The UK Border Agency must end this culture of disbelief

The chaos at the UKBA that forces asylum seekers to languish in poverty-stricken limbo shows the need for change

‘This tale of bureaucracy and incompetence overlooks a tragic human toll for the asylum seekers suspended in the UKBA twilight zone’. Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

The UK Border Agency has come under fire in a report from the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, John Vine, for allowing a huge backlog of asylum cases to build up and for misleading parliament about how it has dealt with this backlog. The report focuses on 147,000 legacy cases – asylum seekers who made a claim before March 2007 – and says that this group has spent an average of seven years waiting for a decision.

Both Labour and Conservative politicians have expressed concern about the failure to remove those asylum seekers whose cases have been refused more swiftly. Booting out asylum seekers quickly and efficiently plays out well with middle England voters. However, this tale of bureaucracy and incompetence overlooks a tragic human toll for the asylum seekers suspended in the UKBA twilight zone.

One of the reasons for the chaos and delays is the significant number of people wrongly refused asylum when they initially make a claim. Many then appeal, which often results in costly delays and a mountain of paperwork. Many appeals are eventually granted, proving that a wrong decision was made first time round.

But while asylum seekers wait for the government to untangle their case, they suffer. They are forbidden from working and only a few can access government support earmarked for this group – no-choice accommodation and a small amount of money. The rest are left destitute, surviving on food handouts from charities, sleeping on night buses or park benches, and facing sexual and other forms of exploitation. They can’t make a step back and return to the country where they were persecuted, but they also can’t move forwards without government permission to do so.

One Ugandan asylum seeker waited five years for a decision. “After  my asylum claim was refused I lodged a fresh claim but heard nothing,” she said. “My life went into a state of complete limbo, one of the worst things about being an asylum seeker. All of you will have diaries in which you write your appointments but when you’re an asylum seeker you can’t have a diary because you can’t plan anything. You don’t know if you are going to be put into detention when you sign on at an immigration reporting centre. You can’t make new year’s resolutions because you don’t know what the year will bring.”

Another asylum seeker, a 43-year-old Angolan who fled civil war in his country, arrived in the UK in 1994. He is still waiting for a decision. The Home Office lost his papers in 1996, 1998/9 and 2005. His family died in the conflict in his country. He is homeless and sometimes sleeps on the street. He has spent much of his adult life in a void of waiting. He sits with his head in his hands, trying to come to terms with the multiple fractures of his life – first by the war in his country and second by his treatment here.

A recent freedom of information request to UKBA revealed that between October 2009 and July 2012, there were 1,596 complaints about lost immigration and asylum documents. As not all parts of UKBA use the centralised complaints system, and not everyone whose documents are lost makes a complaint, this is likely not to be the total figure.

UKBA has been accused by its critics of having a culture of disbelief where asylum claims are concerned. Neither the government nor those who languish for years waiting for a decision can benefit from this approach. Urgent reforms are needed. They are not only in the interest of politicians with an eye on the middle England vote, but also of the many asylum seekers left in limbo.

The Independent Chief Inspector publishes a report on the UK Border Agency’s handling of legacy asylum and migration cases

Inefficiency, poor customer service and a lack of security and data checks were identified as key failings in the way the UK Border Agency’s dealt with the legacy of unresolved asylum cases. The findings were published in the Independent Chief Inspector’s report on the handling of legacy asylum and migration cases. The Chief Inspector also raised concerns that his findings did not correlate with the information that was provided by the Agency to Parliament.

In 2006 the then Home Secretary made a commitment that the UK Border Agency must “deal with” the legacy of unresolved asylum cases no later than the summer of 2011. The Case Resolution Directorate (CRD) was subsequently created in 2007 to ‘conclude’ these cases. The Agency stated that it had achieved this aim at the end of March 2011. However, 147,000 cases remained unresolved, some, where barriers to conclusion existed, as well as archived cases where applicants could not be traced. As a result, the Case Assurance and Audit Unit (CAAU) was created in April 2011 to specifically deal with these outstanding cases. The inspection examined how well the transition of work from CRD to CAAU was managed. It also examined the efficiency and effectiveness of the handling of legacy asylum and migration cases in general.

John Vine CBE QPM, Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, said:

“The clearance of legacy asylum casework has remained a prominent area of interest for a wide range of stakeholders since 2006, and one which often deals with sensitive and vulnerable individuals. My inspection examined how well this legacy work was managed by the Agency.

I found that updates given by the Agency to Parliament in the summer of 2011, stating that the legacy of unresolved asylum cases was resolved, were inaccurate. In fact, the programme of legacy work is far from resolved. On the evidence I found, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that cases were placed in the archive after only very minimal work in order to fulfil the pledge to conclude this work by the summer of 2011.

I found that the security checks on controlled archive cases had not been undertaken routinely or consistently since April 2011, and data matching with other departments in order to trace applicants had not begun until April this year. This was unacceptable and at odds with the assurances given to the Home Affairs Select Committee.

The flawed implementation of a policy change in July 2011, coupled with poor customer service, adversely affected a number of applicants. It led to lengthy and distressing delays for affected asylum applicants, including former unaccompanied asylum seeking children, whose cases should have been dealt with in a timely fashion.

Such was the inefficiency of this operation that at one point over 150 boxes of post, including correspondence from applicants, MPs and their legal representatives lay unopened in a room in Liverpool.

I have commented previously about the importance of effective governance during major business change initiatives, so I was disappointed to find that a lack of governance was again a contributory factor in what turned out to be an extremely disjointed and inadequately planned transfer of work between the CRD and the CAAU.”

The Chief Inspector made ten recommendations to the UK Border Agency. These included conducting routine and regular data matching exercises on cases yet to be concluded, ensuring information presented to the Home Affairs Select Committee is accurate, and embedding a stronger quality assurance framework within the CAAU.

The Chief Inspector, added:

“I noted that the Agency had started to tackle the problems at the time of my inspection. A business plan for CAAU had been created, a stronger performance framework had been put in place, governance of CAAU had improved and significant numbers of additional staff were being recruited. I also found a much more robust approach had been introduced to locate and trace applicants within the controlled archives.

 The Agency must now make a new commitment to the resolution of legacy cases and stick to it. At the same time information about progress presented to Parliament and other stakeholders must be absolutely accurate in order that the performance of the Agency in this high profile area of work can be evaluated effectively.”

Download this report as a pdf here:

An inspection of the UK Border Agency’s handling of legacy asylum and migration cases