In a week in which the UK Border Agency has finally responded to some of the criticisms it has faced following the debacle in which Capita, a private corporation awarded a £40 million contract to hunt down people who have allegedly overstayed their visas, [www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk/sitecontent/newsarticles/2013/january/20-capita ], we have had cause to reflect on the very real consequences of the unauthorised sharing of inaccurate client information on the desperate and vulnerable people whose life chances are dictated and controlled by the UKBA.
Sylvia is a woman with whom we have been working for the past 5 months. When she first came to us, she was in a desperate situation and her future felt almost literally hopeless. She had entered the UK on a student visa- which, at that time was still valid, but about to expire. While here, she had entered into a relationship with a refugee, who had been granted settlement in the UK. The 2 of them had had a baby, some 6 weeks before Sylvia’s contact with us. Tragically, within a month of the child’s birth, Sylvia’s partner was killed in an accident, leaving her alone to care for a newborn child in difficult and precarious circumstances.
Unable to pay her rent, and not named on any tenancy agreement, she was being pressurised to leave her accommodation, and feared street homelessness. She similarly saw no future for herself and her young child in her country of origin, having given birth out of wedlock under complicated personal circumstances. The situation. therefore, appeared hopeless.
However, on referral to ASIRT we were able to identify that, since her child was demonstrably of British nationality, Sylvia was eligible to apply for residence in the UK as a “Zambrano” carer: that is to say that,in order to protect her dependent son’s rights to enjoy life in the UK, she should be given the right to reside and work here as his legal guardian.
Immediately, we helped Sylvia to gather the required evidence of dependency and nationality, and forwarded the UK Border Agency an application formally requesting recognition of Sylvia’s right of residence. At the same time, we made an application to the Local Authority for an assessment under section 17 of the Children Act, noting that a demonstrably British child was destitute and in need of the provision of accommodation and subsistence support to safeguard his welfare.
Sylvia and her son have consequently been accommodated for the past 5 months by the Local Authority in bed and breakfast accommodation, in receipt of £70 per week. Sylvia has no access to cooking facilities and so every meal other than breakfast comes from a takeaway, out of a budget of £10 per day- from which, obviously, additional costs such as nappies and travel costs need to be met. They receive no other income, in the form of Child Benefit or Tax Credits. Sylvia’s young son- a British citizen- is suffering discrimination, living in demonstrably worse circumstances than the vast majority of his peers, purely as a consequence of his mother’s immigration status, over which he has no control. We are therefore working alongside our friends at Birmingham Law Centre, to argue Sylvia’s rights to social housing and to mainstream welfare benefits.
In the meantime, some 2 months after our submission of our application requesting recognition of Sylvia’s right of residence, the UKBA wrote to acknowledge the application, advising that Sylvia should expect formal notification of a decision within 6 months. Confusingly, the UKBA then went on to request that Sylvia should apply for recognition of her right of residence , “using the enclosed form”- which was not enclosed and which, in any case, had already been submitted with the original application. But still: the application had been submitted and acknowledged. It appreared that there was little to be done from an immigration perspective, other than to await the UKBA’s determination of our submissions.
However, just after the Christmas break, Sylvia came to see, more distraught than at any time since our first meeting. She had been forwarded, from the address from whch she had been evicted, two letters from Capita, one dated December 18th, the other December 28th. The first advised her that:
“We are contacting you because the UK Border Agency has told us that you no longer have the right to remain in the United Kingdom. You must make immediate arrangements to leave the United Kingdom and provide proof that you have done so by providing a copy of your travel ticket by 01/01/13. While you remain in the UK without leave you are liable to be removed from the United Kingdom, and this may affect your right to return in the future”.
The second, even more threateningly, claimed that:
“Despite numerous attempts to contact you by letter and telephone, you have not responded and our records show that you have not yet left the United Kingdom. If you fail to respond we will have to refer your case to the UK Border Agency to secure your removal from the United Kingdom. In addition, anyone without a right to remain who does not voluntarily leave the United Kingdom could face severe penalties under the 1971 Immigration Act. Please be aware that as an overstayer you are not entitled to most secondary healthcare in the UK, and may have your details shared with the police and other law enforcement agencies and Government Departments responsible for payment of funds”.
These pieces of correspondence were, of course, received during the Christmas/New Year break, when ASIRT’s offices, like those of many other support agencies, were closed. Having no one to take advice from, Sylvia- a recently widowed single parent- therefore spent a significant portion of the holdiay period feeling frightened and alone, having effectively been told by Capita, entirely falsely, that her presence in the UK had become a criminal matter. Fortunately, neither Sylvia nor her son had fallen ill during the period in question, though there is a real risk that, had they done so, the threats from Capita would have prevented them from seeking medical treatment.
We have complained about this matter to Capita, noting that the information in their correspondence- including the reference to the “numerous attempts” to contact her by letter and telephone – are entirely incorrect and that, moreover, Sylvia has given no consent for her personal information- inaccurate or otherwise- to be shared with a private corporation by the UKBA. To date, we have had no reply.
But it remains a matter of huge concern to us that, at a time of unprecented cuts and austerity, significant sums of public money are being spent for the sole purpose of harassing the mothers of British children who are being quite deliberately kept in conditions of abject poverty.
While we are happy to have been able to make significant differences to the lives of many families in such dire circumstances, the ever-contracting funding climate in which we are practising leads us to fear that such abusive practices could, in the very near future, be allowed unchecked.