Travel Document Project

Inspectorate and other reports on travel document procedures in the UK

This section contains references in recent inspection reports to the management by the UK Border Agency of processes for obtaining travel documents for foreign nationals facing either voluntary or enforced removal from the UK.

Extracts of reports published within the last 5 years are shown in chronological order from:

Independent Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency (ICIUKBA)

"We ensure independent scrutiny of the UK Border Agency, providing confidence and assurance as to its effectiveness and efficiency."

HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP)

"Mission: To provide independent scrutiny of the conditions for and treatment of prisoners and other detainees".

National Audit Office (NAO)

"The National Audit Office (NAO) scrutinises public spending on behalf of Parliament.  Our audit of central government has two main aims. By reporting the results of our audits to Parliament, we hold government departments and bodies to account for the way they use public money, thereby safeguarding the interests of taxpayers. In addition, our work aims to help public service managers improve performance and service delivery".

Independent Chief Inspector of UKBA, ‘Asylum: Getting the balance right? A thematic inspection: July - November 2009'

From the Executive Summary

1. On the basis of current staffing levels and the complexity and volume of cases, its target of concluding 90% of cases in six months is unachievable given the challenges faced in securing travel documentation for failed asylum seekers and concluding legal challenges to decisions. Front-line staff had not been involved sufficiently in the setting of targets. (2010: 4)

From the main body of the report

1.19 In particular, we found a consistent view that the target had failed to adequately consider the difficulties involved in obtaining travel documents for people whose applications had been refused and who are required to leave the UK. Many people who are refused asylum either do not, or claim not to have a passport. In these cases, the UKBA often needed to apply to Embassies or High Commissions to obtain documentation which would allow a person to be removed. We will be examining the UKBA's use of travel documents as part of a future inspection. (2010: 13)

1.20 The time taken to obtain such documentation varied according to the requirements of other countries and additional time would be required where countries did not accept that people were of the nationality that they claimed and so did not issue the UKBA with documents. (2010: 13)

1.41 Performance against the target is reliant on a range of factors. These include the number of applicants claiming asylum in the UK and the length of time that it can take foreign governments to provide documentation for nationals in order to remove them. As the UKBA cannot itself control all these factors, we have significant concerns about what it would need to do to try and meet the target of 90%. (2010: 16).

National Audit Office, (2009), Management of Asylum Applications by the UK Border Agency.

Key findings

i) There are other significant barriers to removing failed asylum applicants. Obtaining Emergency Travel Documents is a major challenge for the agency, particularly from nations that are not readily prepared to recognise their nationals. We also found, however, that the Agency have applied for and been offered some 13,000 Emergency Travel Documents which have not been used, some of which it has paid for. A number of these cannot be executed because they are time-expired, are for individuals who have absconded, or there are other issues to address before a removal can be effected. There are, however, up to 5,000 documents which could potentially be used to remove people now.


2.25 A significant barrier to removal is the availability of Emergency Travel Documents and, in some cases, nations which do not recognise and accept back their nationals. Work is being done by the Agency and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to negotiate with embassies, High

Commissions and foreign governments. These negotiations take time and agreements have been reached with some nations, including China. For some nations there is currently a legal barrier to removal or no safe route for people to return home. For example, removals to Zimbabwe are currently deferred until the appeal process over whether it is safe to return Zimbabweans has been completed.

2.26 The Agency has a central unit responsible for applying to embassies and High Commissions for travel and other identity documents to enable asylum and other immigration applicants to be returned. Typically, the unit will apply for an Emergency Travel Document so that an applicant can be sent back home when their claim has been rejected. Some of these documents are paid for by the Agency. Case Owners told us that it can take a long time to obtain travel documents through the central unit and that there is no formal way to speed up the process for applicants held in detention. Internal management information shows that the Agency had, however, applied for and been offered up to 13,000 Emergency Travel Documents by overseas governments which it has not used, 10,000 of them for Asylum cases. Of the 10,000 potentially available documents, over 7,000 are related to cases for which there are no remaining barriers that should prevent the applicant from being removed. Of the 10,000, however, 987 (10 per cent) have expired and cannot be used without revalidation and 1,465 (15 per cent) are in the process of being used and removal action is being taken, 1,263 (13 per cent) have been granted Asylum and 1,338 (13 per cent) have absconded. The remaining 5,000 documents could potentially be used now to support the removal of failed asylum applicants.


viii) Through Case Ownership the Agency has cut the number of times that cases are passed from person to person and reduced the opportunity for delay and error. There are, however, still points in the process which are of little benefit or are slowing things down. In particular the Agency should:

  • increase the use of Emergency Travel Documents and introduce a fast-track process for obtaining documents for those in detention.

