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.

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.