Hostility and Dissent: Experiencing Anti-immigrant Messaging

by Sukhwant Dhaliwal and Meena Patel

Two years after the government's 'Go Home' vans, an increasingly hostile environment has created a form of cultural politics that dehumanises and circulates fear.

First published: 13 July, 2015 | Category: 

In July 2013, the Home Office embarked on a series of publicity campaigns reflecting an increasingly hard line towards immigration. This began with an advertising campaign referred to by popular media as the ‘Go Home’ vans and by the counter-public as the racist vans. Displaying a picture of handcuffs and the text ‘In the UK illegally? Go Home or Face Arrest’, these vans were driven around six boroughs in London during a five week pilot. The campaign was accompanied by similarly sinister visuals posted by the Home Office in ethnic minority newspapers and local shop windows. Inside immigration reporting centres in Glasgow and Hounslow, another set of posters provocatively goaded asylum claimants to consider going home. One image, for instance, depicted someone sleeping on the street overlaid with the text ‘Is life here hard? Going home is simple.’ Alongside this, the Home Office engaged in a Twitter campaign through which it publicised images of stops at transport hubs, immigration raids and arrests using #ImmigrationOffenders. These messages were amplified as they travelled across continents through social media forums. This global communication of hostility has been accompanied by the movement of UK border controls inland, away from the port of entry and into local residential areas, workplaces and people’s everyday lives.  

That same summer, a group of anti-racist academics and activists decided to gather evidence on the local and national impact of these Home Office immigration campaigns. What started as a voluntary research project turned into the formalised Mapping Immigration Controversy (MIC) research project that involved 8 researchers across 6 universities who conducted 6 local area case studies. Almost two years and two significant elections - the local and European elections in May 2014 and the General Election in May 2015 – later, we ask what the west London data from the MIC project can tell us.  This essay will focus on the impact of an increasingly hostile environment whereas a second part will look at the modes and messages of resistance and dissent that flourished in response.

Tenets and dimensions of hostility

As we face the spectre of another five years of austerity and the announcement that Theresa May will continue as the Home Secretary, there is an urgent need to look back on what has been and forward as to what we should be doing next. In 2014, Theresa May pushed through a new Immigration Act, which was intended, in her own words, to ‘create a hostile environment for illegal immigrants’ by making immigration checks a compulsory part of access to the health service, private rented housing, even bank accounts and driving licences. It compels landlords to check visas and documents, with the threat of up to £3000 fines per tenant if they fail to do so. Presenting this as a common sense move, May claimed that she was merely extending the duty that had already ‘successfully’ been applied to employers and universities. Moreover, a ‘deport now, appeal later’ provision in the Act was intended to override the provisions of human rights conventions and rights of appeal. This avowed hostility has been bolstered by an austerity agenda that has led to the decimation of voluntary sector support and advocacy services and also monumental restrictions on the availability of legal aid, in turn denying migrants the support they may require to understand the immigration system, let alone navigate it in the context of hostility. They are also forced to prove their status to a range of new border agents encompassing employers, educators, housing and health care providers. And for those experiencing discrimination (including ethnic minorities that are not even subject to immigration controls), the cost of legal advice in the absence of legal aid, may itself thwart any chances of legal challenge.

Since the re-election of the Conservative Party, both the material and ideological dimensions of this hostility coupled with their overriding preference for penal responses to social issues have been reinforced by proposals to extend the austerity agenda and a renewed attack on the Human Rights Act. Yet the Conservatives have been trying to cloak their anti-immigrant agenda by claiming that their measures are merely a pragmatic response to popular concerns. This is indicated by May’s repeated references to a large number of people out there somewhere that think it is ‘unfair’ that people continue to be in the country when they have no ‘right’ to be here’. As Kirsten Forkert points out, this is part of ‘a common narrative’ that presents the political party as if it is boldly and courageously giving voice to the views of a section of the electorate that have allegedly been ignored, often referred to in generic terms as ‘the hard working people.’ There is little doubt that the recent election results will feed this rhetorical displacement and oil the cogs of a cynical spiral towards even tougher measures.

