Six ways the pandemic has actually improved the immigration system

2020 has presented huge challenges for people trying to navigate the immigration system, for immigration advisers trying to support them, and for the Home Office and the courts. We’ve focused on changes to decision-making which could be made permanent without major legislative amendments. 

1. It’s way easier to lodge fresh claims for asylum

Before COVID-19, to submit a fresh claim application, people had to get an appointment and travel in person to Liverpool regardless of where they lived in the country. Most people we support to make a fresh claim are destitute. The risks are self-evident.

Since March 2020, the Home Office has allowed applications for fresh claims to be submitted by email. People can upload their application and receive instant electronic confirmation that their application has been received. This immediately removes the risk of an unnecessary, precarious journey to Liverpool. For the Home Office, it allows greater agility and flexibility in the use of decision-making resources. Files can easily be transferred to relevant caseworkers, particularly while remote working continues to be the norm. 

2. Initial asylum applications can be made outside London

While adults making in-country asylum claims are still required to do so in person, since March 2020 this can now be done from six locations around the UK, rather than just in Croydon. This has reduced the cost, and some of the risks, of people having to travel long distances. It has also created an evidence-base supporting a more diverse geographical approach to registering asylum claims in the UK.

3. Appeals are being accepted by email

From March 2020, applications and appeals to the Upper Tribunal, Court of Appeal and Administrative Court can be submitted electronically via an email address serviced in central London. Previously these would have had to be posted or submitted in person.

This change enables judges to more swiftly and efficiently receive applications regardless of where they are physically located. Applicants are not reliant on the postal service to meet court deadlines, and the environmental footprint of the court service is improved. This has had life-changing consequences for some of the people we support.

4. Domestic abuse applications can be signed electronically

Every year we support many people on spouse/partner visas, fleeing abusive situations, to make applications to the destitution domestic violence concession. During the first lockdown we supported many people in this situation and the Home Office confirmed that they would accept a client’s digital signature, or the signature of a legal representative, on the application.

5. There is no need for hard copies of supporting documents

Due to the pandemic, the Home Office has allowed scanned copies of original supporting documents to be submitted to a specific email address for most immigration applications. This change minimises the risk of original documents being lost and prevents people losing out on their rights and entitlements for lack of key documents.

For the Home Office this change enables more efficient working — submitted documents can be transferred easily to relevant caseworkers — and caseworkers can still request original documents where extra checks are required.

6. Biometric information can be reused

Earlier this year, the Home Office announced it would reuse people’s biometric information (fingerprints and a photograph) submitted as part of previous applications, instead of requiring applicants to make appointments to re-submit information at visa application centres. This change saved applicants a considerable amount of time (tracking down limited free appointments) and money (charged for available appointments).

It also streamlined decision-making and prevented the Home Office waiting for information (which it already had) in order to complete an immigration decision. Despite evidence that reuse was working for all involved, in October 2020 this change was retracted so that only people making student visa applications could reuse biometric information.

Pandemic policies or policies for the future?

Are the Home Office and the courts going to return to the way things were at the start of 2020 and shelve these changes as “pandemic policies”? Or should they learn from the evidence base built up during lockdown to embed these practical improvements for the future? Unsurprisingly we want to see them made permanent. Immigration minister Chris Philp has helpfully said:

Covid-19 has created both challenges and the opportunity to explore new working practices for the Home Office… business practices are kept under review and new ways of working which have been implemented to cope with current restrictions, where they have been successful, may be continued beyond the current Covid-19 related restrictions.

Posted on Dec 02, 2020.

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