The UK Border Agency: after four years, a car crash in slow motion finally comes to a stop

The agency that's caused so much misery and cruelty is to be restructured, but without proper resources its successor won't be able to avoid the same mistakes.

If you want to understand the misery the UK Border Agency (UKBA) has created in its four troubled years, you don’t want to start with the really juicy stuff - the acts of unwarranted violence against people it’s attempted to boot out of the country, the detention of rape victims, the numerous alleged cases of those deported, only to be tortured. Ignore that for now.

No, the devil’s in the more mundane cases. Like that of Emily Deane, 29, who’s been told she’ll be sent back to her native Philippines before the end of the month, forcing her to decide whether to take her one-year-old daughter, Lucy, with her, or leave her child with her husband.

Deane married Brian, from Preston, in the United Arab Emirates. They returned to the UK in September, and had intended to remain for no more than six months, but Brian lost his sales job with the medical company that employed him in the UAE.

Due to bad legal advice, they’d applied for the wrong type of visa, so began applying for Deane to receive permanent residency to remain in the country. But now they were trapped in the proverbial Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare. Sceptical immigration officials began questioning whether the couple really had a baby together. On Monday, they 
were told their application had been rejected.

Brian told the Lancashire Evening Post: “My wife already has a visa to visit the UK which expires soon and I am told the main reason is because we have applied for a permanent visa from within the UK. I can only assume they have thrown all this other nonsense at us about the marriage not being valid and saying we "claim" to have a daughter to back themselves up. If they don’t believe I have a daughter, I’ll take her along to meet them – and take a dirty nappy with me.”

Craig Colville, 31, from Wales, married Crystal, from Vancouver, last year. Crystal applied to change her visa. That the UKBA rejected her was a shock - but more surprising was the reason: “Your spouse (Craig) does not hold settled status, is not a British Citizen and is not a person with refugee leave/humanitarian protection." Craig was born in St Asaph in Wales, works in Mold and has lived in Chester for just under a year.

The letter allowed the couple to appeal, but the Border Agency replied saying the appeal had been quashed because the Colvilles missed the deadline. In this new letter, there was a new deadline as the Agency had failed to take the weekends into account. Craig told the Denbighshire Free Press: "The Border Agency are still holding Crystal's passport, which means she can't return home to see her family. Her brother is quadraplegic and she hasn't seen him in two years."

I could keep going with these ludicrous, cruel little examples of families torn apart by bureaucratic incompetence, but I expect you’re getting the picture.

The UK Border Agency was, of course, a body born of chaos. As the Guardian recently pointed out, “The stunning thing is that some people still stuck in the backlog of 310,000 cases that sealed UKBA's death warrant are actually a direct legacy from that [late 1990s] breakdown in the system.” A botched computerisation saw its backlog of cases soar into the hundreds of thousands, while it struggled to deal with the move from a paper to a computer-based system.

In 2006 the Home Secretary Charles Clarke lost his job because his department had lost track of released foreign national prisoners. Something had to be done, and the result was the creation of the Border and Immigration Agency - and then in 2008, UKBA, following a merger with UK visas and customs staff.

The problem was that all this rejigging never solved the fundamental problems of creaking systems and an insurmountable backlog. The new body, now at arm’s length and less accountable to parliamentary scrutiny, was shambolic and, as Theresa May would this week conclude, “secretive and defensive”.

Nowhere was this clearer than in its use of outsourcing. In the great game of providing jobs for the boys, UKBA was in a league of its own. Like many government entities, it felt the safest option was to give contracts to giant corporations, regardless of expertise or know-how. So this month we learned that G4S, which has no previous experience of providing social housing, is struggling to provide housing for asylum seekers. One of the firm's subcontractors has already resigned because it is not up to the task, while two others have “expressed concerns” about being able to provide the requisite services.

But incompetence is one thing - cruelty quite another. The fact the new body was kept at arm’s length lead Theresa May to conclude it had created a "closed, secretive and defensive" culture. Staff from sub-contractor Reliance were transporting Roseline Akhalu when she ended up pissing all over herself because she wasn't allowed to use a toilet. Staff from Tascor - which superceded Reliance - allegedly beat Marius Betondi and broke his nose during a failed deportation attempt. That was one of thousands of distressing cases, the product of a system in chaos.

The failure to prosecute G4S staff over the death of Jimmy Mubenga has been described as “perverse” by the former Chief Inspector of Prisons. Just as it failed to protect victims of torture, so the system failed to protect victims of slavery. The right-wing Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) found a litany of flaws in UKBA's procedures and concluded that “too often the CSJ has been told that UKBA involvement in the . . .  process acts as a major barrier to victims [of slavery] to make a referral.”

We have been told about the restructuring plans. But restructuring last time round only made the mess worse, because the root causes of the problem weren’t addressed.

As Andy Jennings of the PCS told BBC Breakfast this morning: “This has been a car crash in slow motion, there have been endemic failures for a number of years because there has not been enough staff to do the job. The line given by Theresa May ignores the fundamental issues.”

The work of Mark Sedwell, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, in trying to stop the car crash can only be applauded. But without proper resources, the misery, incompetence and cruelty will only continue.

David Cameron talks to UKBA workers, who are not suspected of any misconduct, at Heathrow Airport. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue