Shine A Light

“Mickey Mouse border controls slammed!” Calm down, relax, don't worry

Around one in every 2000 people entering the UK between June 2010 and November 2011 got in on just a visual check of ID papers. So?

Don Flynn
21 February 2012

Ho hum – another day, another crisis at the UK Border Agency. There’s a planet somewhere in the universe where the news that a large government department suffers from the things listed in report of the UKBA Independent Chief Inspector into last summer’s partial suspension of identity checks at a handful of ports would actually merit shock horror news coverage, but it really ought not to be this one.

The report sets out all the evidence for the fact that UKBA staff and officials lapse periodically into bouts of confusion about their operating policies, leading to poor guidance to the people on the bureaucratic frontline, and then get mixed up about how they report all of this to the government ministers who are supposed to be in charge.

The consequence of all this we are told is that between June 2010 and November 2011 the operation of full identity checks was temporarily suspended on 463 occasions at Heathrow Airport.

That probably sounds like a big number. Maybe it is, but it is an awful lot smaller than the annual record of aircraft movements (450,000 in 2010),  – and people movements – (69 million in 2011) which the airport has to deal with each year. 

Big kerfuffle

It seems, so we find out reading this report, that issues arise from dealing with this volume of people in the way of health and safety concerns and the times it takes to clear long queues at the busiest times. Sometimes the IT breaks down, which never really happens to anyone else in the real world, and staff have to handle the matter as best they can.

So how did they go about dealing with these periodic kerfuffles? Well, it they thought they had some leeway arising from the fact that 40 per cent of arriving passengers come from EU countries and as such have a right in law to continue their ways from arrival, beyond the passport checking desks, and back into the world where people are normal. There was also leverage to be got from the fact that routine immigration controls require a belt-and-braces approach with both a visual check of travel documents and the passenger, but also whisking everything through a microchip reader to see what is recorded in the passport’s embedded biometric information. 

It seems that every now and again the computer sees something it doesn’t like, and alarm bells come up on the passenger. This happens around 15,000 times a year, according to the report – representing a vanishingly small 0.02 per cent of the volume of Heathrow traffic. To some bright spark it appeared that the combination of low risk level and abundant checking safeguards allowed some scope for adjusting the system whenever things were coming under particular pressure.

Bye bye biometrics

And so it happened. UKBA officials evidently decided that, during these times of high pressure, whole categories of people could be checked in solely on the basis of a visual check of their documents, and the biometric swipe part dispensed with to save 30 seconds or so to get onto the next person in line.

Who where the people deemed to be of low risk and eligible for this, slightly, expedited treatment? The report tells us: it was kids returning to the UK in school parties and members of British families returning from trips to Eurodisney and other continental holidays. Really, you'd have to be a front bench government spokesperson, or a tabloid writer to give a damn about this one.

Another UKBA, another planet

Like we said at the beginning of this piece, there’s a planet in the universe where the news that schoolkids were not being subjected to the full rigour of examinations designed to establish whether they are potential immigration infractors would be a worthy subject for the scare and alarm we’ve been invited to wrap ourselves up in over the past few months whilst this story has rumbled on. 

On that planet there aren’t a billion of its denizens going to bed suffering dire hunger every night. No cruel and savage wars ravage its continents. Its global economy functions with perfect integrity, delivering a fair share of the social surplus to all and sundry, and the misfortune of illness is ameliorated by a health care system that does its best for everyone. In short, the news that not all passports are checked gets reported because there’s nothing else going on that ought to rile people up with indignation and a reforming zeal to ‘do something about it’. That planet isn’t this one.     

This article is republished with thanks from Migrant Rights Network.

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