the brother of the boy's father, a 42-year-old. The boy's father also went to see my constituent, and said that even if my constituent was executed he would follow his family and take the life of a young person to pay for the life that his own family had lost.
My constituent then talked to his wife and father about what he should do. He thought that perhaps he should accept execution to release his family from the pressure that they were under, but they said "No: agree to the deal. Then at least we can get you out of prison, and try to find a way forward." He therefore accepted the deal and paid the blood money, which he tells me was 15 million toman. I have no idea how much that is, but I imagine that it is a substantial sum.
Then the daughter was engaged to the brother, but whenever the man called at their house she would shake in fear. Her father felt absolutely dreadful, and decided that he could not do it: she was too young. Then his father paid a people-smuggler—one of those people who now run the asylum system of the world—to take the family out of the country. But the smuggler was arrested—I do not think that it was to do with this case—and put in prison, so the money was lost and that plan did not work.
The fiancé—the 42-year-old brother—kept calling at my constituent's house to see his daughter. My constituent said that he could not accept it any more. He dismissed the engagement, and returned the presents that the fiancé had brought.
Before the engagement, the family of the boy who had died in the accident had come to my constituent's house, broken windows and harassed and threatened the family. All that stopped when the engagement was on, but after it was broken off the attacks started again. That led to an invasion of the house. The invaders found the satellite television, which is illegal in Iran. They also claimed to have found political books and alcohol. My constituent tells me that he did have a satellite television, but did not have political books or alcohol. He was not involved in any political activity in Iran. However, the allegations were being made by a political faction, which made him into a political prisoner.
My constituent was then taken to the fanatical group's own prison, which he tells me was very nasty, like a cage, with sharp needle-like pieces of metal embedded in the cement of the floor. He was there for 10 to 12 days. There was no light, and he did not know whether it was day or night. He was taken out of the cage and beaten, then put back, many times. He was then released, because his father had paid a lot of money for him to be released, and told to report to the group daily. He tells me that there are special courts to deal with political offences—Islamic revolutionary courts.
Given the doubts of the regrettably misinformed adjudicator in the case, let me say that Human Rights Watch is very clear about the fact that there are political courts in Iran: there is no question about that. My constituent was not politically active, but he was accused by a political faction of being politically motivated, and was therefore treated as a political prisoner.
My constituent's father, having got him released from prison, looked for a way to get him and his wife, son and daughter out of the country. They found and paid a people-smuggler, who got them false visas on their real passports. By now, they were not staying at home but moving between friends and family. Then, they got the message to go to the airport very early on a fixed day. The smuggler gave them their passports and told them which passport check-line and door to go through. My constituent assumes that people were bribed to let them through. They did not know until that morning where they were going. They had no motivation to get to the UK; they just wanted to get out of the country and the danger that they were in. They were given tickets and told to rip up their passports on the plane and to apply to UK authorities when they arrived, which they did. My constituent knew nothing whatsoever of asylum or any asylum seekers before he came to the UK.
Since the family have been in this country, the daughter has had constant nightmares and will not eat. Her doctors have written medical letters to me; indeed, they are so worried about her that they have even come to see me at my advice bureau. They are extremely fearful that she will commit suicide. I have provided the Home Office with copies of those letters. Dr. Usha Jayarajan, clinical psychologist, and Dr. Irene Lampert, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, of Birmingham Children's hospital—a fine and prestigious hospital—say that the girl
"suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and associated Mood Disorders."
"has difficulty sleeping, waking frequently from frightening nightmares where she sees the cyclist who died in the accident in Iran, covered with blood and chasing her with knives in his hands, threatening to kill her and her family."
When she is awake
"she sees people who are walking towards her as the cyclist covered in blood and becomes afraid that he is going to kill her".
"experiences many symptoms of acute anxiety; she is sweaty, dizzy, trembling hands, fidgety, palpitations and suffers from headaches."
On one occasion, she
"became dizzy resulting in her falling and breaking her leg in three places."
"is visibly very tense and has a constant sense of dread" and
"is unable to eat as it makes her feel nauseous."
When she is awake,
"she reports finding it difficult to think about anything other than the events that led them to flee Iran and how terrible their situation is now, compared to the comfortable life that they had prior to the accident."
