Background to the issue
Refugees in the UK have to go through a number of hurdles in their journey to finding safety here and integrating into society.
One of the obstacles so many of our clients face relates to accessing what are called Home Office Front End Services – namely services that assist with a UK visa or citizenship application, including enrolment of biometric detail and other essential documents in support of the application. Accessing FES services are vital for our clients because they are the services needed for obtaining Biometric Resident Permits, or BRPs.
BRPs are essential documents for refugees because they are a form of identification required for so many important aspects of their new lives, from opening a bank account to finding employment. Refugees used to be able to register their biometrics at Post Offices, a relatively simple process, but the system changed. The Refugee Council and many other people and organisations raised concerns about this because we fear refugees (amongst other groups) are now less able to access the immigration services they need.
It was therefore very welcome when the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) agreed to inspect this system, and the Refugee Council supported this by work by sharing our own insights from our clients’ experiences. The resultant inspection report, which makes direct reference to our evidence (points 5.25-5.27), has now been published and you can see it here.
What exactly did the ICIBI look at and what did it find?
The inspection focused on three types of Home Office Front End Services (FES): the UK Visa and Citizenship Application Service (UKVCAS) in-country, Home Office Service and Support Centres (SSCs), and Visa Application Centres (VACs) overseas. It examined the efficiency, effectiveness and consistency of those digital services, as well as the impact on the people who use them. Furthermore, it also looked at the availability of free appointments, a concern raised by us in relation to the BRP UKVACS appointments (a service run by the Home Office’s commercial contractor, Sopra Steria).
The ICIBI makes 8 recommendations for the Home Office, encompassing a full post-implementation review of the FES, including the consideration of the impact on vulnerable applicants. This review is ongoing and we hope its findings are going to be published soon.
Important recommendations and observations made by the ICIBI which directly affect our clients are:
- The digital customer journey – navigating the online process of registering and booking appointments is challenging, it is not sufficiently clear with several landing pages and links to navigate. The language used in the guidance and document check-list is not easy to understand. Additionally, information is only available in English and Welsh languages, potentially excluding groups including our clients who usually don’t speak English as their first language, as well as people with visual impairment.
- Availability of free appointments at UKVCAS – insufficient number and spread of free appointments across UKVCAS has been identified as one of the core issues. This finding aligns with our own conclusion and experience, particularly when we are assisting refugees with finding free BRP appointments. In order to do that, our staff had to often log in late at night or in the early morning hours when the service was less busy. Despite our efforts, free appointments are not accessible, meaning many of our clients had to travel to other cities in order to attend a UKVCAS appointment, facing high costs and unnecessary stress.
- Location of VACs – the geographical spread of those centres, particularly abroad, poses a challenge to people who are vulnerable and those wishing to reunite with their family members, through the refugee family reunion process. It has been an ongoing concern for us, as well as other charities in the sector, when family members have to take dangerous and expensive journeys, including abroad, to process those applications. You can visit our Families Together campaign website for more information, here.
- Impact on vulnerable applicants – we support the ICIBI’s recommendation for the Home Office to complete a full post-implementation review of the FES programme which includes the consideration of the impact on vulnerable applicants. We have identified a range of measures and made recommendations on areas that are specific and unique to the refugee population. It is disappointing that this review has been outstanding for three years now. In particular, we would like to see learning and good practice from the Home Office SSCs to be implemented across other FES.
Where do we go from here?
The consequences of the barriers outlined in this inspection report have a direct impact on refugees’ integration prospects. Many of our clients feel disempowered by the system which is not accessible nor responsive to their needs. Clearly, ‘a one size fits all’ approach does not work. There is an urgent need for the Home Office to understand and investigate those barriers and take steps to address them, as suggested by the Chief Inspector and reiterated by many refugee charities, including the Refugee Council.