Without the UK Border Agency, what will happen to those seeking sanctuary on our shores?

Restructuring the UKBA will not confront its fundamental problems.


When David talks about the UK Border Agency a grin brightens his tired face; for him the shambolic organization that has taken nearly four years to decide what to do with him is joke. His eyes light up in disbelief as he describes being flown back from the UK to Democratic Republic of Congo (the country refused to recognize him as a citizen; he is effectively stateless), first class, with four bodyguards. He chuckles sadly: “Like a king. They like to spend money too much.”

David laughs less now. He takes anti-depressants to medicate the reality of being a relatively recent statistic in the UKBA’s immigration backlog. The outsourced security guards wrestling a woman onto a flight; the immigration removal centre roommate hitting his head against a wall, again and again, screaming, “I am not an animal”. The short term deportation holding room “three times the size of a toilet, half an hour outside everyday”. He cannot shake these memories; they rest heavy on his sanity. But insists he will get a final decision on his case, “whether the UKBA likes it or not”.

As of Tuesday the UKBA in the form that David knew it will no longer exist. Theresa May announced in parliament that the organisation will be split in two, and operations brought under the control of Home Office ministers. May said the UKBA was too large, secretive and unaccountable, lacked decent IT operations and struggled to navigate the law.

The announcement came a swift 24 hours after the Home Affairs select committee published a damning report on the UKBA’s operations. Among many other things the committee raised concerns about a backlog of more than 320,000 cases, a 53 per cent rise in the number of refugees waiting more than six months for an initial decision, and 150 boxes found in a room in Liverpool containing thousands of unopened letters from applicants, MPs and lawyers. The report also touched upon the effect of the chaos on human lives; it asked why Capita was paid £2.5m-3m to send people text messages asking them to leave the country. And why did UKBA case workers systematically ignored rule 35, which states staff must act if a person’s health is likely to be “injuriously affected” by detention.

This report is one of many to expose the failings of the UKBA, but how does May’s decision to restructure the agency confront its fundamental problems? Put simply, it does not. The Guardian reports that one senior civil servant told Home Office staff: "Most of us will still be doing the same job in the same place with the same colleagues for the same boss and with the same mission.”

What exactly is the UKBA’s mission? In a memo to its private partners chief executive Rob Whiteman said the mission was to “keep Britain’s streets safe and our borders secure”. Under the new plans there will be two services, he says. One that makes “high-quality decisions” for “business men and visitors” and another that, “gets tough on those who break our immigration laws.”

Should border control really just be about servicing businessman and keeping out “illegals”? What about those legitimately seeking sanctuary on our shores?

As has been stated extensively elsewhere and by May herself there are numerous faults with the current incarnation of the UKBA. But disturbing evidence shows an entrenched culture of disbelief when assessing asylum claims, a disregard of the UK’s need to protect people from torture and wrongful imprisonment.

In March last year the UKBA wrote to the Direction Generale de Migration (DGM), a government department in the Democratic Republic of Congo, inviting officials to visit Britain (all expenses paid) to help “redocument” 80 people held in detention centres in and around London. The interviews would take place over a four day period, with decisions on the nationality given within 24 hours of each interview.

The interviews took place at Brook House and Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centres. Delegates from the Congolese ministry of foreign affairs and DGM asked refused asylum seekers and detainees with spent prison convictions in the UK questions about their parents and other family members. Soon after several migrants and refugees held in British detention centres were deported to the DRC.

The UKBA has done nothing wrong here. This process, where foreign officials interview people who have claimed asylum in the UK, is not unusual even in cases where individuals fear those very governments. However, in the case of the DRC charities and campaigners raised concerns that failed asylum seekers and foreign national prisoners returned from the UK were at risk of torture and unlawful imprisonment on return; the allegation is that the interviews with the DGM in Britain are used to identify these people in advance of their return. Justice First, an NGO, went to the DRC to gather evidence from returnees who reported numerous abuses. The report was published at the end of 2011, the UKBA only got round to responding to it and investigating claims made several months after inviting the members of the DRC government, to identify the people they have been accused of torturing.

Shortly after the interviews, Barnabe Kikaya Bin Karubi, the Congolese ambassador, told an All Party Parliamentary Group in June that all failed asylum seekers would be punished on return to the DRC. According to those who attended the meeting, the ambassador said such people would be “suitably punished on return”. Several MPs intervened appealing to Damian Green, the immigration minister who will now play a major role in delivering the UKBA’s former services. Despite this returns continued. (The UKBA has since conducted a fact finding mission to the DRC and found evidence of torture and the ambassador has retracted his comments).

