Below Jon Burnett analyses a recent Sky TV series, UK Border Force, which portrayed the work of the UK Border Agency.
In 2008, the Home Office paid £400,000 to Steadfast Television, an independent production company, to help fund a documentary for Sky TV on UK border control. The programme, according to Sky, was ‘a revealing new documentary series which takes you behind the scenes at Heathrow Terminal 3, Calais, Dover and out and about with diligent enforcement teams – all cracking down on illegal immigrants.'
In turn, Steadfast suggested that viewers would be shown the ‘battle to stem the tide of illegal entries’. In exchange for payment, exclusive access to the inner workings of the UK’s mechanisms of border policing was granted. Camera crews were allowed to follow enforcement teams as they raided homes and workplaces, officers checking lorries in Calais, and immigration officers interviewing those who wished to enter the country. Staff at the UK Border Agency (UKBA) explained their jobs in detail, discussing their work and its aims.
New Labour has channelled significant energy and resources into transforming the immigration and asylum system in recent years, with Minister of State for Borders and Immigration, Phil Woolas, stating, last year, that 2008 would see ‘the biggest shake up of our border security and immigration system in its history’. This documentary then provided an ideal vehicle through which to propagate particular images of the state at a time of restructuring. It provided a clear opportunity to portray the work of UKBA and the programme was overseen on behalf of the Home Office by the Central Office of Information (COI).
It was inevitable, then, that suspicion of bias would emerge. And this was buttressed by growing controversy over the fact that the £400,000 spent on this programme was only one part of a wider £2 million that had been spent by the government on sponsoring other ‘documentaries’. Ofcom was concerned enough to investigate whether broadcast codes had been breached. And in this context, on 15 September 2008, it was reported that Sky had given the £400,000 back, claiming that viewers needed to be assured that the programme was ‘wholly independent’. A gesture that might have carried more credibility were it not for the fact that the series had already begun.
UK Border Force was an eight-part series that aired between September and October 2008. Each one-hour episode followed the work of the UKBA and focused interchangeably upon the role of enforcement teams, juxtaposed immigration controls in France, the work of staff at Heathrow airport, and visa controls in India. Throughout, the underlying narrative was of the routine manner in which the state refuses entry, targets, raids, stops and searches, detains, and deports those who are in breach of (or suspected of being in breach of) immigration and asylum laws. Viewers were shown close-up images of people breaking down in tears, threatening to end their own lives, fleeing from enforcement teams, and emerging bewildered and confused from their attempted modes of transport into the UK as they were caught and turned away. That their own narratives – those who are described in the programme at various points as ‘illegals’, ‘clandestines’, and ‘human traffic jams’ – remain unexplored is indicative of immigration and asylum policy. ‘As far is the law is concerned’, one immigration officer bluntly explains, ‘there is no flexibility’.
Offshore border controls
British immigration officers are stationed at 135 different countries worldwide in order to ‘vet those who want to travel’. Under the doctrine of managed migration their role is to regulate migration flows at the point of departure and, according to one immigration officer, ‘We are trying to stop people in the first place who have no right to go’.
Research by the Refugee Council has drawn attention to the manner in which the New Labour government seeks to place more emphasis on pre-entry controls. And these take on a variety of guises, including the imposition of carrier sanctions of airlines that transport ‘inadequately documented passengers’, referring ‘irregular’ passengers to local authorities and gathering information on immigration trends. One of the impacts of such practices, according to the Refugee Council, is the refoulement of asylum seekers in need of protection. But in a legal challenge against the UK’s use of ‘pre-entrance controls’ in Prague in 2001, the immigration service asserted that the government was ‘not obliged under the 1951 Refugee Convention to consider applications outside the UK, nor to facilitate travel to the UK for the purpose of applying for asylum’. At the same time EU externalised border controls force thousands of people into ‘irregular migration’ by, effectively, closing down routes for ‘legal’ travel. It is in this context that people are forced to use other forms of transport including boats and through the use of people smugglers.
