Wednesday, 2 March 2011

UKBA Announce Start Of New Families Removals Process

The Border Agency has announce the start of their "radical new process for managing the return of families found to have no right to be in the UK." According to their press release, the 'options' available under this scheme "will include a form of limited notice removal, the use of open accommodation, and - as a last resort where families resolutely fail to comply, family friendly, pre-departure accommodation", the latter being the type of facility the Home Office is currently trying to open in Pease Pottage.

The latter is part of the third and final option available for the removal of the families of refused asylum seekers - an Ensured Return, where the new constituted Family Returns Panel "advise the UK Border Agency on return plans to ensure the welfare of the child is taken properly into account" according to this latest piece of government spin on its policy. This Panel will apparently "provide expert advice to the UK Border Agency on the best method of ensuring the return of individual families, taking into account the specific welfare needs of children."

And just how 'radical' and family-centric is this new policy and how far does it really go in "taking into account the specific welfare needs of children"? Well, according to Immigration Minister Damian Green, "(a)t every stage of the process, we expect families to leave voluntarily" and that the government "will be trying to ensure that families can remain in the community prior to their departure home." Yet if these families fail to agree with any of the voluntary options offered during 'family conferences', it appears almost inevitably that they will end up being detained in a dawn raid on their home by UKBA officials and they will be removed to one of these 'pre-departure accommodation' facilities, in much the same way as they have been taken to other existing Immigration Removal Centres up til now.

Not that this is expressly laid out in the 'Open Accommodation' policy document ['Open Accommodation: Accommodating Families Outside Of Detention'] [1], which appears to essays a never-ending circus of 'non-cooperating' families who fail to take up the Agency's 'offer' at any point ending up facing yet another return to the Family Returns Panel. Thus, a family that has failed to take up a first stage Assisted Voluntary Returns package, will either be given 2 weeks notice to leave the country ('Required Return') or go straight to 'Open Accommodation' [not passing go and not collecting their plane tickets and a helpful escort to the airport] if they are considered unlikely to cooperate i.e. are 'flight risks': "We consider that moving such families out of their existing accommodation and away from community links and ties they have built up will signal to them that they have reached the end of the road and enable them to understand that their removal will happen." This means offering them transport to the 'open accommodation' and, if refused, the Borders Agency ending all form of support including accommodation and vouchers, effectively making them homeless and with no access any other form of transportation, [2] plus a referral back to the Board.

Accepting the move to the 'pre-departure accommodation' is the next stage which the government hope will inevitably end in the family 'voluntarily' removing themselves (something they have obviously failed to do at either of the two previous stages of the process) within 3-28 days. If they have not left the country within 72 hours, it's back to the Panel again. "[T]he overall length of stay at the accommodation will be capped at 28 days" and after that families will apparently be moved back to "section 95/section 4 accommodation" i.e. stage one of the process. "However, there may be circumstances where the family seek to prevent their removal and the resulting delay pushes their case over the 28 days which we consider it reasonable for them to be in open accommodation for. This may be beyond our control." This interestingly contradicts the CgMs letter to Pease Pottage residents about the first such 'pre-departure accommodation' facility which states that "(i)n exceptional cases they might be held for up to one week but linked to a specific date when they will leave the UK." [3]

And just how much compulsion is involved in all this? Well the government has carefully chosen its language and has given a number of mixed messages, such as: "there will be some circumstances where families will be REQUIRED to move to temporary NON-DETAINED accommodation facilities prior to removal" [our emphasis] and claimed that "(o)pen accommodation is a non-detained residence where families will be FREE TO COME AND GO AS THEY PLEASE". [4] Yet careful reading of all the documents and of the plans for the Pease Pottage facility clearly show that compulsion is de facto a central factor in this scheme and that this form of accommodation is far from being 'open' in any meaningful use of the word.

That Sarah Teather, the Minister of State for Children and Families, has the gall to claim that this policy "shows real progress on our commitment to reform the returns process for families", "putting compassion and children's welfare at the heart of these new arrangements", only shows how much the Coalition has swallowed their own propaganda hock, line and sinker.

[1] Chapter45 of the latest version of the UK Border Agency Enforcement Instructions and Guidance, the manual for UKBA immigration operations, has been updated to include the new Family Cases strategy and that continues to expressly states that: "All family members, including children, SHOULD BE ARRESTED AS A WHOLE UNIT and the arrest should be made as soon as practicable, TO ENSURE THAT THE FAMILY IS LEGALLY IN IMMIGRATION CUSTODY FOR CONVEYANCE TO THE PORT OF DEPARTURE OR TO PRE-DEPARTURE ACCOMMODATION. It will normally be that arrests in such circumstances will be under administrative powers contained in paragraph 17 of schedule 2 of the 1971 Act and not under criminal powers." [Section 45.10 Control and Restraint] [our emphasis]
[2] "It may be the case that some families will argue that termination of their existing accommodation support will leave them destitute. However, we are not proposing denying access to support. Accommodation support remains available – but only within an open accommodation facility."
[3] However, the 'Open Accommodation' document only refers to the Thornton Heath pilot scheme, which differs in significant areas such as security and accessibility from the planned Pease Pottage facility.
[4]NB: The CgMs letter to Pease Pottage residents on behalf of the Arora/Home Office consortium planning the first 'pre-departure accommodation' only make reference to children being "permitted to leave the facility for short periods" and that "(s)taffing levels, their expertise and the environment of the accommodation [providing] the appropriate security for the facility."

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