National Audit Office, (2005), Returning Failed Asylum Applicants. The Stationery Office, London

This report looks at the performance of the then-Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) of the Home Office with respect to the prompt departure or removal from the UK of people who have been refused permission.  Prompt removal is held to reduce support costs of refused asylum seekers, potentially reduces incentives for those with weak protection claims to travel to the UK, and maintains the integrity of the UK asylum process. 

"Two-thirds of failed asylum applicants with no further right of appeal to remain in the UK at the end of May 2004 were from countries requiring emergency travel documents obtained from their embassy". (NAO, 2005: 8).

Preparing travel documentation

21 Many failed applicants do not have travel documents or any form of identification. Where no travel documents are available, the Directorate's ability to remove failed applicants is frequently hindered by delays in taking action to obtain emergency travel documents and difficulties in obtaining documents from embassies. The Directorate may itself be able to prepare a valid travel document known as a European Union letter, provided the applicant comes from a country where this document is recognised. Two-thirds of the cases recorded as "appeals rights exhausted" on the Directorate's database at the end of May 2004, however, were from countries for which travel documents are required from embassies and 12 per cent were from countries to which at that time the Directorate was not enforcing removals.

A specialist Unit within the Directorate is responsible for seeking travel documents from the embassies of countries not accepting European Union letters. In March 2004 the Unit took on average 17 days to forward applications for travel documents to the embassies of the 11 countries most frequently approached. The embassies took on average 53 days to provide the travel documentation - embassies often wish to make checks against records kept in their home countries.

The Directorate reviewed the work of the Unit in August 2004 and by November 2004 had reduced the time taken to forward documents to embassies to an average of seven days. Since 2003 the Government has been working to improve its arrangements with foreign embassies. By 2004, the United Kingdom had concluded bilateral readmission agreements with three countries[1] and had established informal memoranda of understanding or similar arrangements with officials in a further five[2]. The European Union is currently negotiating readmission agreements with nine countries, which the United Kingdom can opt into once agreed[3].

2.10 Since 2003 the Directorate has been working with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to develop country specific plans to improve or establish documentation procedures. In 2004 the directorate was prioritising its work with 16 countries. The Government has concluded bilateral readmission agreements formally ratified by the Parliaments of Albania, Bulgaria and Romania. It has negotiated arrangements with Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Turkey, China, Vietnam and the Somalian authorities and the Directorate considers it also has good longstanding arrangements with others. The European Commission has mandates to negotiate 11 readmission agreements in which the UK can participate, once they have been agreed[4].

3.12 With effect from June 2004, the Prison Service and the Directorate have introduced the Early Removals Scheme which allows for foreign national prisoners to be released from prison up to four months early and returned to their country of origin.  By the end of August 2004 the Directorate's records show that it had removed 333 people in the first three months of the scheme's operation, a small proportion of whom were failed asylum applicants. The Directorate had reviewed 1,194 of the 2,800 prisoners referred to them, and approved some 40 per cent for removal. The Directorate's records showed that 120 of the 659 cases reviewed and declined for early release had been rejected because of "absence of a travel document". The Directorate has recognised that the Criminal Casework Team has been under-resourced, and increased the complement to 34 in 2003-04 and then to 85 by March 2005 to help improve performance (p: 23)

The process of obtaining travel documentation through the fast track route starts as soon as an application receives a refusal at the initial stage (p: 26)

ii Whether the Directorate has addressed potential bottlenecks in the process

Difficulty obtaining travel documentation significantly constrains removal to some countries, but delays within the Directorate could be reduced

4.14 Where failed asylum applicants have their own passports, removal can be straightforward. Applicants with passports or other proof of identity are required to hand them to immigration staff when they make their application for asylum. Many applicants, however, do not have any form of identification or conceal it, and they may give a false identity.