Framed by economic neo-liberalism and a reliance on penal responses to circumvent extended state provision, the Conservative Party has privileged two main sources for its arguments: economics and the law. Defence of the Go Home vans, for instance, foregrounded the monetary advantage of communicating hostility as opposed to incurring the costs of legal cases, detention and deportation. Irrespective of the burgeoning criticisms of this claim, the government believed hostility to be working. In effect, they were trying to make a rhetorical device do the work of getting rid of people at little or no cost to the state. Paradoxically, an emotive communication strategy becomes more important in a context where the public is wary of the use of statistics or economics by politicians. But we should not assume everything is about language and discourse – the hostile environment has been as much about the curtailment of legal rights, the aggressive presence of physical raids and the elaboration of surveillance technologies. Ealing and Hounslow focus group participants of the MIC research highlighted the particularly dehumanising nature of these interventions, comparing them to the stealth tactics of armed robbers in Nigeria and the entrapment of stray dogs in India.

Indeed, this hostile environment is being felt in a visceral way by people and communities in local areas. Soon after an impromptu demonstration in 2013, Southall Black Sisters (SBS), a women’s centre in West London, called a public meeting to discuss these measures. This was followed up by MIC project interviews with local activists and two focus group discussions with ethnic minority women. Eighteen months later, SBS joined forces with the Southall Community Alliance to call another public meeting. These two meetings and the data collated in west London from the focus group discussions are testament to the impact of the government’s hostile environment.

The paradox of fear

Workers at Southall Black Sisters accumulated examples of the incidence of transport checks in the local area. These involved transport police stopping people as they exited stations. Ethnic minority people were targeted, especially those in ‘ethnic’ dress or with foreign sounding accents. Initially stopped by transport police, UK Border Agency (UKBA) officers would be waiting just outside the ring of transport police. If the person being questioned seemed nervous or uncomfortable, UKBA officers would step forward to ask further questions. Beyond showing a ticket to demonstrate they had paid their fare, passengers were asked to prove they have a right to be in the country altogether. Yet there was little likelihood they would be carrying documents to support their answers. SBS argued these were examples of racial profiling and had become a way of introducing identity cards through the back door.

At the public meeting in 2013, Sophie Naftalin, a civil liberties solicitor at Bhatt Murphy who specialises in discrimination, spoke to these concerns. She explained that immigration officers conducting random ‘spot checks’ on the street were often acting in excess of their lawful powers. She advised us all that there was no lawful requirement for an individual to answer questions by an immigration officer who was not at a port of entry and that people were entitled to ‘walk away confidently’ in the event that questions were asked. She explained that a power of arrest only arises on the part of an immigration officer in the event that they had reasonable grounds to suspect that that person was guilty of an immigration offence, and that being black or Asian or having a non-British accent could never amount to a ‘reasonable suspicion’. She stated that questioning minorities purely on the basis of their appearance would amount to unlawful discrimination.  She noted that immigration officers paid close attention to fear and insecurity as a way to target their stops, as the relevant Home Office guidance suggested that if an individual walked away nervously from an immigration officer, this may give rise to grounds to suspect them of being an immigration offender and justify further questioning. Paradoxically, those sections of local populations that are often targeted are also the ones that are less likely to bring a claim of discrimination or enforce their rights.

Sophie referred to a case where a young Indian woman had been picked up and detained during a raid on Quality Foods, a popular Asian supermarket in the heart of Southall. Immigration officers raided Quality Foods on the basis of a warrant for four individuals but the warrant used a generic name – Mr Singh – that could apply to many of the Asian male workers at the store. Despite the particulars of the warrant, Sophie explained that the immigration officials had been briefed to question everyone. The young Indian woman in question had attracted their attention because she had tried to hide her uniform under the till. At a later hearing, the judge accepted immigration officers had overstepped their brief by questioning the woman and others that were not the subjects of the warrant but also stated the woman’s behaviour amounted to ‘reasonable suspicion’ that justified further questioning. She was subsequently detained because the information she provided under those conditions had been contradictory. Ironically, had she been less afraid she may not have attracted attention. Moreover, had she been less forthcoming with information, the officers may not have had grounds to detain her.