"has a sense of despair and hopelessness resulting in a persistent wish that she were dead. She has tried to persuade her mother to agree to a suicide pact for the whole family."
The letter continues:
"As we have already indicated, a strong feature of" the girl's case
"is her persistent wish to kill herself. It is our strong belief that if" she
"believed that she was to be returned to Iran she would make a serious attempt to kill herself, and would quite possibly succeed, before she ever reached there."
Since that letter was written, I have received a further letter from the doctors. It states that
"the situation has gone from bad to worse."
The father is now deeply depressed and there is a lot of blame between daughter and father for what has taken place. The letter continues:
"We have a very real worry, that if the situation is not swiftly resolved, i.e. the family are given permanent permission to stay, then" she
"is not going to make a recovery."
The doctors have discussed the case with a senior hospital figure, and they are all worried that she
"will not see her 14th birthday. If this were to be the case, then the subsequent impact on the rest of the family is too horrific to contemplate."
As if that were not bad enough, since the family has been in the UK the son has developed leukaemia. A letter from a consultant paediatric haematologist at Birmingham Children's hospital—I have sent a copy of it to the Home Office—dated
"was first diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia at the beginning of March 2004 and he received intensive chemotherapy until August 2004. He is currently in remission and on regular follow up. He is not requiring any active treatment at present although there still does remain a significant risk of disease relapse, particularly over the next two to three years . . . treatment was quite intensive and we are continuing to monitor him in the Outpatient Department for any sign of toxic effects following this treatment. He does have a significant risk of relapse and if this occurs he will need intensive further treatment and bone marrow transplant. Were he to return to Iran it is unlikely he would get the sort of follow up that would pick up complications following his treatment and secondly should his disease relapse, he will not have access to multi-agent chemotherapy and transplant as would be available in the U.K. Even should he relapse, he has a good chance of being cured with further intensive treatment."
The tragedy of the boy comes on top of the rest of the tragedy for that family.
Since they have been in the UK, they have kept in touch with the father and mother of my constituent. Their house has been invaded twice by that fanatical group and they have been beaten on both occasions. After the second invasion, the mother had a heart attack, but is still alive.
My constituent is a very intelligent, calm and reflective man. There is no doubt about the sincerity of his belief—I have been to their house and spoken with them at some length—that if he is sent back he would be sent before a political court, because he has been accused of political activity, and probably executed. His children would also be targeted, as was threatened.
I have written to my hon. Friend the Minister and asked for a meeting. His letter of
It is notable also that in October 2003, before the adjudication, the Home Office argued that the general human rights situation and freedom of speech in Iran were improving, and the country was in a state of transition. I hope it is accepted—it is certainly the rhetoric of our Government—that since the 2005 elections and the appointment, in particular, of Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi as Minister of the Interior, that is emphatically no longer the case. He was previously involved in a decision to execute thousands of political prisoners in 1983, an event that Human Rights Watch considers a serious crime against humanity under international human rights law.
That is the case that I am bringing to the Floor of the House and before the Minister tonight. I am sure that he is very busy and has many cases to consider. Perhaps he has not in the past had time to consider all the details of this case, but I ask him to please, please use his discretion to allow the family to remain in the UK on compassionate grounds because that would save their lives. They are a very nice and highly educated family and, if allowed to stay, I am sure that they would be very good citizens of our country.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend Clare Short on her success in securing the slot for an Adjournment debate today. As she knows, these occasions provide Members with an opportunity to raise in some detail on the Floor of the House issues of a constituency nature. I have to say, for reasons that I will discuss, that I was a little disappointed by her choice of subject, not least because, as she knows only too well, we have been in fairly regular correspondence about the case to which she refers.
I have, as my right hon. Friend knows, taken the time to respond in some detail about the case. However, as a matter of principle, it would not be right for me to discuss on the Floor of the House or in any other public forum the particular circumstances of this or any other asylum case, and I will not do so today. I also consider it inappropriate to discuss this case on the Floor of the House because the applicant's legal representatives have applied for the case to be heard before the High Court under judicial review, and that application remains outstanding. In that context, it simply is not proper for me to discuss the substance or the individual circumstances of the case. I receive numerous requests from MPs to meet and discuss specific cases, and where appropriate I do so. I also receive numerous requests to use my limited discretion, and where appropriate I do so.