None of this is explored in UK Border Force where cameras film immigration offices in Delhi that administer 8,000 applications to travel to the UK a week. Cameras film a range of applicants as they are questioned and cross-examined by officials. One man, for example, is refused a visa as he does not have as much money as he claims in his bank account. ‘The fact that you’ve submitted false documents means I can’t believe anything you say’, he is told. This is reported without question. As is the fact that the police are called and he is banned from entering the UK for ten years. Like all applicants to the UK from Delhi since 2007, he has his fingerprints and photograph taken and stored in a database which, if the figure of 8,000 applications a week is correct, adds 416,000 people to its files a year. Similarly, a student who has paid £4,500 in order to study in the UK is refused entry as he does not have sufficient grasp of English and cannot answer certain questions. The whole process, in which he loses the fees he has paid, is administered with unswerving efficiency. The reasons why people wanted to leave India are never questioned. Rather, the programme suggests that ‘The visa system acts as a filter and strict border controls stop people getting in the country illegally’.
Without any concept of how distinctions between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ migration are created, or indeed the interests these distinctions serve, UK Border Force is reduced to merely reproducing these distinctions as fact. Juxtaposed immigration controls in Calais are observed faithfully: reported as a line of defence valiantly preventing those whom the narrator describes as the ‘clandestine community’ from entering the UK. So we are told that of the 5,000 trucks a day that pass through Calais, three-quarters of them are checked for people. We are told that by doing so 12,000 people were prevented from entering the UK in 2007. But at no point does the programme seriously question the terrible conditions in the makeshift camps dotted around the port in which those who are desperate to enter exist. ‘If you don’t catch them you don’t feel like your doing your job’, one immigration officer explains. And considerable time is spent showing them ‘doing their job’.
Carbon dioxide probes – specially designed devices that detect breathing – are portrayed as a vital tool in the detection of those who try and enter the UK. The immigration officers are meticulous and there is no doubt that they are effective. Close up images show people caught in the back of lorries and vans; behind boxes and beneath pallets and, at one point, ‘buried amongst the tyres’. In the latter example, seven people are found hidden in a vehicle just before it is about to board a ferry to the UK. ‘Look guys. So close’, one of the immigration officers exclaims.
The exact number of migrants who have suffocated whilst in transit, trying to enter the UK, is unknown. Aside from incidents where there are mass casualties – such as the suffocation of fifty-eight Chinese people in a van entering Dover in 2000 – there is little interest from the mainstream media. But a Vietnamese family who are filmed with plastic bags tied over their heads, in a desperate attempt to avoid the carbon dioxide probes, may well have come dangerously close to adding to this number. ‘I personally don’t have an opinion whilst at work as to the reasons they are coming’, one immigration officer remarks. It is a view that UK Border Force follows fastidiously.
Terminal Three – Heathrow airport
Heathrow airport was opened in 1946 and is recognised as the busiest airport in the world. Every year 66.9 million people pass through its jurisdiction, and it plays an intrinsic role in enforcing UK immigration laws and policies. It is no coincidence that the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), set up in 1967 as a welfare service assisting those entering the UK who were made the target of discriminatory immigration laws, initially based itself there.
UK Border Force films immigration officers at Heathrow airport as they process applications to the UK, and painstakingly records their work cross-examining, questioning, and ensuring the removal of those who they suspect of breaking immigration laws. ‘Many passengers are from the worlds poorest countries’, the programme asserts, and one man who is stopped, held for a period and questioned recognises that poverty, in itself, appears to be a cause for suspicion. ‘This is just because I am poor’, he claims of his treatment. Not once does the programme even begin to examine the legacies of colonialism and imperialism through which countries have maintained their dominance through extrapolating wealth from other countries.
The United Nations has suggested that the EU needs at least 20 million non-EU migrants by 2020 in order to sustain its economy. Such predictions, in part, have underpinned the efforts of member states in creating and streamlining various types of routes and entitlements (or indeed lack of) for migrants who take up employment. At the same time, significant resources are channelled into ensuring that those who are not deemed desirable by governmental targets and dictates are denied entry and removed. According to the former Home Secretary Charles Clarke, ‘[t]he UK needs a world class migration system to attract the brightest and the best from across the world’. It can be presumed that one woman from Cape Town, who is stopped and tells the officers that she wants to study on a beauty training course, is not seen to fit into these requirements. She has no money, but has a number of CVs and, as such, the Heathrow staff conclude that she is trying to enter the UK in order to work. Eventually, the woman begins to cry, offering that she has to support her whole family and that this is ‘her only break’. In a bizarre scene one of the immigration officers appears to express a level of sympathy for the woman’s plight; explaining that they have been to Cape Town and suggesting ‘it’s pretty horrible’. Regardless, the woman is made to return there. ‘She falls well short of the requirements for entry’, viewers are told. Whilst an immigration officer acknowledges that they are ‘robbing her of her chance to help her family’.
