It’s been a tumultuous year for UKBA to say the least.
After the fiasco over suspended checks and fingerprinting of non-EU nationals in 2011, and the subsequent resignation of Brodie Clark, surely 2012 would be a better year for UKBA? But a year on, as 2012 draws to a close the UK Border Agency continues to be a black stain on the British Civil Service, plagued by delays, bureaucracy and miscommunication. Amongst the torrent of negative press the UKBA’s failures seem to blur into one so, as another miserable year at the Border Agency comes to an end, a summary of the year’s ups and downs seems in order. I know I could do with one.
Following the controversies of 2011, Teresa May commissioned an independent investigation into border security checks. The resulting report published on 20th February by Independent Chief Inspector John Vine evidenced “poor communication, poor managerial oversight and a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities” at the UKBA and in its relationship with Ministers. The text was littered with “concerns”, “failures” and descriptions of “potentially unlawful” activities and concluded that the UKBA suffers from widespread inconsistencies and poor Ministerial communication.
Two months later the UKBA hit the headlines again, the reason? Up to three hour delays at passport control. According to leaked figures waiting limits had been breached 107 times in just two weeks at Heathrow Terminal 3 and immigration officers were even flown down from Manchester to deal with the queues. With less than three months to go until the world descended on London for the Olympics the apparent inability of London’s largest airport to cope with border checks provoked concern and criticism across the media. Overstretched and lacking resources the queues were claimed to be the result of the “unsustainable” full border checks demanded in the wake of the Brodie Clark suspensions the previous year. To add salt to the wound just a few days later computers crashed at the Croydon Enquiry Office resulting in hundreds of cancelled appointments and thousands of people left unable to travel.
In July, the Home Affairs Committee’s report into the work of UKBA (December 2011-March 2012) found a total backlog of 276,460 outstanding immigration and asylum cases which they described as “totally unacceptable”. The figure included 150,000 people in the “migration refusal pool” whom the UKBA had lost track of since being refused leave to remain in the UK. According to Rt Hon Keith Vaz MP, Chair of the Committee:
“This is the first time that the Committee has collated all the cases at the UK Border Agency that await resolution. This backlog is now equivalent to the entire population of Newcastle upon Tyne. It will take years to clear. The Agency seems to have acquired its own Bermuda triangle. It’s easy to get in, but near impossible to keep track of anyone, let alone get them out.” (July 2012).
Unsurprisingly the figures made national headlines with one shocked tabloid reporting on the “Thousands of foreign crooks still not deported after jail“.
By September, after the Olympic come-down, UKBA shot back into the headlines as they launched a dramatic attack on international student migration. In line with the government’s crackdown on ‘bogus’ student visas UKBA decided to revoke the London Metropolitan University’s license to sponsor international student visas resulting in 2000 students having their visas cancelled with just 60 days to find a university place elsewhere or ‘get out’. The move prompted an immediate backlash from students and migrants’ rights organisations and the UKBA was eventually forced to give concessions to affected students.
With winter drawing in, another Independent Report from Chief Inspector Vine was published on November 22nd following the Home Affairs Committee’s Chair’s announcement that the backlog had grown by a further 25,000 cases in just 3 months. This time the focus of John Vine’s report lay specifically on the handling of legacy asylum and migration cases by UKBA and once again it was highly critical of the Agency.
Vine’s inspection shed new light on the ‘successful’ completion of UKBA review of all unresolved (‘legacy’) asylum cases. The Agency had been given the task of ‘dealing with’ 450,000 legacy cases by summer 2011 back in 2006 and declared that it had achieved this aim in March 2011. Importantly, not all of those cases involve asylum seekers in the UK; many had since left, or were merely duplicate files. Contradicting the Agency’s claims of completion the November 22nd report found that concluded cases which had been placed in an archive had been archived “after only very minimal work in order to fulfil the pledge”. This obviously had knock-on effects for thousands of asylum seekers. Some may have been granted rights they would not have had had the UKBA processed their applications more quickly, but across the board asylum seekers, including unaccompanied minors, have suffered from slow, inefficient processing leaving them in limbo.
November also saw the publication of a separate investigation of the Tier 4 points system, the tier concerning student visas which, as previously explained, has become an increasingly controversial issue in British politics. This time the report was generally positive and noted “significant improvements being made”. However, UKBA was still found to be struggling under the sheer weight of caseloads with over 150,000 notifications about changing circumstances awaiting action and a potential 26,000 students whose visas should have been curtailed.
What a year! The situation is perhaps best summed up by Chairman Rt Hon Keith Vaz who recently stated: “It seems that every time the Committee thinks UKBA has revealed the full-scale of its backlogs, another is discovered”. The Border Agency is undoubtedly a deeply flawed organisation but its failings should not be to the detriment of migrants and asylum seekers whose letters go unopened while they are left waiting for a decisions on their right to stay for years on end. On top of these failings the hostility and discrimination which immigrants face across the UK is only likely to worsen if media outlets continue to highlight the enormous UKBA backlogs and thousands of fake students and asylum seeking criminals who are apparently roaming our streets. But the media’s role is a whole other topic for a whole other blog.
And where were the ‘ups’ that I mentioned in the title might you ask? Good question.