UKBA inquiry: human rights through the looking glass


Serious concerns lost in headlines about backlog statistics

“entering the world of the UKBA is like falling through the looking glass” Keith Vaz, Chair of Committee

Last week (8 Nov), the UK parliament’s Home Affairs Committee published a report of its latest Inquiry into the work of the UK Border Agency. The Committee has now published their report online with the headline “Border Agency’s backlog spiralling out of control”, and that was the angle taken up by the media – that and the terrible spectre of an amnesty for “illegal immigrants”.

Less widely reported were other serious issues of concern at the Border Agency: the poor quality of decision making, the increasing detention of children and use of force against them, the unlawful imprisonment of torture victims, the mental health needs of detainees being ignored.

People behind the headlines

That the Border Agency does not know how many cases in their massive backlog are actual, existing people in the UK is of concern, but it is how they deal with applications, with people, that is the real worry.

As the Refugee Council’s Lisa Doyle points out, behind the figures in that backlog are real people, desperate to have their applications resolved, many having waited for years, unable to put down any proper roots and rebuild their lives, let alone access the services or support they need.

There is a real danger that in a rush to hit targets, people’s lives are put in danger, and this is highlighted in the report. The “culture of disbelief” in asylum determinations is well-documented (try googling the phrase). The curtailment of access to legal representation, and the concentration on hitting targets, will lead to even more people being incorrectly refused asylum and being sent back to persecution, torture, or even death. But it will also lead to more people fighting appeals, lodging judicial reviews, leading to more court time and costs. And more backlogs.

Dangerous targets

“The Committee is particularly worried about the plight of Tamils being returned to Sri Lanka and calls on the Agency to push for a re-evaluation of the risks posed to Tamil asylum seekers on return.”

The Committee’s report itself states that 13 people who were removed from the UK this year have since been granted asylum on appeal. They had been sent back to countries where their lives were at risk, including to Sri Lanka, despite the evidence of returnees being tortured. Last year, MP Siobhain McDonagh accused the UK government of “painting targets on the backs”  of Sri Lankan returnees. The Committee reports that it is “particularly worried about the plight of Tamils being returned to Sri Lanka and calls on the Agency to push for a re-evaluation of the risks posed to Tamil asylum seekers on return.” But will UKBA listen, or keep pushing for those targets?

Immigration Detention – a second torture

The Committee is concerned about a number of issues coming to light in regards to immigration detention — in particular the treatment of detainees suffering from mental illness at Harmondsworth the UK’s largest detention centre, where a Ghanian man died earlier this month.

“falsely imprisoned and subject to inhuman and degrading treatment” … “despite a clear and documented history of mental illness and against the advice of mental health professionals”

That people have been “falsely imprisoned and subject to inhuman and degrading treatment” “despite a clear and documented history of mental illness and against the advice of mental health professionals” is shocking, but should come as no surprise, really. Medical Justice reported on this in May this year, in their report “Second Torture”. Why is no one paying attention to what their medical professionals are saying?

The Committee is “concerned that the cases outlined may not be isolated incidents but may reflect more systemic failures in relation to the treatment of mentally ill immigration detainees”, and this concern is backed up by evidence from inspections of the Independent Monitoring Board.  Medical Justice and others have been saying this for years, and yet it continues, in contravention not only of the law and human rights conventions, but the Border Agency’s own rules. For how long are they going to get away with this? How many people have to suffer, to self harm or commit suicide?

Detention of children and families

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has recently been making triumphant claims about having ended child detention, but this report is “concerned that the numbers held are starting to increase again“.  Yes, it is still on a much smaller scale than under Labour, but the Committee also highlights concerns about the use of force, including unapproved techniques used on a pregnant woman, posing a risk to her unborn child. The Committee reiterates the conclusion of HM Inspector of Prisons report on the Cedars family detention centre that “force should never be used to effect the removal of pregnant women or children”. The use of force at the Cedars facility has been criticised by the Inspector and now by this Committee. What will it take before Barnardo’s, which helps run the detention centre, decides one their ‘red lines’ has been crossed?

Through the looking glass

Rt Hon Keith Vaz MP, Chair of the Committee, said “entering the world of the UKBA is like falling through the looking glass. The closer we look the more backlogs we find, their existence obscured by opaque names… They need to get a grip.”

Contrariwise, just imagine how it must feel for those who live their lives on the wrong side of the looking glass.

The Sri Lankans wrongly refused asylum, facing deportation to imprisonment, torture or death. The Afghan child unlawfully age-assessed, taken out of care to be imprisoned then sent to the hellish refugee camps around Kabul. The student whose education is ruined, savings lost, facing deportation through no fault of her own. The women in the Detained Fast Track system, traumatised by rape, terrified of being returned, no time to put their case. The family waiting years for sanctuary, under constant threat of detention and deportation. The thousands denied proper legal representation, dismissed as ‘not credible’, demonised by the media and treated by the Border Agency as just one more inconvenient statistic to be dealt with.

Although it highlights some issues of real, pressing concern, this report in fact hardly touches on the human misery perpetuated by a Border Agency more concerned with targets than human rights, legal process or even it’s own rules. The focus, as always, is on bureaucratic ineptness, the scandal of missed targets.

That the agency is allowed to just carry on like this, year after year, inquiry after inquiry, causing so much suffering and never really held to account – that is the real scandal.


On reaching the UK, people face a hostile environment. Without help, many will be forcibly sent back to the wars, persecution and misery they have fled.

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2 comments on “UKBA inquiry: human rights through the looking glass

  1. anna on

    It’s really disgusting that this is happening to people.overstayers are not allowed to work, they dont get help from the state and God help them if they happen to have a child or children going to nursery, they’re expected to pay rent ,counciltax among other bills to survive while their faith hangs in the balance in such long delay peple want to rebuild their lives or get on with it and cant because they wait for ages for these people to make a decision. Really whats stopping them see to a case that is not complex after they get applications? It would seem they get these applications and just file them away and leave them.
    What other explanations could there be. For such a back log?


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