I do not agree with my right hon. Friend's contention that there is a growing unwillingness to listen to cases or a hardening of attitude at the Home Office, for reasons that I shall outline as I set out the broad general principles.
My right hon. Friend is more than aware that asylum and human rights applications are considered by the Home Office on their individual merits, in accordance with our obligations under the 1951 UN refugee convention and the European convention on human rights. When cases are assessed as well founded, we provide protection by granting asylum to those who meet the definition of a refugee under the 1951 convention, and by granting humanitarian protection to people who are not refugees but who would face a serious risk to life or person arising from torture, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, the death penalty or unlawful killing, and who are not subject to specified exclusion criteria.
Each application is considered against the background of the latest available information about the situation in the country of origin. Full account is taken of the ability of the individual concerned to reside safely in other parts of their country when it is not safe for them to return to their home area. By the bye, however busy I am—and I do not deny that everyone is busy—I take each and every case that comes before me extremely seriously, and read them in as much detail as necessary.
The Government firmly believe that the right approach is to continue to assess carefully the protection needs of individuals on an individual basis. Similarly, returns are taken forward on a case-by-case basis. We enforce the return of an individual only when we are satisfied that to do so would not put the person at risk.
As my right hon. Friend knows, since the new single-tier appeal system was introduced in April 2005, unsuccessful applicants have been able to appeal to the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal. If unsuccessful at appeal, an applicant may submit an application to the tribunal for a review of the decision. The AIT is an independent body established by Parliament to adjudicate on matters of that kind, and I would not normally intervene where an applicant's appeal had been dismissed by the tribunal, except in the most compelling circumstances. In cases where an applicant still has an avenue of appeal, such as an application for judicial review of an immigration decision, it would not be appropriate for a Minister to intervene.
As my right hon. Friend knows, the Government expect all asylum seekers found not to be in need of international protection to return to their country of origin. Help and advice for those who want to return voluntarily can be obtained from the immigration office dealing with the applicant's case. Alternatively, such help and advice can be obtained from the International Organisation for Migration, which is an independent body.
I did not know that there was a judicial process, but I have two questions for my hon. Friend. In a case such as this, when he will not agree to meet me and has turned everything down, yet I genuinely and sincerely believe—as do her doctors—that a child is likely to kill herself because her father's life is in danger, how does he recommend that I take the case forward? Secondly, if the judicial process does not lead to success, will he agree to meet me to discuss the case?
Members find ways and means of raising aspects of cases each and every day. I shall not comment directly on the outcome of the judicial process until it is complete. We are doing all we can through the immigration and nationality directorate, to ensure through correspondence, e-mail, hot lines and so on, that any subsequent information that a Member wants to submit about an individual case can be taken fully into consideration. I spend much of my time deferring decisions on removal directions or other aspects of cases so that new information—if it is genuinely new—can be put before the caseworker concerned, or me.
With the greatest respect, I have to point out that with the best will in the world, the issue is not simply about meeting the Minister in every instance. I meet individual MPs and they talk to me about cases and raise specific points with me every time I am in the House. It is right and proper that I should make myself available in that way. As and when appropriate I meet MPs on a regular basis, but I do not do so in every case where a Member has requested a meeting. I do not think that doing so would be fair on the MPs, given the expectations that may or may not be raised with the applications or the general process that I undertake in dealing with cases.
I hope that my right hon. Friend will accept that things are improving in our interactions with MPs in such cases. We are doing all we can to improve not only the decision-making process and the information made available during that process, and how the IND and the Home Office work with MPs and their caseworkers and correspond about cases, but more broadly in creating a more robust asylum process, rooted in the 1951 convention, which is and must be our starting point.
In conclusion, the IND and the Home Office are doing things far more efficiently, but not in the context of a more hard-headed approach or a growing unwillingness to use discretion. Of course the asylum system, rooted in the 1951 convention and the European convention on human rights, is and should be about dealing with political repression and the circumstances of specific cases and their ins and outs. Rather than going into the specifics of a case—to be perfectly honest, it would be inappropriate to do so on the Floor of the House or in any public forum—it is right and proper that I have dwelt on the broader issues that I hope will be of some use to my right hon. Friend.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Six o'clock.