My fingers shook as they pressed into the scanner at my citizenship appointment. Forcing a smile, I thought: I’ve come so far, I won’t risk saying anything now. My UK passport would be in hand soon enough – and this would all be over.
I squirmed in my chair as the employee behind the desk, who referred to himself as my Immigration Officer, called me beautiful for a third time. He flicked through my documents as he told me my hair looked unnatural. I smiled for the biometric camera as he asked how attractive my husband found me. The comments went on for the duration of my appointment.
These crude remarks did not come from an employee of the Home Office, but from an employee of a private company, to which all UK visa and citizenship services were outsourced in 2018 and has faced frequent calls for investigation, while offering scarce availability for compulsory visa appointments.
My citizenship appointment was a damning representation of what happens when this government takes less accountability in the immigration process and outsources its dealings to companies whose only concern is their bottom line – let alone offering any respect for applicants. In an already antagonistic environment for migrants, privatising immigration services leaves the Home Office with virtually non-existent oversight over our treatment and rubs salt into an already festering wound.
Throughout the last decade, immigrants have borne the brunt of outlandish rule changes, government chaos, erroneously rejected and delayed applications, abolished agencies, and now, of private companies masquerading as the Home Office and treating us with indignity.
Then home secretary, Theresa May and her 2012 immigration upheaval saw the beginning of the dismantling of the immigration framework, particularly for family visas. The post-study work visa for foreign students completing UK degrees was scrapped, with the UK Border Agency (UKBA) abolished soon after. Then came the implementation of the notorious 2012 immigration rules. Stringent financial requirements were enacted and demanded one of the highest income thresholds in the world, of which 40 per cent of British nationals are unable to meet. These rule changes saw over 15,000 children separated from a parent.
The horrifying deportation scandals this government has seen in recent years are what routinely make headlines and rightly so. Yet, the visa administration process is another outrage. It wasn’t until applying for my first settlement visa in 2013 did I understand that visa administration in the UK was intentionally designed to be a painstaking and convoluted process, even when meeting all prerequisites. Dozens of online immigration boards were flooded with contradicting information, and thousands begged the question: Why is clear and accessible guidance from the UKBA not available? Why was I rejected?
Piecing together an application was an intricate and laborious puzzle: trusting strangers off the internet for clues, sending stacks of documents to an office in Sheffield, still not entirely sure what was compulsory. As you waited sometimes over six months for your visa, you were filled with existential dread that somewhere you left off a page, a stamp, or a signature.
This trepidation is not unsubstantiated. Even after the UKBA was abolished and years after the 2012 rule overhaul, over 20 per cent of family visas were refused in 2019. With some applications costing nearly £3,000, these are expensive refusals. When a visa is rejected, the applicant must either endure a lengthy and expensive appeals process or pay another fee and apply again. Profit has been embedded in the visa administration process for years, and with private companies now at the helm, we have reached chilling unchartered territory.
Even when qualifying for a UK visa post-2012, the rigid procedural burden and cost is out of reach for many. As my residency clock ticked, I restlessly watched Home Office fees soar and new charges introduced. The health surcharge was introduced in 2014, and costs £2k over the course of five years. Immigrants are routinely charged 10 times more than an application costs to process. The Home Office makes an astounding 800 per cent profit on some applications, a deliberate hike that places the burden of subsidising government cuts on immigrants themselves.
By the time I became a UK citizen, my applications had been processed by three separate entities and I had spent nearly £10k, notwithstanding the years of mental drain from the all-or-nothing excessive evidencing required at each stage.
The outsourcing of visa services represents a step backwards in an already broken institution. Priti Patel recently announced a “single global system” for all migrants alike, but without a complete Home Office culture shift, it appears the existing path that non-EEA citizens have suffered under for years will continue to be lined with profiteering and disarray. The answer for the Home Office is not less immigration accountability; but a reformed and streamlined system reflecting the value and enrichment migrants deliver.
The UK welcoming the “best and brightest” has been repeated incessantly by this government, but within the current structure, especially now the coronavirus pandemic has hit, it will remain one only for those with the deepest pockets and most patience for erratic bureaucratic upheaval.