“Hostile is not a term that I am going to use; it is a compliant environment.”
These words, said by Sajid Javid shortly after taking on the role of home secretary in April 2018, were taken by some as a signal that the government was ready to change its approach to immigration. The ‘hostile environment’ policy pursued by his predecessors in the Home Office – chiefly Theresa May – was widely blamed for the Windrush scandal that had emerged in the months prior to Javid’s appointment.
Four years on, and the environment still feels markedly hostile to some of those who are exposed to it.
This includes about 8,000 people – some of whom have lived and worked in the UK for many years – who are currently awaiting a decision on their application to extend a Turkish Businessperson visa, commonly referred to as an ECAA (European Community Association Agreement) visa.
The wait for many of these people has now lasted well over a year.
During this time, they have been unable to return to Turkey – even after a bereavement, or to see their children – if they do not wish their visa application to be automatically withdrawn by the Home Office.
"We have been waiting over a year; there are thousands of us. The Home Office is being like a black box about it, not giving any sort of indication as to what the delays are related to"
According to those who are currently awaiting a decision from the department, their current lack of documentation has also left many struggling to prove that they have the right to rent a property or work in this country, or that their children can attend school.
Campaigners have warned that the situation means that “a lot of people are at risk of homelessness and destitution”, while those affected describe the Home Office as a “black box” that provides little or no help or information.
Ministers and officials at the department, meanwhile, have repeatedly claimed that they cannot provide data on the scale of the problem – despite this information being publicly available on GOV.UK.
PublicTechnology spoke to someone – we will call her Elif – who has been in the UK since 2016, and has been waiting for 14 months for a decision on the renewal of her visa. She told us she knew of many people in the same situation, some of whom have missed funerals or other significant family events – because travelling back to Turkey would mean they would not then be allowed back into the UK: the country in which they have made a home.
In many cases, applicants have been told that their case has been delayed as it contains a “complex issue” of some kind.
“We have been waiting over a year; there are thousands of us. The Home Office is being like a black box about it, not giving any sort of indication as to what the delays are related to,” Elif said. “We never know what this so-called complex issue is… there is absolutely no detail.”
Continued questions from applicants on the status of their case is often responded to with a reminder that they can choose to return to Turkey and thereby withdraw their application.
“It is typical hostile environment treatment of migrants,” Elif said. “We cannot rent places, we cannot get a driver’s licence, people’s children cannot sign up for schools – not to mention the stress of the uncertainty.”
Charity the Migrants’ Rights Network aims to help those affected by such uncertainty by “working with them to support them to navigate our political system”, chief executive Fizza Qureshi told PublicTechnology.
It is a system that, the longer the delays persist, is increasing the hardship being suffered, she added.
“People are unable to leave the country who are affected by bereavements, and there are fathers who are separated from their children,” Qureshi said. “A lot of people are at risk of homelessness and destitution – they do not have recourse to public funds and do not have a safety net. There are also consequences for their businesses.”
Checking an individual’s right to live and work in the UK is now mandatory for all property rentals and offers of employment. Such rights are retained in full by anyone awaiting a decision on a visa application or appeal.
But, in the absence of an active document, a person’s rights can be hard to demonstrate – and not always well understood by landlords and employers, according to Qureshi.
MRN’s representations to the Home Office have also met with the response that the cases that have been delayed are those that have inherent “complex issues” – and that applicants remain free to leave the UK if they wish to withdraw their application.
“They are creating their own complexity, and there is a real lack of clarity,” she added.
An end to ECAA
The ECAA – also known as the Ankara Agreement – was implemented in 1973.
Before Brexit, its terms enabled Turkish citizens to obtain a visa to work or establish a business in the UK.
The UK’s formal departure from the EU at the end of 2020 marked the closure of all new applications for ECAA visas. But anyone who is already in the UK “can apply to extend your visa as many times as you like”, according to guidance published on GOV.UK.
Visa extensions of up to three years are available, while those who have been in the UK for more than five years are typically eligible to apply to stay permanently – known as ‘indefinite leave to remain’.
Government data indicates that the looming end of the ECAA visa scheme prompted a surge in applications.
