The UKBA tries to clear its asylum backlog, but not its conscience

The UK Border Agency’s messy attempt to resolve thousands of outstanding asylum claims has led to yet another day of terrible headlines.  But ministers know how to stop this happening again, if they would just have the courage.

Today’s report by John Vine, independent Chief Inspector of the Agency, is a damning indictment of the cavalier way the Agency has handled the so-called ‘legacy exercise’ to resolve thousands of outstanding asylum claims, many stretching back to the mid-2000s.

Though the report focuses on administrative failings, these have a stark human cost. We know this because Asylum Aid’s solicitors and caseworkers deal with many people who are stuck in the bewildering limbo that is the UKBA’s Case Assurance and Audit Unit.  Like many other legal representatives, we have plenty of unanswered letters languishing in those unopened boxes.

Those of us who work closely with the Border Agency can only hope that this report and the shocked responses to it will act as a genuine wake-up call. In particular, we hope that those officials within the Agency who feel uncomfortable with the way that its dominant, gatekeeping culture systematically overwhelms its refugee protection responsibilities will feel emboldened to demand genuine reform of the asylum system.  And they know exactly where to start, because a whole host of us – asylum charities, the UN Refugee Agency, immigration judges, Parliamentarians – have been telling them for years that a proper focus on getting more asylum decisions ‘right first time’ is the only way forward.

The quality of UKBA decision making on asylum claims is all too often woefully poor.  Our research report last year, Unsustainable, documented decisions to refuse women asylum made on the basis of information drawn from American gossip websites and irrelevant or out-of-date case law.  Judges, many evidently unimpressed, overturned half of all those decisions. It's small wonder we’ve ended up with a backlog.

The Agency is about to embark on another wrong-headed reform of the asylum system – the asylum transformation project – the priorities of which will only embed the culture of disbelief with which so many asylum seekers are already confronted, and which has led to so many of the problems now overwhelming the Home Office.  But they can’t hope to address the deep seated problems of the current process if they don’t get their act together on the crucial first moments when someone recounts their need for asylum and receives a decision.  

We know as well as anyone that reform comes painfully slowly from the Border Agency.  We also know how easily it might recoil from reform when under such scrutiny. But they have the tools to start fixing the asylum system, starting with the quality of its decisions. Reports like this one have to signal some serious thinking about improving the asylum process, and quickly. 

Maurice Wren is Director of Asylum Aid