Is there an amnesty for illegal immigrants? Keith Vaz seems determined to prove that there is, although so far without success. But the reality behind the bluster is rather more serious.
In 2007 the Home Office ‘found’ (or so the apocryphal tale goes) 500,000 asylum cases which had not been dealt with, ‘lying around’ in a room in the depths of Lunar House, Croydon. This backlog was termed the ‘legacy’ of unresolved asylum cases.
A new department was set up and given the grisly task of looking at and resolving these cases, some of which had been untouched for over 10 years. The results were pretty grim. Thousands of people came to light who had been in a kind of ‘no-man’s land ‘for years on end, with no right to work, no home and no prospect of their situation being resolved. They were either granted leave to remain or deported according to a set of criteria so vague and complex that caseworkers struggled to apply it consistently, which led to unfair decisions and talk of an amnesty.
Although it has been a difficult and problematic process, the majority of cases have now been cleared. But we can never allow a similar backlog to develop again. Unfortunately, the signs are that the UKBA is slipping again under its new Chief Executive, Rob Whiteman.
A new backlog has developed- this time of ‘reconsideration requests’- informal appeals, where an applicant has been refused leave to remain but has asked for the decision to be looked at again. Although smaller, this backlog is worse than the legacy in some ways. Firstly, it is the most vulnerable who make reconsideration requests- single mothers who have been told to leave the UK with young children for example. Secondly, those with a reconsideration requests pending (as opposed to formal appeals or asylum claims) have absolutely no rights- not even to emergency housing if they are homeless with children. Thirdly, the department dealing with them is completely unaccountable and has no targets or system of prioritising cases- you cannot request that your case be considered a priority if you are street homeless, for example.
A second backlog is creating more immediate problems. Currently, when people apply to extend their leave to remain, they retain their right to work while their application is being considered. Employers can call a UKBA number and confirm that their employee has indeed applied and can work. However, the department in Durham that logs new applications onto the computer database now has a backlog of several months. This means that when employers call up, they are told that their employee has not applied and they cannot confirm their ongoing right to work. An email is generated setting this out in writing. You can imagine the results.
Liberal Democrats MPs have called on the government to resolve these backlogs as soon as possible. But we should be worried that they are beginning to develop again after four relatively good years under the stewardship of the UKBA’ s previous Chief Executive, Lin Homer.
Stopping backlogs developing when resources are scarce is difficult. It takes commitment, energy and a constant remembering of why the work is important. But it is worth it- in our immigration system it is essential if we are to prevent the most vulnerable from slipping into a black hole. The UKBA must employ people who understand this, and Liberal Democrats must to all that they can to encourage them when they do their job well, and hold them to account when they do not. We must not end up with another ‘legacy’.
* James Harper works for a Liberal Democrat MP specialising in Asylum and Immigration casework. The views expressed are his own.