UKBA: The Shameful Agency That Has No Shame

Since 2008 I have been part of Citizens UK negotiation team and met hundreds of UKBA staff in attempt to establish some accountability and advocate for better treatment of migrants by the system. My involvement with the UKBA in this way stems from the time I served as a Commissioner on the Independent Asylum Commission which is still the most comprehensive review of the UK protection system and it came up with 180 recommendations for improvement of the system.  What was different about the Commission was our commitment to work with the government and the UKBA and mobilise civil society to make the system better and fair.

I attended more than thirty meetings with hundreds of UKBA employees in the past five years in an attempt to negotiate some basic standards in treatment of asylum seekers – simple things that we should reasonably expect as the tax payers who pay for this bureaucracy. It was very difficult to engage with any UKBA employees, with the exception of three of their staff members. The problem starts with their culture of disbelief—that the UKBA treats all applicants as guilty until proven innocent. Equally important, though, is their lack of accountability, transparency or cooperation. This is one of the major reasons why the UKBA is constantly being declared ‘not fit for purpose’.

[h3]What does this look like in reality? [/h3]

In my nineteen years of dealing with UKBA and its predecessors, I only ever came across three – yes, three asylum cases that were consider and granted within 6 months. Thousands of people I have met have waited for years, could never call anyone to enquire about their applications, were refused on technicalities and then won on appeals, and I have never in my nineteen years seen a letter from UKBA signed by an actual person. That means that no decision can ever be traced to an UKBA staff member. Correspondence is always late and documents are frequently lost.  To my knowledge, no apology has ever been issued to individuals whose lives have been put on hold for years and years.

MPs that I work with are treated with equal disrespect. It does not come as a surprise that John Vine, Chief Inspector, has discovered yet another blunder by UKBA in managing the so called ‘legacy cases’. Every one of these cases were supposed to be resolved by July 2011 – or else the UKBA executives would not get their annual bonuses.  They made this promise to the Home Select Affairs Committee. In July 2011, they said they had completed the task and they received their bonuses.

What actually happened is a scenario worthy of a banana republic. The UKBA re-labelled 124,000 case files as ‘controlled archive’ (a completely made up category!) and sent them off to Liverpool. They claimed that these case were people who had disappeared and that they would continue to look for them.

In June last year with a group of colleagues, I met with senior UKBA civil servants to talk about the challenges of clearing this infamous ‘backlog’.  They tried to convince us that the only cases that will be archived are those they couldn’t find but we knew that was not true. So we brought the actual people who are being ‘archived’ to show them the damage they are inflicting on people’s lives.  We had with us one woman who has been waiting for 14 years. She broke down in tears when describing what it has been like to survive with no money and no right to work for more than a decade.  She begged the senior civil servants to take her details and take her file out of the ‘archive’.  We had more than a hundred of names and reference numbers for the UKBA staff to remove from the missing people files. They refused. They also ‘warned’ us that if we keep contacting the UKBA to give the names and addresses of the ‘missing people’ then we will ‘just be wasting their valuable time’.  You may want to read this sentence again as it is difficult to comprehend: they were not interested in finding people and we, the taxpaying citizens, should stop messing with their labelling system. 

[h3]Dysfunctional and Unaccountable[/h3]

So, this week’s revelations are no surprise to me or anyone who has dealt with the UKBA.  What came out is solid evidence of dysfunctional and unaccountable bureaucracy that is incapable of reforming or improving and will even resort to the deception of MPs. According to the Inspector’s report from May and June this year, MPs are still complaining to UKBA at the rate of 170 complaints per week!

The Inspector also revealed that a scandalous 150 boxes of mail, including correspondence from applicants, lawyers and MPs, lay unopened in a room in Liverpool. That translates into 14,800 unopened recorded delivery letters and 13,600 unopened first and second class letters containing crucial information and documents about people whose lives have been stuck in limbo, destitution and trauma because one part of our civil service cannot get its act together.

[h4]If they cannot be trusted to open their post, what can they be trusted with?[/h4]

The time has come for the government to stop their screaming about numbers and border controls which fuels inaccurate myths about amnesties. The 2012 Olympics proved that the UK is capable of finding a way to deliver when there is political will.

When will there be political will to establish an accountable and transparent immigration administration, capable of doing a professional job, with good customer care and understanding their duty of care towards taxpayers and migrants?


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