Notwithstanding Daniel Trilling’s reminder that withholding information can also trigger authoritarian responses, there were several examples in the MIC research of the inability of the most vulnerable within society to be able to ‘walk away confidently’. In particular, one focus group participant panicked when she saw UKBA officers with dogs at the exit barriers of a London train station and rushed back and jumped onto the next available train, which happened to be headed in the wrong direction. This was a woman with leave to remain in the country. When she eventually reached home, she was so worried her leave to remain might be revoked that she avoided leaving the house for several days. Other focus group participants had also curtailed their movements to avoid possible checks. It is particularly worrying that these restrictions on movement could interfere with access to essential emotional and practical support, including contact with women’s organisations and lawyers. As with the focus groups in the other MIC case study areas, the two sessions at SBS were very emotive. Several participants wept as they considered the implications of this hostile environment for themselves and for people they know. From witnessing night time raids on shared houses to seeing people on their streets being carted off, they talked about the visceral impact of immigration policy on their lives and their new sense of precariousness. For some people the strain of negotiating the UK’s immigration system had been too much to bear. Two participants referred to migrants who had committed suicide.

Rubber shields against discrimination

The hostile environment is a form of cultural politics that has succeeded in circulating fear such that immigration officers can gain traction through emotion rather than through legal authority or democratic consensus. Sophie Naftalin pointed out that this fear was so intense that people were carrying letters from their immigration solicitors in case they were stopped, even though there was, she said, ‘no legal requirement to do so’. This was in 2013. By April 2015, there were even more astounding statements about the financial cost to the individual and the potential for abuse. One community association stated that users of their services had paid around £5000 to disreputable solicitors so they could be armed with such a letter to defend themselves against landlord checks introduced under the Immigration Act 2014.

Charlotte Peel of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) suggested that combined state pressure, the prospect of fines and the expectation that landlords are unlikely to want to spend time considering anything too complex is fertile terrain for discrimination in housing provision because landlords are simply not qualified to make determinations about people’s right to be in the country. Reporting some early findings from a joint evaluation of the West Midlands pilot of the landlord checks, she explained that landlords are more likely to take on tenants with British passports than those with a non-UK passport or those asking for time to retrieve their documents, such as if they are awaiting Home Office approval. She reported that tenants perceive these checks as a sort of harassment and JCWI have already had examples where this new duty has become part of the practice of landlords abusing their power. JCWI and other community organisations at the April 2015 meeting provided examples of this practice outside the West Midlands.

Anjum’s story, told at one of the SBS focus groups, illustrated the power relation between tenant and landlord and the ongoing dependency of tenants without British passports. Anjum (not her real name) does not live in the West Midlands but is still experiencing the impact of the landlord checks being piloted there:  

(He) used to knock the room twice a day and used to say we want copies of the passport and we want to know how long your sister is going to stay… my little son was so much scared that he still doesn’t meet that man (and) he has a problem in that house, he doesn’t go downstairs when that ‘uncle’ is there. And I have to live in that house, I haven’t got any place to go, I have to live there.

It’s particularly pertinent that Anjum’s landlord is asking for information about her sister, a house guest not a resident.

As Charlotte Peel explained, some people who do actually have the right to be here are not clear that they have this right. When she declared that ‘people are not illegal, they are made illegal by our immigration system’, this was met with a huge round of applause. She ended her presentation with the ominous message that ‘as the daughter of Irish migrants, I think we are going back to the days of No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs’.

‘Race’, class and illegality

The inherent problem with the Immigration Act 2014 is the expectation that local people can act as border agents with the state encouraging lay people to make decisions about a particularly complex area of law. Juan Camillo of the Migrant Rights Network, during the 2013 public meeting, highlighted the impossibility of knowing whether someone is legal or illegal without a very close examination of their paperwork and their history, and reminded us that judgements about legality and rights are regularly appealed. As important is the realisation that this is not just a matter for state actions. The complexity of immigration law has implications for resistance, as Sophie found out in 2013 when she tried to respond to activist demands for condensed legal information on rights cards that could be distributed to potential victims.

