People living in the UK legally are being left without proof of their immigration status because of soaring charges for visa appointments during the pandemic, lawyers have warned.
Refugees and authorised migrants have been deprived of access to public services because they have been unable to afford appointments to obtain the required documentation since visa centres started reopening last month.
Others have spent thousands of pounds on appointments being offered at a higher than usual cost, out of fear that any delay in submitting their biometrics will put their application in jeopardy.
UK visa centres are run by private firm Sopra Steria, after the company took on a Home Office contract last year. While applicants could previously go to their local post office to provide biometric data such as fingerprints free of charge, they now attend one of six “core centres” across the country which offer a free service, or another 51 which usually charge a fee starting from £69.99.
All visa application centres within the UK closed in late March in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Sopra Steria announced at the end of May that a phased reopening of visa centres was to begin on 1 June, though it said the service was operating at a “lower capacity than usual”, with fewer service points open across the country.
While the centres have been closed, many visa applicants – including refugees who are required to apply for leave to remain after being in the UK for five years – have been unable to proceed with their applications, leaving them in a “state of limbo” and in some cases unable to access state support, according to lawyers.
Since visa centres have started to reopen, immigration solicitors say they have struggled to find free appointments at the six core centres on Sopra Steria’s online booking system, while the paid-for options are charging considerably more than normal.
In one case, a Japanese family of five had to pay £2,200 to submit their biometrics for their application for indefinite leave to remain, as the only appointments they could find at the Croydon centre – one of the “core” facilities – were £440 each.
Immigration adviser Anton Koval, from the Legal Centre, who has been aiding the family, said: “They had already paid a few thousand pounds for the immigration fees for five people. They didn’t want to wait long as the time they had to submit the biometrics was running out. It’s totally unfair. It’s profiteering.”
In another case, a family of seven who arrived in the UK in February 2020 on a family reunion visa, to join their refugee father, had to travel from Liverpool to Birmingham in early July in order to attend a free appointment, because it was the only one available and they couldn’t afford to pay the £770 – £110 each – for a slot more locally. A charity paid for their train fare and provided face masks for the journey.
Judith Carter, lecturer and in-house solicitor at the University of Liverpool Law Clinic, who is representing the family, said it took her 10 days to find a free appointment for the clients, and that in order to do so she had to log onto Sopra Steria’s booking website at 1am.
She said: “This family has had to wait an additional four months to submit their biometrics because of lockdown, and then they had the cost of travel to Birmingham, plus the cost to the local council supporting them and the charity supporting them. It’s not just the cost, it’s also forcing a large family to wander about on public transport during a pandemic. It’s needless.
“Sopra Steria is prioritising the paid appointments over the free appointments. Profit is prioritised over people who the UK has an international obligation to support and welcome.”
David Pountney, senior solicitor at Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit (GMIAU), said he had been logging onto the booking website late at night and early in the morning in a bid to find free appointments since visa centres started to reopen, but had only managed to find one.
He said most of his clients couldn’t afford to pay for appointments, leaving them “stuck in limbo” for a prolonged period, and in some cases without access to any public services and at risk of destitution.
“Some of them who had no status before are still stuck with no right to access anything. The decision has usually been made and they’re just waiting for the fingerprints to issue the card to prove it. They could’ve had recourse to public funds months ago, and during this time in particular it’s really needed,” he added.
Sonia Lenegan, legal director at the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association (ILPA), said the organisation had been raising the fact that people were unable to access free appointments to register their biometrics with the Home Office “for weeks now”, but that nothing had changed.
She added: “It was entirely foreseeable that once the centres opened up again that there would be a backlog of people who needed these appointments, and availability was a problem even before the pandemic.”
A Sopra Steria spokesperson said: “We recognise it has been a difficult time for people unable to access appointments because of the global pandemic.”
They said the company had made “significant progress” in reducing the number of customers waiting for an appointment and that, under direction from the Home Office, it was working to release as many new appointments as possible while considering the safety of customers and staff.
The spokesperson added: “During this time, we have continued to make more than half of our appointments at core sites available for free, between 9am-7pm Monday to Friday. As expected, there has been unprecedented demand for these free appointments and customers with urgent or exceptional cases can contact UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) using the Coronavirus Immigration Team helpline.”
They said that in order to reduce the number of people needing to attend a service point and minimise waiting times for appointments, the company was looking to introduce a new process which will facilitate the Home Office reusing previously supplied biometrics for some customers, adding: “We look forward to providing more information on this very soon.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are committed to providing a world class service and visa applicants still have the option to book a free appointment at six core centres across the UK including London, Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow and Manchester.”
They said other UK visa centres were reopening “as soon as they can, in line with public health guidance, to provide more appointments for visa applicants”.
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