4.15 Where no travel documents are available, the Directorate may itself be able to prepare a valid travel document known as a European Union letter, provided the applicant comes from a country where this document is recognised. For those countries which do not accept the European Union letter, a specialist team within the Directorate, known as the Immigration Service Documentation Unit, is responsible for seeking travel documents from the relevant embassies. In March 2004 the Directorate established that 77 (55 per cent) of the 139 people held in detention at that time for more than six months were held awaiting travel documents. Our analysis of information from the Directorate's database in March 2004 for applicants from 11 countries which account for 87 per cent of the Unit's workload[5], suggested that the Unit took on average 17 days to forward applications for travel documents to the relevant embassies. Delays in sending the travel documents to embassies resulted from pressure of work in the Unit or the need to obtain missing information from local enforcement offices. The embassies took 53 days on average to provide the travel documentation - embassies will often wish to make checks against records kept in their home countries. In 15 per cent of cases the embassies had refused to provide emergency travel documentation, for example because they could not confirm the individual's identity. In our examination of case files we found that in such cases the Directorate generally attempted to gather further information about the applicant before resubmitting the application.

4.16 The Directorate reviewed the work of the Unit in August 2004 and recognised the need to improve its performance. The Directorate transferred responsibility for dealing with embassies to an overseas liaison team, enabling the Unit to focus on administrative procedures. The Unit reduced the time taken to submit applications for travel documents and by November 2004 was forwarding applications for travel documents for the 11 countries accounting for the majority of its workload in seven days on average. In January 2005 it also undertook a review of all existing requests for travel documents to ensure that where possible enforcement offices and ports had used the resulting documents to effect removals - previously not all travel documents issued had been acted on and in some cases failed applicants had absconded before the document had been received by the Unit. To achieve these improvements the number of staff employed in the Unit is planned to increase from 33 to 40 by April 2005.

4.17 A number of forcibly removed immigration offenders are refused entry by the authorities in their country of origin and immediately returned to the United Kingdom. In the period October 2003 to September 2004 the Directorate recorded 82 cases where this had happened. Of the 36 people returned to the United Kingdom from April 2004 (when the reason for entry being refused was first recorded) to September 2004, 21 (58 per cent) were returned because the authorities did not accept a European Union letter, although in five of these cases the letter was accompanied by supporting documentary evidence issued by the country of origin including birth certificates, driving licences, identity cards and expired passports. The Documentation Unit investigates all refusals of European Union letters with the embassies of the country concerned.


vi. The Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should seek to increase embassies' commitment to facilitating the return of their nationals; and the Directorate should improve its management of requests for travel documentation, for example by:

  • working with embassies to understand their capacity to handle requests for documentation and identify ways of assisting their prompt processing of requests;
  • clearer prioritisation of requests; and
  • improved recording and reporting of progress on individual cases. (page 7)

ix The Directorate should reduce the time taken to remove the cases of failed applicants in detention for criminal offences, for example by:

  • reviewing all cases referred for early removal within a specified period;
  • encouraging voluntary return; and
  • dealing with travel documentation issues at the earliest opportunity. (page 7)          

x. The Directorate should increase the number of removals achieved per bedspace in detention, for example by closer working with staff responsible for obtaining travel documents to prioritise cases.

Returning Failed Asylum Applicants  National Audit Office 2005-2006

Summary: That the directorate is not doing enough to ensure the removal of failed asylum applicants, threatening the integrity of the asylum process and at a cost of £308 million a year.

On documentation: It takes the Directorate an average of 7 days to contact respective embassy; the embassies took an average 53 days to provided relevant documentation.

[1] Albania, Bulgaria and Romania.

[2] Afghanistan, India, Turkey, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Similar arrangements have also been established with the Somalian authorities.

[3] Sri Lanka, Morocco, Pakistan, Russia, Algeria, Albania, China, Turkey and Ukraine.

[4] Albania, Algeria, China, Hong Kong and Macau, Morocco, Pakistan, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Ukraine.

[5] Algeria, China, Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Jamaica, Moldova, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Ukraine.