Inspection report welcomes move of decision-making to Sheffield, but concerned by failure to justify policies with evidence
Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration looks at Home Office handling of family reunion applications
08 October 2020
New from the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration today is an inspection report on the efficiency and effectiveness of the Home Office's management of refugee family reunion applications.
The report was sent to the Home Secretary on 7 January 2020 but has only now been published.
David Bolt, the Independent Chief Inspector, first inspected the Home Office's handling of family reunion applications in a 2016 report, which found that the Home Office was too ready to refuse applications where it judged that the applicant had failed to provide sufficient evidence to satisfy the eligibility criteria.
In terms of positive developments since then, David Bolt noted in today's report that the Home Office has moved the bulk of refugee family reunion decision-making from overseas Entry Clearance Officers to Asylum Operations in Sheffield. Bolt welcomed the "greater consistency, sensitivity and compassion to these life-changing decisions" that the move has brought.
While Sheffield will eventually consider all family reunion applications, over a quarter of the overall annual intake of applications were still handled in Pretoria, South Africa at the time of the Independent Chief Inspector's most recent inspection. The report highlighted the difference between the two: "Based on the examination of a sample of applications decided between 1 July 2018 and 30 June 2019, plus interviews with Home Office managers and staff and contributions from stakeholders, it appeared that, notwithstanding the creation of the Khartoum Team, the approach to family reunion decision-making in Pretoria had not changed materially since the 2016 inspection: an entry clearance 'mindset' that took insufficient account of the circumstances of the applicants, with a readiness to refuse, unreasonable expectations in relation to supporting evidence, and limited quality assurance. By comparison, Asylum Operations (Sheffield) showed more awareness of the nature of these applications and greater sensitivity. This was reflected not just in the grant rates (54% for Pretoria and 80% for Sheffield), but also in the quality of the decisions and how refusals were explained, and in the extent of stakeholder engagement."
David Bolt added, however: "This is not to suggest that Asylum Operations (Sheffield) does not need to improve its handling of family reunion applications, for example, making more use of interviews of sponsors and/or applicants to try to resolve any concerns rather than to refuse an application."
Less positively, the Independent Chief Inspector was concerned by the Home Office's failure to provide supporting evidence to back up its position in areas such as child sponsors, dependent family members over 18 years of age, and funding for DNA tests.
The report noted, for example: "Parliamentarians and stakeholders have been particularly concerned that children are not able to act as sponsors for their parents or family members, setting the UK's family reunion policy apart from those of other EU countries. During this inspection, the Home Office made it clear to inspectors that there was no intention (a 'ministerial red line') to reconsider this, having consistently argued that it would 'risk creating incentives for more children to be encouraged, or even forced, to leave their family and risk hazardous journeys to the UK.' Whether or not this would be the case, the Home Office has not provided any evidence to support its position."
The Independent Chief Inspector also highlighted problems with the application process, which requires family reunion applicants to fill in and submit an online application form and then visit a Visa Application Centre (VAC) to register their biometrics. The report noted: "Reflecting the experiences of their clients, stakeholders told inspectors that the online application form failed to recognise the reality for most family reunion applicants. The form was generic and inflexible, meaning that applicants were forced to falsify entries, for example by inserting zeros for 'passport number' because they were otherwise unable to proceed to the next screen."
On VACs, the report noted: "stakeholders raised numerous concerns … including the fact that many family reunion applicants had to make difficult, dangerous and expensive journeys, in some cases crossing into another country, possibly more than once, just to attend a VAC appointment, but also aspects of VAC performance. While getting its decisions right is clearly crucial, the Home Office needs to ensure that the end-to-end family reunion application process is working for applicants, and this requires greater understanding and ownership by operational directorates of the 'front-end services' that are being provided."
David Bolt makes five recommendations in his report, of which the Home Office accepted three and only partially accepted two.
Bolt said today: "The key message from my 2016 inspection was that the Home Office needed to think differently about refugee family reunion applicants. It seems as though this has not been fully understood."
Judith Dennis, Policy Manager at the Refugee Council, said in response to the report: "The Chief Inspector's frustration is palpable in this, his fourth examination of the way the UK handles family reunion applications. While there are some glimmers of hope, such as UK-based caseworkers taking a more protection-based approach to assessing applications, the outlook is generally bleak. From the byzantine application process, to the level of danger applicants have to experience simply to have their biometrics enrolled, every aspect of the process requires improvement.
"Yet again the Chief Inspector tells the government that it must provide evidence to back up its claim that these harsh rules on family reunion, which bring so much suffering into the lives of vulnerable children and adults, are necessary."
The Home Office said in response to the Independent Chief Inspector’s report: "The Home Office is pleased the report identifies the progress made since the original family reunion inspection in 2016 and subsequent re-inspections in 2017 and 2018 – specifically the transfer of the bulk of family reunion decision making to a dedicated UK team, based in Sheffield. The report identified an improvement in decision quality, improved clarity in refusal decisions and a greater awareness and sensitivity when considering applications. UKVI recognises that there is further work required to improve the handling of family reunion applications and will implement the accepted and partially accepted recommendations to achieve this."