It is presumably women like this that former Prime Minister Tony Blair referred to, in 2004, when he stated, ‘We will neither be Fortress Britain, nor will we be an open house. Where necessary we will tighten the immigration system. Where there are abuses we will deal with them, so that public support for the controlled migration that benefits Britain will be maintained.'
And UK Border Force offers a conduit through which such images of border controls can be displayed – without question.
In another example a Pakistani man who claims to be a student is suspected of lying about his course and questioned about what tube route he uses to get to college. He is unable to answer. When contacted, the college that he says he has been studying at confirms that he has not attended since 2007. ‘He’s played the game’, an immigration officer working on the case claims. He is told that he will be removed to Pakistan, but that he has a right of appeal which extends to twenty-eight days if he leaves, or five days if he chooses to remain. If he takes the latter option, it is explained to him that he will be placed in detention and appealing in this way ‘is a waste of taxpayers’ money’. This, it appears, is the main priority and such is the manner in which a decision on one individual’s future is made. When an American citizen, born in Jamaica tells one immigration officer at Heathrow that ‘my life is right here in your hands’, the answer is instant, and unequivocal. ‘That’s right’, he replies.
In all of the ways identified above, UK Border Force grants viewers up close access to the work of immigration officers as they implement policies designed, in part, to prevent entry into the UK. But the footage does not stop there. Considerable time is spent filming the work of immigration officers as they raid homes and workplaces in a hunt for those whose presence is deemed ‘irregular’. ‘Preventing people who come here illegally is one thing’, the programme narrates. ‘Tracking down those who have slipped through the net is another. That’s where the enforcement team comes in.’
The resources that have been put into tracking down irregular migrants are considerable. Manpower has increased substantially, and information sharing between a variety of agencies is unprecedented. Some (although, as we shall see below not all) of the work of the enforcement teams is based, ostensibly, on intelligence and it is explained that one particular centre in Manchester receives 1,000 ‘tip-offs’ a week. Many of these relate to people working without permission and the officers raid workplaces to catch workers in their jobs. Officers enter a restaurant on the basis of such ‘intelligence’ in one example and, after breaking some of the furniture (albeit accidentally) they learn that one of the people they are looking for does not actually work in the business. The others have permission to work. Neither the stigmatising effect on the business (there are customers eating as the raid takes place), the fear generated by such events, nor the source of the information are questioned or explored in any way. Rather, the raid is treated as an entertaining slip-up.
In its refusal to ask or even acknowledge some of the broader questions relating to the politics of immigration raids, UK Border Force purges any form of context apart from that which the UK Border Agency seeks to portray. That the raid above is based on fundamentally flawed intelligence is irrelevant to the programme because it is unimportant to the officers who carry it out. They simply move on to another target. In Liverpool, enforcement teams raid another restaurant and, this time, catch people. ‘It all ends in tears’, one officer explains as one of the workers breaks down on camera. ‘It ends in tears for businesses who go to the wall because these people undercut them.’
It is this notion of undercutting ‘good’ business that plays such an intrinsic role in the government’s concerted drive to combat undocumented working through criminalisation. It is a simplistic vision in which businesses can be split into ‘good’ and ‘bad’; with the latter employing workers illegally. In practice, this division appears to be underpinned by ethnicity, with the UKBA targeting ethnic minority owned businesses ‘whose visibility on the High Street makes them easy targets for a policy driven by numbers’ in an ongoing series of raids and operations. The Home Office displays this information proudly, and ‘names and shames’ businesses that are caught employing people in contravention of immigration legislation. The list of the names of employers and their businesses who have received civil penalties are updated regularly on the Home Office website and, as the Home Office makes clear, these names are also circulated to ‘local media organisations, such as local newspapers and broadcast news media’.
What these naming and shaming lists also reveal, however, is that almost no companies who sub-contract labour are brought to public attention. Between May 2008 and January 2009, these lists publicised over 230 businesses, many of which were found to be employing multiple workers. Not once though do they mention companies such as major supermarkets that routinely utilise products made by exploited labour. As stated above, it is the easiest targets that are beleaguered. This is reflected in UK Border Force as immigration officers are frequently filmed entering small businesses. ‘Lets rock and roll’ asserts one officer before raiding an Asian butchers shop in London. In Essex, people washing cars are caught and officers go to their shared house to check their identity documents. Upon finding an overdue library book an officer ‘jokes’ that ‘if we can’t nick him for immigration offences we’ll arrest him for his library fine’. Raids are conducted with the use of fingerprint scanners so that an individual’s immigration status can be verified immediately on a centralised database. Results come back in minutes.
