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 rebeccaomonira.com was shortlisted for the 2012 Orwell Prize. She tweets @Rebecca_Omonira.

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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism