Lunar House, Croydon (picture by Bindmans)
It’s 7.30 am. My client, Vera, looks anxious. Vera fled Cameroon after being subjected to brutal ‘mob-justice’ by people who had found out she was a lesbian. She’s waiting at the agreed meet-up outside Lunar House, a 20 storey office block in Croydon, South London, headquarters of UK Visas and Immigration. For Vera, this forbidding mass of 1970s concrete might be the last sight she has of the UK whilst at liberty.
On claiming asylum, all applicants are considered for their suitability to be placed on the ‘detained fast track procedure’. Those deemed suitable are immediately placed into a detention centre and an ‘accelerated decision’ is made on their asylum claim. Nearly all applicants (99%) put on to this system are refused. Vera could be back in Cameroon within two weeks.
The Second Floor
Having negotiated airport-style security, Vera and I arrive at the notorious Second Floor, home of the Asylum Screening Unit (ASU).
We arrive 15 minutes early in the hope of getting ahead of the group of around 50 people all given the same appointment time. There are three stages to the screening process: fingerprinting, a 45 minute interview followed by a final appointment with an immigration officer where you are handed your Asylum Seeker Registration Card, presuming you are not detained at this point.
Although this seems a relatively straight forward process, in my numerous visits to the ASU I have yet to leave before 4.00pm.
A queue of 20 has formed and the receptionist already looks at her wit’s end as she struggles to explain the ticketing system to a non-English speaking family. I appear to be the only legal representative here. That’s not surprising, since legal aid does not cover this stage of the asylum process. (My employer, Bindmans LLP, considers this initial stage a crucial part of the asylum process and so we attend pro-bono).
The white-washed waiting area is a 50 metre long room divided into 6 seating areas, each dominated by a large plasma screen. Entertainment? A welcome distraction? Not quite — today all the screens are switched off.
On other days the screens show a single clip over and over again, of smiling immigrants ‘going home’ to their respective countries – to scenes of sunshine, jubilant village receptions and lush fertile grounds.
There’s little to do but wait until your number is called out. Four hours pass. Vera has had her fingerprints taken but is yet to be interviewed. Anxiety seems to give way to boredom and mental fatigue as more and more people spread out across rows of chairs.
The use of mobile phones is strictly forbidden. Security guards patrol the waiting area every 15 minutes, checking that nobody is using their phone.
On a previous visit I had asked a security guard why mobiles are banned. Because it’s Home Office policy, he’d said, pointing to one of the signs on the wall.
I go to the Gents to use my phone. There’s quite a crowd of us in there. On the way back I ask again about the mobile ban. A senior immigration officer tells me the ban is in place so that no one takes pictures of vulnerable people. What? Then, he tells me in a hushed, conspiratorial tone, that I can use my phone on the ‘Third Floor’.
And thus I enter the Premium Service Centre and the relative nirvana of the Third Floor.
Third Floor nirvana
On arrival, I’m welcomed by a woman with a beaming smile. She wears special-issue Home Office uniform, a sleeker fit than that worn by the Second Floor receptionists. Her look and demeanour remind me of cabin crew staff. I feel I have stepped into the Heathrow frequent flyers lounge.
A man in a beige suit and fedora buys drinks from the Costa Coffee which is thoughtfully integrated into the waiting area; a child jabs his iPad screen whilst his professional class parents do the Times Crossword. People are amiably bored. A businessman converses with a Home Office employee, an easy going, confident, and probably university educated individual. Almost everyone is on their phone.
The Premium Service is available for certain non-asylum applicants; many who use the service seek to stay under the Investor visa category. A hefty premium buys a same-day decision.
Most work-based immigrants must do five years in the UK before being eligible for indefinite leave to remain, as do spouses of British nationals. Refugees once were granted indefinite leave to remain at first instance, recognising the need to give these people stability. Now refugees also wait five years, although Theresa May recently announced an intention to prevent many refugees from ever acquiring indefinite leave to remain, keeping the ‘sword of Damocles’ over the heads of this vulnerable group.
People seeking to stay in the UK with their spouses, and most work based immigrants, must also pass stringent English tests. The government’s driver behind the language and residence requirements is ostensibly integration.
Yet those applying to stay as an ‘Investor’ are exempt from the language requirement and can have their route to permanent residence slashed to two years if they can show sufficient capital. People with no protection needs or any family connection to the UK get to jump the queue if the price is right. Britain’s immigration system is open for business.
I thought of Vera and how I had left her, with her head in hands. Vera will wait over a year for a decision to be made on her asylum claim, a year of limbo during which she is not allowed to work and must live on £37 per week. I grab some teas before steadying myself for the culture re-shock of the Second Floor.
Back to reality
Eventually my client was interviewed. The interviewing officer kept checking her mobile. Evidently the Second Floor ban does not extend to staff. As we approached the end of the interview, the officer told us she simply had to make a call, and disappeared for 15 minutes, leaving Vera with an anxious wait to see if she would be placed into the detained fast track procedure. Thankfully she was not and we both left at 5.00pm, 10 hours after we arrived.
Note: Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the identity of individuals.