In 2019, the UK received 7,599 work visa applications from Turkish nationals. A total of 5,549 cases were resolved during the year, of which 89% were approved.
"Where applications to this visa route are straightforward and non-complex, the majority are concluded within our published six-month service standard"
Home Office spokesperson
In 2020, the volume of annual applications increased more than fourfold, to 31,821. The 10,455 cases resolved – while almost double the amount concluded in the prior year – lagged the number of new claims by more than 20,000.
After new applications were closed on 1 January 2021, the number of Turkish nationals applying to work – or continue to work – in the UK fell back to 11,447.
Although 22,784 applicants received a decision last year, the disparity between cumulative claims and resolutions over the past three years stands at more than 12,000.
Of the cases that have been concluded, the proportion of applications for Turkish nationals that have been refused in the last two years stands out when compared with other countries.
In 2020 – for the duration of which applications for new ECAA visas remained open – 44% of all cases resolved were refused.
Among the rest of the top 20 countries by annual volume of work visa applications, the highest refusal rate was 7%.
For cases resolved in 2021, the proportion of refusals increased to 75%. This means that, of the 25,754 applicants across all countries denied a visa to work in the UK in 2021, almost 17,000 were Turkish.
Cause of complexity
As of the start of this year, Elif’s case is one of 8,079 ECAA applications recorded as being a “work in progress”, according to another Home Office data set.
This waiting list – which stood at just 1,157 at the beginning of 2020 – has grown steadily since, and did not reduce in size at all during 2021.
Having begun the year at 7,319, quarterly statistics show that the caseload stood at 8,035, 7,364, and 8,251 at the end of March, June, and September, respectively.
During this time, ministers have repeatedly been asked via parliamentary questions about the cause and scale of delays to the processing of ECAA cases, and how the issue is being addressed by the Home Office.
Despite the public availability on GOV.UK of the data cited above, in June 2021 immigration minister Kevin Foster answered one such question by claiming that “Home Office migration statistics do not capture the number of Turkish Businessperson visa applications which are still to be processed”.
PublicTechnology understands that Freedom of Information requests made to the department to obtain the information have also been refused on the grounds that doing so “would involve a manual trawl through every individual case record”.
Number of ECAA visa applications awaiting a decision as of the beginning of 2022, compared with 1,157 at the start of 2020
Length of time Elif, whom we spoke to, has been waiting for a decision. She claimed she is one of thousands in a similar position.
Proportion of work visa applications from Turkish nationals that were refused in 2020, compared with a rate of 6% across all other countries
31 December 2020
Deadline for new applications for ECAA visas
Although little detail has been provided on what is causing the delays and backlogs – either publicly or to individual applicants – it is understood that, in a number of cases, the “complex issues” cited by the department may relate to the assessment of financial records. In particular: instances in which the visa applicant also applied to the Bounce Back Loan Scheme through which the government provided businesses with low-interest funding support during the height of the pandemic.
This is understood to have proven especially problematic in processing cases that constitute an application for indefinite leave to remain. The right to settle permanently in the UK is subject to a “good character requirement” – one of the metrics of which is a test of the applicant’s “financial soundness”, including the accrual of debt and any directorships of businesses that have closed.
PublicTechnology contacted the Home Office asking for comment or information on the cause of delays, how they are being alleviated, and when it expects to clear the existing backlog.
“Where applications to this visa route are straightforward and non-complex, the majority are concluded within our published six-month service standard,” a spokesperson for the department said in response. “If applications are more complex they may take longer to consider – we have notified customers of this and we aim to conclude each application as quickly as possible.”
After little more than a year at the head of the department, Sajid Javid was moved on, to be replaced by Priti Patel. It is not known whether she shares her predecessor’s distaste for the word ‘hostile’.
The adjective was, however, conspicuous by its complete absence from a major speech made by the incumbent home secretary last year, setting out an immigration plan for the years ahead.
Instead, Patel said that the government wished to “fix the system – to make it logical and fair”.
There are 8,000 people who could perhaps suggest somewhere that such repair work could begin.
Sam Trendall is editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where this story first appeared