It is not at all surprising that both ‘race’ and class become the cornerstones of rash assumptions about illegality. Across the focus groups there was a clear sense that racism and racial profiling feature as a strong dimension of the stops and checks in the London boroughs of Ealing and Hounslow. Some of the participants went as far as to say that the government only welcomes white people into Britain. In 2013, Sophie had asked us to bear in mind that all this is happening in a context where the government has scrapped the requirement upon police officers to record the ethnicity of whoever they are stopping. Now that the data is no longer available, lawyers like Sophie will find it more difficult to question the discriminatory dimensions of police operations.

From sanctuary to surveillance

The international context for migrants is grim. Where once there was sanctuary, we see a proliferation of surveillance techniques. In the UK, the use of cameras, laptops and smartphones to conduct on the spot checks away from ports of entry have been supplemented with thermal imaging technology which is used to identify ‘beds in sheds’ – concrete structures or outhouses in people’s back gardens that have been converted into short term rental properties. The Ealing / Hounslow focus group participants lamented press attention to the quality of the accommodation and unscrupulous landlords rather than the needs of the inhabitants and the reasons why they may end up living there. One woman disclosed that she had sought sanctuary in a relative’s shed when her marriage broke down. She had chosen the shed over renting a room in the main part of the house because it was more affordable and also she wanted a space that could offer her peace of mind away from the prying eyes and moral judgements of her social network.

As part of the re-framing of migration as a criminal act, the legality / illegality contentions have been supplemented by new forms of ‘soft’ policing that enable the state to extend its surveillance function beyond digital technologies in order to encompass the co-option of non-state organisations. After fulsome criticism of the Go Home van, the government ditched its focus on advertising campaigns and turned its attention to the role of local community groups in encouraging and facilitating voluntary repatriations. Known as Operation Skybreaker, this was at least the third Home Office immigration campaign to have targeted the London borough of Ealing. At the time of writing, this is an ongoing Operation that comprises two strands. Hard policing involves raids on homes and workplaces while the ‘soft’ aspect has involved immigration enforcement teams building relationships with local community and faith organisations, employers and safer neighbourhood panels. At the April 2015 public meeting, Rita Chadha of the Refugee Forum of Essex and London (RAMFEL) expressed her alarm. She talked about how religious organisations, associated for a long time with providing essential support for people trying to survive at the margins of a racialised welfare state, are now working closely with immigration enforcement teams. She was aware of several groups that had allowed immigration officers to establish ‘advice’ points within their buildings even though the Operation’s explicit objectives are to ‘stop people accessing benefits and services’ and to ‘drive people out of the country’. Rita noted that some religious groups are taking money in exchange for opening their doors and encouraging or facilitating the removal of migrants from the UK when they should be supporting them to access independent advice and advocacy. In effect, this amounts to the oral and social transmission of the same messages used in the government’s original advertising campaign - ‘Is life here hard? Going home is easy’.

Moreover, those places people withdraw into or rely on for sanctuary, whether they are minority women hiding away from societal pressure or destitute and impoverished men who depend on free food at the local gurdwara, are being seized and overturned by the state. There is a strong chance that the number of places that one can actually run to will continue to diminish unless this all-pervading hostility is actively opposed.

The second part of this essay will look at how people are resisting this totalising antipathy towards migrants and the soft and hard surveillance technologies of this ‘hostile environment’.

Sukhwant Dhaliwal is a Research Fellow at the International Centre: Researching Child Sexual Exploitation, Trafficking and Violence at the University of Bedfordshire. She is a member of the research team for the Mapping Immigration Controversy project.

Meena Patel is the Operations Manager at Southall Black Sisters, a women’s centre in greater west London that provides advice and support to ethnic minority women and children fleeing violence and abuse. Southall Black Sisters is one of the community partners on the Mapping Immigration Controversy project.

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