Two different stories have been in the headlines recently. I haven’t seen them connected anywhere. So I thought I would draw some lines between them and see what they have to do with each other.
Immigration Cases Backlog hits half a million
Around the middle of July and on the basis of a report presented by the Home Affairs Select Committee we got some headlines in the press that suggested that the Home Office now has a backlog of around half a million immigration cases. One of the press reports suggested that it might take 37 years to deal with the backlog.
That is half a million people who are in some sort of limbo. People who might be in the UK waiting for their asylum application to be resolved; these are people who, so long as this is not done, can’t work here and therefore can’t establish a life for themselves; these may be people who have fled from violence, oppression, political persecution and the like. If these people have to wait for 37 years to have their cases resolved their whole lives will have been blighted twice: once when they were forced to flee, and once because the country they hoped would give them hope, let them down.
But that could also be people who have applied to study here, or to join their family; their lives, too, can be blighted by such delays.
Apart from the fact that this shows a level of administrative and political incompetence that beggars belief, any civilised country that could seriously consider allowing people to wait for decades (or even just for more than 12 months) for a decision about an application for political asylum or legal migration must seriously ask itself some very hard questions.
The reports also suggest that the number of cases now considered to be ‘backlog’ has grown significantly in the last few months.
In the UK illegally?
The picture shows the so-called ‘immigration van’ (here from the Metro website); it has caused a furore and rightly so.
Interviewed on BBC Radio 4 on Friday afternoon (2 August 2013) government spokespeople suggested they were targeting people traffickers. But the language on the bill boards on the van is quite different.
There have been reports of people being targeted for checking by Border Agency staff and police on the basis of the colour of their skin. And whilst government spokespeople deny this vigorously, the impression that this is the case has certainly been created in the minds of those who observed some of the actions at tube and train stations.
What on earth is happening?
The context in which all this is happening is quite complex and sinister. First, there is a noticeable drift to the right in UK politics, especially with regard to migration issues. This is at least in part caused by the rhetoric of right wing parties; but in part it is also caused by the government and the Labour parties pandering to this in their own rhetoric in order to ensure that they don’t lose too many votes to the right.
There is a daily flood of stories about the impact of migrants on housing, on other public services, on the NHS, on benefits and so on. Much of this is exaggerated. But it dominates the public debate. You could be forgiven for thinking that this was the number one issue UK citizens have on their minds. Not so. The most recent Eurobarometer survey shows that whilst 32 % of the UK population think that immigration is one of the two most important issues facing us, that still means that 68 % don’t think that.
But of course the government has to respond; has to be seen to respond with tough action to this flood of stories. And when there is a headline like the one about the case backlog in the Home Office, what better way to respond than to show in broad daylight that the government is quite happy to find brash and threatening ways of getting rid of people rather than to deal with the backlog.
So what does that say to the public? In some cases, such as the attacks in Castleford it suggests to people that it is ok to attack people because of their race. No doubt the government did not intend this to happen. But actions have consequences, and sometimes they can be unintended and predictable. And to an extent, politicians have to take responsibility for such consequences.
What might be done instead?
There is a way of addressing both problems and at least some of the high levels of unemployment at the same time.
My suggestion: that there is an immediate recruitment drive, aimed specifically at people who have been unemployed for some time (say 6 months or more) to give every immigration officer dealing with applications which form part of the backlog a team to support their work; the team would need to be big enough to increase their ability to handle 40 times as many applications as they do now in order to clear the backlog in a year. But it would be equally feasible to set a target of clearing the backlog in 2 years or in 4 years. But much more than that really isn’t acceptable, especially in view of the fact that many of the people whose applications are stuck in the system have been stuck in the system for some time.
The argument that we can’t afford it is easily countered: instead of paying the people who would work on this unemployment or other benefits, you pay them a wage (a decent wage, I would argue); they pay taxes, they spend money, they contribute to the economy. In addition, as the backlog is cleared, people granted some form of status in the UK can start working and earning money and contributing; and those not given such a status can be sent from whence they came. Winners all round.
As an additional incentive for graduates to accept such work, you could offer them a proportion of their student loans forgiven for every year they work on this.
I have made this suggestion to my MP; she has said that she will pass it on to the Home Secretary.
If enough of us support this idea, maybe it will gain some traction.
We need to make it clear to our elected representatives that:
- We do not want asylum seekers and immigrants treated like second class citizens or worse – even if they are not citizens of this country
- We do not want people to live in limbo for years on end
- We do not want an offensive (and to quote Vince Cable: stupid) so-called ‘clamp down’ as a knee jerk reaction to the perception that there is a massive migration problem
- We do not want profiling to be part of the response of the authorities to migration problems
- Where people trafficking is concerned, we want the offenders (the traffickers) dealt with and the victims (the people being trafficked) dealt with as victims of crime
- And we want the government to do something imaginative to deal with the real problem of the immigration backlog that could also address unemployment.
But we have to speak up to be heard!