After arriving at Gatwick Airport at midnight, I spent an hour queuing at passport control. It was inconvenient but hardly life-threatening. For the many young children, and for the elderly and infirm in the queue, it was miserable. Apart from some good-humoured grumbling no one protested. We were all in it together, as the saying goes. A large sign over the understaffed passport desks proclaims ‘UK BORDER’. Some one thought it was important for the frontier to be clearly marked. After baggage reclaim – indistinguishable from all others everywhere – the first truly British experience, and an impressive one, is the walk to the arrivals area, which as in a theme park filters the tired but relieved traveller through a retail opportunity – a large 24-hour off-licence. Welcome to Britain! Trebles all round! Oh, and the slow train into London was lightly scented with vomit.
While waiting in the passport queue, having little else to do, I took a complaint form – which were plentiful. Some one thought it important to have this at least this part of the operation well prepared. The UK Border Agency, replied with (for them) extraordinary speed three weeks later, and had nothing but platitudes to assure me that it was all perfectly normal, and all was really for the best. At the same time as business people and holidaymakers complain, another much smaller group of travellers have a far less certain outcome than a shuffling queue and release through a liquor store: unaccompanied children who claim asylum.
On arrival, UKBA has to decide what to do with them. Eventually those that have no verifiable families in the UK will be cared for the local authority while the state makes longer term decisions. Trafficking is a major concern. Some make asylum applications. Determining the age of teenagers who come from countries like Afghanistan can be difficult, because the state has not issued birth certificates for years and people do not know how old they are. Different rules apply to children claiming asylum from those over 18. UKBA became so vexed about this that it proposed a compulsory x-ray examination of the teeth of children claiming asylum. They first floated it in 2008, and withdrew it under protest. The same thing happened in 2012, when doctors’ and dentists’ pointed out that non-medical, compulsory x-ray was probably both unethical and illegal. But while awaiting their fate, nuclear or not, children are detained at the airport (as are adult asylum seekers and others who are suspected of trying to enter the country illegally).
In its Report for 2010-2011 to the Ministry of Justice, the Heathrow Independent Monitoring Board found that the conditions in which men, women and children were held were ‘wholly unsuitable’ and had not improved since the Board’s Report from 2006-2011:
In each of its preceding reports the Board has drawn attention to the features and fitments of the holding rooms. Regrettably degrading features still include:
- No proper facilities for sleep
- No proper facilities for personal hygiene
- No natural light
- Lighting in Terminal 1 which cannot be dimmed, and so blazes 24/7
- Poor ventilation
- Air temperatures which move from the very hot to the very cold and seemingly cannot be regulated
- Some seating chained to the floor
- Metal lavatories without seats
In their responses to this report, UKBA and its subcontractor G4S Care and Justice Services (UK) Limited (could you make it up?) and the British Airports Authority blamed one another for this shambles.
The indignities to which the detainees were subjected included deprivation of sleep (or at least the chance of attempting it in one place, albeit on seats), being taken out into the cold twice during the night (and it was very cold then) and travelling to and from Terminal 5, in most cases, in caged vehicles…Parents with their three children aged 4, 7 and 9: all the children were in tears during their move in freezing conditions and one wet himself during the journey.
Welcome to Britain
Tucked away in the Crime & Courts Bill 2012, announced in the Queen’s Speech, is a provision (clause 24) that does away with the right to appeal against decisions by embassy officials to refuse to grant family visit visas. Is this a Kenneth Clarke special? He did it once before, while he was Home Secretary in the early 1990s, and New Labour restored the right when they came into office. Now, those wishing to visit family members will have to re-apply at their own expense. The Home Office Minister, Damian Green justified the changes on the grounds that the appeal system is expensive and that officials need to concentrate on asylum and deportation cases. In fact, there is now a fee (£140 for a full hearing, £80 for a decision on the papers alone) for appealing to the First-Tier Tribunal.
Home Office representatives hardly ever attend. The officials who make the decisions in these cases are Visa Officers in embassies abroad – not the same staff who deal with asylum and deportation for UKBA in this country. The decisions are often poor: documents are overlooked or misunderstood, blanket objections are made which disregard the details of the particular applicant. In some cases, the evidence given to the Visa Officer was incomplete and can be rectified on appeal. The overall quality of the decision-making can be measured by the proportion of successful appeals in family visit cases, as given in the MoJ’s most recent Quarterly Tribunal Statistics:
- 2009-10: 40%
- 2010-11: 36%
- 2011-12: 31.5% (quarters 1 & 2)
Many of the applicants are from poor parts of the subcontinent, where it is not always easy to meet the exacting bureaucratic requirements needed to visit a first grandchild, or attend a family wedding. Yes, it may not be a matter of life or death, as Clarke put if first time round. But denying people an appeal when so many of the decisions turn out to be wrong is a mean and paltry thing to do, and puts up more barriers against harmless short-term family visitors. Welcome to Britain.
Francis FitzGibbon QC
Francis FitzGibbon QC is a criminal barrister at Doughty Street Chambers. He is chair of the Criminal Bar Association. The views expressed here are personal