Despite the resignation of Theresa May, the scars left by her ‘hostile environment’ policy on the face of UK immigration law are still as visible as ever.
It has long been supposed that the Home Office is almost proudly unempathetic in its handling of visa applications, doing all it can to refuse an application than approve it.
However, these suspicions have been confirmed by the revelation that the UK government has been outsourcing visa applications to external algorithms, whittling
down any sense of human interaction to an unrecognisable process of ones and zeros – with many unjustifiably labelled as zeros.
In recent years, the Home Office has awarded lucrative contracts to three commercial providers to streamline its visa processing system: Sopra Steria for internal applications, and VFS Global and TLS Contract for those made overseas. Despite the involvement of these companies, the lack of appointment slots, extortionate fees and obscene travel distances which applicants have experienced tell a different story; these often-catastrophic errors demonstrate the incapacity of these outsourced operations to fulfil their purposes.
The incompetency of these systems only seems more outrageous when put in the context of the profits of the companies responsible. Sopra S
teria, for instance, were awarded a £91 million contract to take over the registration of applicants’ biometric information.
While this service was once available in most Post Offices across the country, access to sites has become increasingly limited since the takeover.
For those in Scotland, the trip to Glasgow to visit the only office in the country can be a huge expense on its own account; however, applicants must also contend with lengthy delays, long queues, and the high likelihood that their appointments could be cancelled with no immediate reschedule available.
The premium to enjoy such inconvenience and outrage is not cheap, though. While six service points offer free appointments, the fees at 51 offices can reach a minimum of £60.
Furthermore, the exclusivity of free appointment slots forces some applicants to pay £200 for a premium assessment in an off-peak slot.
This, however, is not an upper limit; as reported recently by The Independent, Abdul Farooq, a disabled refugee in Manchester was forced to pay a staggering £780 for an appointment in London, as no slots were available closer to home.
Many who are unable to reach their appointments because of the impassable queues and technical errors will be expected to pay again, adding even more to the £2 million already earnt by the service between January and April of this year.
These systems are guilty of a number of errors which coalesce to make the application process as difficult as possible: inappropriately phrased and misleading questioning is designed to lead migrants towards a rejection by the Home Office; contradictory correspondence has instructed applicants to post documents to one place and then to bring them to another, with Sopra Steria even losing passports and other sensitive materials as a result; and in some cases, applicants have been explicitly instructed to submit the wrong documents.
This mad rush for an applicant to obtain a visa before becoming guilty of overstaying in the UK or falling into a grey area incurs a great cost and throws their livelihood into an uncertainty.
This is only exacerbated further by the fact the Government has just tightened the ‘good character’ criteria for British Citizenship, now meaning that anyone found to overstay their visa must wait up to a decade before being eligible.
For all its flaws, Sopra Steria is only following in the footsteps of VFS Global – an equally incompetent outfit that has ties with the Home Office as far back as 2005.
After a Channel 4 investigation found that the personal information of at least 50,000 applicants in India had been exposed in a data breach, the Foreign Office promised to end its contract with VFS and review its policy of outsourced work.
Despite these promises and its ignorance of the Data Protection Act, VFS was responsible for a similar technical glitch in 2015, wherein the use of sequential reference numbers allowed anyone to access other user’s private information, including their passport details and home address.
Dmitry Bagrow, managing director of DataArt UK – the technology company which discovered the breach – blamed the situation on outright carelessness: “whoever designed this system has not even thought about protecting [people’s] data… the customer service from VFS Global is very Kafkaesque”. The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, David Bolt, claims that the Home Office’s policy of outsourcing operations “on the cheap” is a result of the need to “manage its capacity” in the wake of budget cuts.
Regardless of these excuses, the risks of migrants being mistreated by these flawed operations have led to calls for an investigation into the relationship between the Home Office and Sopra Steria.
With the EU Settlement Scheme set to bring in a new influx of applicants seeking settled status, alongside a new batch of international students in September, there are fears that this increased load will break the capabilities of Sopra Steria.
Since the Home Office began its policy of subcontracting private companies, applicants have had to suffer inflated appointment fees and cover absurd distances, only to be met by rejection and fear deportation.
The abandonment of human caseworkers in favour of an unsatisfactory and broken system of dispassionate algorithms has not only thrown the livelihoods of many migrants into jeopardy, but also played carelessly with their most sensitive of information.
Positive though the prospect of a formal investigation is, the question remains: for how much longer will the spectre of Theresa May’s ‘Hostile Environment’ haunt UK immigration policy before its victims receive due respite?
*Harry Sanders: Member of Immigration Advice Service.
Note: The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of The Prisma.