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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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.