Where UKBA does raid larger businesses, such as a chicken factory in the Midlands, officers uncover torrid conditions. Sixty workers are found and they have their mobile phones taken from them to ensure that ‘protesters can’t cause a nuisance’. Nineteen people are arrested. At a spring onion farm in Worcestershire elderly workers employed by an agency are found in, as one immigration officer states, ‘conditions you wouldn’t keep an animal in’. Two of the people tell how they sold their house and land to get to the UK. Undocumented working is frequently exploitative, and often involves working in conditions where injuries are high and mechanisms of redress are practically non-existent. Yet, as the commentary for UK Border Force accurately explains, ‘Although employment regulations are being broken, the enforcement teams job is to identify and remove “illegals”.’ Indeed, at the same time as resources and manpower targeted at arresting ‘immigration offenders’ there has been a withdrawal of agencies involved in the investigation and prosecution of breaches of health and safety law. Undocumented workers are investigated, portrayed, and ‘processed’ (in the language of UK Border Force) quite simply as offenders; with little reference to the reasons why they are working in such conditions, or their role in an increasingly ‘flexibilised’ labour force that the government so readily demands.
Research by the Institute of Race Relations has revealed an increase in deaths caused by immigration raids in 2008. And history has shown that such activities have frequently led to injuries and harm. Yet in a remarkable feat of self-censorship these concerns are omitted completely by UK Border Force. This is despite the use of footage of enforcement teams involved in openly discriminatory ‘street operations’. These operations have been ongoing since 2006, and the programme tells us that in London an average of three are carried out a week. They are based, quite unequivocally, on coercion. Enforcement teams travel to busy locations (such as train stations) and stand visibly so as to gauge, in the words of one officer, ‘how people react to our presence’. According to UK Border Force the operations are designed to focus on ‘anyone who looks suspicious’, and any person who reacts nervously to the presence of Enforcement Teams; or, judging by the footage, anyone who is not White, may be stopped and made to verify their immigration status. ‘These type of operations, we don’t come away with an empty van’, remarks one immigration officer. One man is chased by the Enforcement Teams, held down to the floor in full public view, and told he is ‘under arrest under suspicion of entering the country illegally, or committing an immigration offence’. When a Black member of public confronts the officers he is told by one of them to ‘get your hands out of my face’. In turn, he is put in handcuffs himself and released later on. At Stratford station, two arrests are made in the first hour of an operation and seven throughout the day. One of the arrests is of a Nigerian man who overstayed his visa working at a charity. ‘Viewers are told that ‘[t]he life he made for himself in this country will soon be over’.
There can be little doubt that UK Border Force acted at the very least as a wholly favorable public relations exercise for the UK Border Agency. This is a remarkable achievement, given that the footage displayed (at different times) immigration officers shattering people’s dreams, shouting in peoples faces and smashing through peoples doors. What is equally remarkable, however, is the fact that the media can act so readily as little short of government propaganda. It would be naive to suggest that this was solely as a result of financial backing (the money, after all, was actually returned); or indeed because of editorial control by the Central Office of Information. Rather, UK Border Force portrayed an alliance of shared political and media visions of the work of the state. The programme showed UKBA as UKBA (and no doubt Sky) wanted it to be shown. In turn, it generated high viewing figures of nearly a quarter of a million in its first episode alone.
Some of the immigration officers shown on the programme evidently enjoyed their work. An immigration officer interviewed by The Metro last year explained quite simply that she ‘liked the idea of going out and using our power of arrest’ and that ‘raids are fun’. Others openly displayed sympathy for those whom they removed from the country, but removed them anyway. The point is that whether administered enthusiastically or sympathetically the end result, often, was the same. UK Border Force shows, but never questions that through the edicts of immigration and asylum law and policy global inequalities are maintained at a cost of human misery. Instead, ultimately, such workings of the state are on television as a macabre form of human entertainment.
At the time of writing, UK Border Force is currently re-running on Sky (Freeview), and a second series is in production.