The government’s rebranding of the UK Border Agency (UKBA)’s operational arm from immigration service to Border Force encapsulates the approach which treats migrants as criminals.
Suddenly, there were all these references to ‘border force’ officials on the news. Border Force. The name brands the organisation as somehow more powerful, hard-hitting, but also and contradictorily tells us this is all about image. It could be (and started out as) the title of one of those gritty reality TV shows. It certainly tells us what the agency’s priorities are, suggesting as it does that migrants are all potential criminals who must be watched closely and strictly controlled to stop them causing mayhem.
The row over suspension of fingerprint checks
It was the forced resignation in November 2011 of Brodie Clark over the issue of suspension of some border checks during busy periods, which first drew attention to the new name for immigration officers. Clark was described as the head of the ‘UK Border Force’. And the saga demonstrates the clash between ministerial priorities – appearing tough – and daily realities at Heathrow and elsewhere. In February 2012 the Independent Chief Inspector of the UKBA, John Vine, reporting on the suspension of the checks, described a chaotic system marked by a failure of communication between UKBA officials and ministers and lack of guidance to staff. Vine’s report made it clear that, although checking of the fingerprints of non-EEA nationals was suspended many times without ministerial approval when arrival halls were full to bursting, passengers were still checked against a ‘warnings index’ (WI) of suspected immigration offenders, criminals, terrorists and others ‘of interest’, as well as having their documents checked. Suspension of WI checks was restricted to EEA nationals, generally children travelling in school parties or in families. After Vine’s report came out, home secretary Theresa May announced she was splitting UKBA in two; henceforth the operational arm was to be known as the ‘Border Force’, headed by a former chief constable of Wiltshire, Brian Moore and with an ethos of ‘law enforcement’.
The rebranding of the immigration service is the culmination of more than a decade of huge expansion of the policing aspects of immigration control and the transformation of the immigration service into immigration police. As the enforcement budget doubled and re-doubled, successive acts of parliament since 1999 have given immigration officers equivalent powers to police, without the safeguards – powers of arrest, search, seizure and of coercive information gathering from an increasingly wide range of public and private sector agencies. During the same period, border controls have relied more and more on electronic and biometric data, with airlines providing advance passenger information, databases such as the European Information System and joint police-customs-immigration databases churning out lists of immigration offenders, criminal suspects and other ‘undesirables’, and all non-EEA visa nationals having to be fingerprinted to provide visas. But the paranoia surrounding immigration and all this border-control technology makes more work for the officials at the border. Instead of just checking a passport and a passenger, they must open the biometric chip on the passport, check entries on the warning list and (for non-EEA nationals) take fingerprints. With staff being cut, and passenger numbers inexorably rising, it is, if not physically impossible then at least politically undesirable to insist that everyone undergoes all the checks at all times – particularly if it means British and EEA citizens, celebrities and even Keith Vaz MP (chair of the home affairs committee, which scrutinises UKBA operations) queuing for hours at immigration control.
Responding to the huge queues at Britain’s airports a year ago, ministers had agreed limited suspension of the enhanced checks in a pilot scheme running from July 2011. But lurid headlines about the suspension of the enhanced checks, which created the impression that foreign terrorists could stroll in freely, led to the row, as May scapegoated Clark (who subsequently received over £100,000 in settlement of his claim to have been unfairly forced out). Now, the government is hoist by its own petard; the headlines scream of hours of delays as everyone from schoolgirl to pensioner is thoroughly scrutinised. But it can’t return to selective, ‘risk-based’ enhanced checks, the common-sense solution favoured by Clark, without risking a return of the ‘they’re letting in terrorists’ headlines. And its attempts to train up hundreds of extra staff to deal with the queues, involving as they do the compression of three months’ training into just days, provoke media derision, with the Mail on Sunday front page (20 May 2012) reading ‘Don’t panic! Now ministers hire filing clerks to guard borders’. The government should have known that the xenophobic nationalism to which the escalation of border controls plays cannot be appeased; its voracious appetite merely grows.
It is of course, not queuing visitors and returning Brits like Keith Vaz who really bear the brunt of the migration-as-crime model, but those detained, excluded and otherwise kicked around by it. In the year to January 2012, 15,000 people (including 3,000 children) were held at Heathrow in ‘disgusting and degrading’ conditions for hours, and in some cases for over a day, according to the Independent Monitoring Board. Year after year the Board complains at the lack of proper facilities for sleep or for personal hygiene, the lack of natural light, the bright artificial light which blazes 24 hours a day, but nothing gets done. The lack of change, it concludes, is unacceptable on grounds of humanity. The fact that, according to the report, some detainees are ‘checked in’ at the Rapid Goods Screening Centre’ at the airport adds to the impression that for UKBA, those awaiting removal are cargo, not people. Another report by John Vine, on the Detained Fast Track (DFT) for asylum seekers, complained about the poor screening which results in too many people, including torture victims or seriously ill people, being wrongly detained, and at the steadily increasing time those in the fast track wait to be interviewed (now 11 days, from 2 days when DFT began), for a decision (13 days, up from 3-4), and for removal (over 3 months, for over a third of those refused).
The policing of colleges
In another manifestation of the migration-as-crime model, colleges are increasingly being treated as accessories to crime and are told: inform on your international students or be shut down. In one of the first studies of the effects of the points-based system for students introduced in 2009, the National Audit Office (NAO) reports that 141 colleges have had their sponsor licences revoked for failing to police their students adequately. Revocation of the licence not only prevents any further enrolment but also forces the colleges concerned to stop teaching international students, with immediate effect. Students are left high and dry, often thousands of pounds poorer. 62,000 reports on recalcitrant students were filed with the UKBA over an eighteen-month period in 2010-11. Many colleges now have fingerprint scanning systems to check students’ attendance. But the NAO’s main complaint is about the UKBA’s failure to follow up students who overstay their visa or drop out, rather than the imposition of the crime model on international students and their colleges.
Shapps won’t end exploitation
Students might turn to illegal work to try to salvage something from the closure of their colleges and the loss of their fees. They may join the thousands of refused asylum seekers and unauthorised workers who face super-exploitation at work and at home, often employed for as little as £2 an hour (and unable to enforce workplace rights because of their illegality) and often paying exorbitant rents for beds in damp and rat-infested sheds and garages. The £1.8 million initiative recently announced by housing minister Grant Shapps, which will bring together local authorities, police, UKBA and customs officials to ‘flush out criminal landlords’ is unlikely to live up to Shapps’ promise to the new shanty-dwellers that ‘help is at hand’. Just as the crackdowns on gangmasters did not help migrant workers, the promised deal on criminal landlords is likely to result in the detention and deportation of the tenants rather than improved living conditions for them. Only a switch in emphasis from migration-as-crime can do that.