The UK Border Agency (UKBA) has a bit of a problem on its hands after handing off some outdated information to a private company acting on its behalf. The agency is attempting to kick 174,000 illegal immigrants out of the UK, a job it apparently feels is best handled by a third party, utilizing text messages and email. Unfortunately, due to inaccurate information, legal migrants are being politely asked to pack up and go
Capita, which won a £40m UKBA contract to trace 174,000 migrants living illegally in the country from September, has been sending text messages and emails to them telling they are required to leave Britain. But immigration lawyers say those who have received Capita's texts in recent weeks include a woman with a valid British passport and a man with a valid visa who had invested £1m in a UK-based business.
As if suddenly being asked to leave a country you're legally residing in wasn't upsetting enough, the fact that these "hit the road" messages were sent over the holiday season only made things worse.
Alison Harvey, of the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association, said it had asked for the messages not to be sent over the holiday period: "We were concerned at reports of people who had valid leave to be in the UK receiving the texts and that, over the holiday period, it would be difficult for them to get in touch with their lawyer and they would be anxious and distressed with no possibility of reassurance. Our request was declined."
Home Secretary Theresa May has promised to look into the erroneous texts and is being pressured to halt the program altogether. To its credit, the UKBA has owned up to providing the questionable info:
UKBA admitted the problem was with the accuracy of its records: "We advise anyone contacted in error to contact us so records can be updated. Where our records show that people are here illegally, it is vital we are able to contact them as we are determined that they should return home. This is the first time a government has taken proactive steps to deal with this pool of cases, some of which date back to December 2008."
Capita has a contract worth potentially £40m, but is paid for results (migrants leaving the country), rather than guaranteed the entire amount, so it seems unlikely that it has anything to gain by contacting legal migrants. It's also unlikely that sending stern text messages will have much impact on the immigrants the UK government wants to see removed. Of course, Capita may not have the staffing to pursue illegal immigrants with anything more manpower-intensive than texts and emails. One week prior to receiving this contract, it was taken to task by a National Audit Office report which showed that it failed to provide enough qualified and competent courtroom interpreters (through its subsidiary, Applied Language Solutions [ALS]), leading to a large number of abandoned trials
"The ministry overlooked its own due diligence process, which showed ALS was simply too small to shoulder a contract of this value. The ministry also took no account of the resolve of many experienced interpreters not to work for this company. Against a target of 98%, ALS supplied an interpreter in only 58% of hearings in February 2012.
"This unacceptably poor performance led to courtroom chaos," the report said. It forced court staff to interrupt their core duties to find interpreters at short notice and triggered a steep rise in the number of abandoned trials … ALS could not even guarantee that interpreters had undergone mandatory criminal records checks."
And then there's the question of whether spending £40m to remove illegal migrants is a wise idea. In an article published a few days later, The Guardian points out that the government's hardline approach to immigration is damaging the "multibillion-pound market" in foreign students
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK
, said the flurry of recent statements by senior ministers calling for a crackdown on "bogus students" had given the impression that overseas students were no longer welcome and was driving them towards competitor countries such as the US, Canada and Australia.
"We are concerned about the language and the atmosphere that is being created, not least because it plays very, very badly internationally," Dandridge said. "Whatever the intentions of the politicians are … every time these sorts of comments are made by the home secretary or others it does have a potentially very damaging impact internationally."
A study by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (pdf)
estimated that overseas students contribute nearly £8 billion a year to Britain's economy and projects it to near £17 billion by 2025. Not only does putting out the "unwelcome mat" for foreign students adversely affect the UK's economy, it also does damage to its standing in the global marketplace, as Dandrige explains:
"What universities are reporting to us [is that] they are seeing significant drops, particularly from India, from Pakistan and now from China and Saudi Arabia. These are countries that send large numbers and also they are important countries in terms of international engagement and industry engagement, so we want to be promoting and fostering relations with them, not erecting barriers."
Between Capita's own issues, the UKGA's failure to provide up-to-date information and the fact that chasing immigrants out might not be in the country's best interest, this situation has the potential to develop into a black eye for all involved. Even if the number of legal
immigrants who spent the holiday season wondering if they were being deported is low compared to the total contacted, it's still a very inauspicious start for a questionable program.