The UK Immigration System: Is It Finally “Fit For Purpose”?

Would you like to see UK Border Agency (UKBA) Immigration Officers in action? Not in person, of course, but from the relative safety of your sitting room. If you missed previous episodes of Sky 1 TV’s  “UK Border Force”, you have another opportunity this week. to gain “a fascinating insight into an unseen world” and witness for yourself the “dramas” unfolding at Heathrow’s Terminal 3.  The Halloween night programme (October 31st) featured a raid on a bingo hall in Yeovil (Somerset) to “uncover” illegal workers. The focus of the Tuesday (1st November) edition will be on asylum seekers in Calais, France “sneaking aboard trucks heading for the UK”, on Wednesday you can watch UKBA officers turning up as “uninvited guests” to sham weddings across the country and on Thursday observe a takeaway in Wales being exposed “as a hub of illegal activity”. Sky has classified the UK Border Force documentaries as Entertainment / Factual. They also helpfully provide what they describe as a “Jargon Buster” for those viewers unfamiliar with immigration department terminology but who want to follow what’s going on: The letters “FNP”, Sky explain, means “Foreign National Prisoner”, an “FAS” is a “Failed Asylum Seeker”, an “IRC” is an “Immigration Removal Centre” and “Change Of Purpose” refers to passengers who are coming to the UK for reasons contrary to what they declared when applying for their visa. 

What Sky doesn’t currently appear to mention, however, is that the Home Office (according to a “Daily Telegraph” report) paid out £400,000 to help fund the initial eight-part series. Sky subsequently returned the amount, much to the approval of Matthew Elliott, the Chief Executive of the “TaxPayers’ Alliance”, who commented that the Home Office “should learn the lesson that people don’t pay their taxes so politicians can buy documentaries to massage public opinion”. A Refugee Studies Forum analysis by Jon Burnett characterised the series as “State Propaganda… A wholly favourable public relations exercise for UKBA”. He depicted the footage as showing immigration officers shattering people’s dreams, shouting in people’s faces and smashing through people’s doors” and furthermore “the routine manner” in which the state refuses entry, targets, raids, stops and searches, detains and deports those who are in breach of (or are suspected of being in breach of) immigration laws. Some of the immigration officers shown on the programme “evidently enjoyed their work”. One of them “told the Metro newspaper that the raids are fun”. Another officer, when finding an overdue library book, allegedly joked that if they couldn’t “nick” the suspect for immigration offences they could “ arrest him for his library fine”. Burnett also noted that “considerable time is spent filming the work of immigration officers as they raid homes and workplaces in a hunt for those whose presence is deemed “irregular”.

This last issue is clearly also of concern to John Vine, the Independent Chief Inspector responsible for scrutinising UKBA’s methods . In particular, he has been highly critical of  “dawn raids” on the homes of asylum families facing deportation which “appear to have become the norm”. The role of Independent Chief Inspector was established by Parliament’s UK Borders Act 2007 “ to examine the efficiency and effectiveness of the newly-formed UK Border Agency.  These developments followed the now famous moment in May 2006 when the Labour Government’s Home Secretary, John Reid (as quoted on BBC News) damned his department’s immigration operation as “ not fit for purpose”, with “inadequate” leadership and management systems, “dysfunctional” and whose “wholesale transformation was probably needed”  – remarks in part provoked by the fact that the immigration agency at the time was unable to provide Parliament with the correct data regarding how many foreign nationals who had served prison sentences in the United Kingdom had been deported after their release. Five years later, it appears that this continues to be a problem. In a recently published report, John Vine expressed disquiet that he had found “a rise in the number of foreign national prisoners whom the Agency has not deported or cannot deport immediately at the end of their sentence and are therefore detained or released into the community”. In the three years since he was appointed to the job by the Home Secretary, he has made over 200 recommendations for improvement to UKBA and published more than 34 reports. These include (in 2011) a “Global Review of Entry Clearance Decision Making”, an inspection at Gatwick’s North Terminal and an inspection of UKBA’s visa section in New York, which is the “centre of operations for the whole of the Americas”. In many parts of that region, “people wishing to come Britain must usually first complete the forms at their local UK visa application centre”. The documentation is then put into a sealed envelope along with the fee and the biometrics (identification based on facial, fingerprint and iris recognition) and then sent to New York, where the decision is made.

In an interview with this journalist, John Vine confirmed that he has not yet visited any UK visa section in South America but that it is “perfectly possible” he will do so in the next couple of years if he believes “there are issues to be addressed”.  He has though, during his tenure so far, already inspected UKBA operations in a wide range of other locations abroad, among them Nairobi (Kenya), Abuja (Nigeria), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Istanbul (Turkey), Guangzhou (China), Colombo (Sri Lanka), Chennai (India), Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates) and Islamabad (Pakistan). A re-inspection of  Entry Clearance procedures at the last two is “currently underway”. During 2012, he will be looking at the way UKBA deals with applications to come to – or remain in – the UK on the basis of marriage to, or a civil partnership with, a British citizen as well as Tier 4 of the Points-Based System (PSB) which regulates the flow of overseas students to the UK’s private language schools, the state sector and the universities. He fulfills his functions backed up by a small team of about 34-40 people and a budget of just under £3 million. He doesn’t normally get involved in individual cases  “except in so far as they inform him about the system and the process”.  He places a great deal of emphasis on people being treated properly and with respect. He is aware that “UKBA in some ways (eg: at airports) is looking increasingly like a law enforcement body”, though pointed out that on its case-working side (such as with asylum applications) it is “more like a branch of the civil service”. Part of his job is to carry out “unannounced inspections”. He is “paid to use his judgement and experience (he was previously a Senior Police Officer in Tayside, Scotland) to comment on how Government policy is being implemented, improve public confidence and “see what is happening in reality on the ground”. He doesn’t “pull punches”: In a report issued in May 2011, UKBA was found to be “at fault for the way it uses intelligence to tackle illegal immigration. He’s very conscious that he’s “not UKBA’s internal consultant but reporting to Parliament in the public interest”. There are times when he’s “publishing things that UKBA find difficult”. They “don’t like inspections but see the value of them”. Some Sky viewers might be unconvinced by the last part of that assertion.




Filed under: Immigration & Visas, Media | Posted on October 31st, 2011 by Colin D Gordon

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