Latest migration statistics show the UK Border Agency is still not fit for purpose

The latest migration statistics show the UK Border Agency is still not fit for purpose; where there are failings, the home secretary must be held to account.


Jill Rutter writes on migration issues and formerly worked at the Refugee Council and the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)

The Home Office and the Office for National Statistics released their quarterly immigration statistics yesterday, a three-monthly ritual of claim and counter-claim for those involved in the debate about immigration.

While the home secretary, Theresa May, might draw solace from a fall in net migration – down from 242,000 to 183,000 – the statistics show continued incompetence on the part of the UK Border Agency.

Significantly, the statistics were released on the same day as a report (pdf) on student migration from the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration. This, too, highlighted UK Border Agency failings. But this is no new trend, with numerous official reports highlighting weaknesses in this executive agency of the Home Office.

The quarterly immigration statistics show a small fall in work visa, student and family migration. Some 4 per cent fewer work visas were issued abroad in the year to September 30th, 2012, compared with the previous 12 months.

Grants of student visas have fallen even further, down 26 per cent from the previous year, although most of the drop has been in the further education and independent college sector.

However, ONS population estimates suggest steady migration flows from eastern Europe with the Polish-born population who are resident in the UK increasing by 9.5 per cent over the previous year. This is not surprising, given the strength of Sterling compared with other European currencies, and high levels of unemployment both in eastern Europe and other potential countries of migration within the EU.

Interestingly, population data does not point to any large-scale exodus from the PIGS countries – Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain – with population estimates for these countries fairly steady over the last year.

Dig down a little deeper, however, and a more worrying picture emerges from the statistics.

Asylum applications have increased a little in the year to September 30th, 2012 – up 8 per cent to 20,838 applications in the year to September 30th, although it is important to note this is a small fraction of the numbers coming in the early years of this century. (There were nearly 86,000 asylum applications in 2002).

Not unexpectedly, there has been increased numbers of applications from Syria and Libya, with 1,204 applications from the latter country in the year to September 30th, 2012.

Some 64 per cent of initial asylum applications were refused in the year to September 30th, 2012, yet more than a quarter (26 per cent) of these refusals were overturned at appeal. For Eritrean appellants, 48 per cent of them had their appeals upheld, and for Somalis this figure was 53 per cent. Some 34 per cent of Zimbabweans, 37 per cent of Sri Lankans and 30 per cent of Iranians had their appeals upheld.

Overall, this means UKBA is getting it wrong in one out of four asylum cases; among some national groups a such as Somalis, a far higher proportion of initial decisions appear to be wrong. Poor quality decision-making by asylum caseworkers can have a devastating effect on the individuals concerned. It also costs the taxpayer dearly, as asylum appeals are expensive.

The asylum system is not the only area of the UK Border Agency’s work that has come under the spotlight this week. The Chief Inspector’s report (pdf) on student migration highlights a failure by the UK Border Agency to follow up on notifications it received about students who have failed to turn up to classes. In May 2012 there was a backlog of 153,000 such notifications.

Although the UK Border Agency has followed up on some of these, the Chief Inspector’s report notes there are still:

“…insufficient resources to manage notifications.”

The Chief Inspector’s report is the latest in a stream of criticism of UKBA, with other reports from his office; from the home affairs committee; the public accounts committee; the Parliamentary Ombudsman; and the National Audit Office – and not forgetting last year’s high profile border control fiasco.

Six years after home secretary John Reid labeled the immigration and asylum division of the Home Office “not fit for purpose”, the UK Border Agency still seems unfit for purpose. This is despite its work moving to an executive agency of the Home Office and numerous restructures.

Public hostility to immigration remains high in the UK and a major issue that plays into this are the operational failures of the UK Border Agency. These incompetencies also lessen trust in the government to police the borders.

If we are to become more comfortable with immigration, the government needs both to address the failings of the UK Border Agency and to debate its resourcing. If we want a high quality border agency, we will need to pay for it, yet there is little consensus or even debate about how much public spending should be spent on immigration control.

Ultimately, long-term improvement to the quality of the UK Border Agency s requires greater and sustained ministerial leadership, rather than symbolic firefighting when things go wrong. And where there are failings, the home secretary must be held to account.

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