Jo Wilding, an immigration barrister at Garden Court Chambers, said: “Part of the problem is a culture of disbelief in the UKBA, whereby those making decisions in individual cases start from the assumption that people are lying, then look for the slightest evidence to prove that. If there is a [no] new body making asylum or trafficking decisions or making enforcement decisions, the culture of disbelief, the lack of training and empathy, the failure to properly apply policies are likely to remain exactly the same.”

The disregard shown to allegations of torture and false imprisonment in this case, and cases like that uncovered by Freedom from Torture about abuses in Sri Lanka, will continue even without the existence of the UKBA. In such cases ministers were alerted and failed to act, now those same ministers are in charge.  


Refugees celebrating last year's Diamond Jubilee at a party organised by the Refugee Council. Photograph: Getty Images

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi reports and writes on immigration, women and economics, housing, legal aid, and mental health. Read her latest work here. Her blog was shortlisted for the 2012 Orwell Prize. She tweets @Rebecca_Omonira.

Show Hide image

What it’s like to be a Syrian refugee in Paris

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Walid al Omari arrived in Paris a little less than a month ago. Having fled the slaughter of his homeland and undertaken the long and dangerous journey, like tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees, to western Europe, he was finally safe.

Ten days later, a wave of brutal violence tore through the French capital as gunmen and suicide bombers put an end to the lives of 130 people who had been out enjoying a drink, dinner, a concert or a football match.

“It felt like terrorism was everywhere,” recalls the 57-year-old Walid, a former small business owner and journalist from the suburbs of Damascus.

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Syrian refugees, not just in Paris but across Europe and North America, have since found themselves caught up in a storm of suspicion. The backlash started after it emerged that at least two of the attackers arrived in Europe among refugees travelling to Greece, while a Syrian passport was found next to one of the bodies.

It has not yet been confirmed if the two men were really Syrian – all suspects whose identities have so far been made public were either French or Belgian – while the passport is widely believed to be a fake. But, already, several US states have said they will not accept any more refugees from Syria. In Europe, Poland has called for the EU’s quota scheme for resettling refugees to be scrapped, while lawmakers in France, Germany and elsewhere have called for caps on refugee and migrant numbers.

“I fear the worse,” says Sabreen al Rassace, who works for Revivre, a charity that helps Syrian refugees resettle in France. She says she has been swamped by calls by concerned refugees in the days following the attacks.

“They ask me if the papers they have been given since they arrived in France will be taken away, if they’ll be sent back to Syria,” she says.

Anas Fouiz, who arrived in Paris in September, has experienced the backlash against refugees first hand.

“One waiter at a bar asked me where I was from and when I said Syria he said that I must be a terrorist, that all Arab people are terrorists,” says the 27-year-old from Damascus, who had been a fashion student before leaving for Europe.

The irony is that the terrorist organisation that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, the Islamic State, is, along with Bashar al Assad’s army and other militant groups, responsible for the long list of atrocities that prompted many like Walid and Anas to flee their homes.

“As a man in Syria you have the choice of joining the Syrian army, the Islamic state or another militant group, or you run away,” says Anas.

He remembers seeing news of the attacks unfold on television screens in bars and cafés in the Bastille area of Paris – close to where much of the carnage took place – as he drank with a friend. Desensitised by having seen so much violence and death in his home city, he didn’t feel any shock or fear.

“I just felt bad, because I know this situation,” he says. “You just ask yourself ‘why? Why do these people have to die?’.”

Perhaps a more pressing cause for concern is how easily extremists in Europe can travel to Syria and back again through the porous borders on the EU’s fringes – as several of the Paris attacks suspects are thought to have done.

Both Anas and Walid speak of the lax security they faced when entering Europe.

“Turkey lets people across the border for $20,” says Walid.

“In Greece, they just ask you to write your nationality, they don’t check passports,” adds Anas. “It’s the same in Hungary and Macedonia.”

Nevertheless, and despite his experience with the waiter, Anas says he is happy with the welcome he has received by the vast majority of the French people.

In fact, at a time when fear and violence risk deepening religious and social rifts, Anas’s story is a heartening tale of divisions being bridged.

Upon first arriving in Paris he slept on the streets, before a passer-by, a woman of Moroccan origin, offered him a room in her flat. He then spent time at a Christian organization that provides shelter for refugees, before moving in with a French-Jewish family he was put in touch with through another charity.

He says the biggest problem is that he misses his parents, who are still in Damascus.

“I speak to my mum twice a day on the phone,” he says. “She asks me if I’m okay, if I’m keeping safe. She’s worried about me.”