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Police UK borders with justice and humanity 

13 October 2017

Immigration has to be controlled — but the coercion involved must be subject to robust provisos, says Peter Selby

OF COURSE the blatant contempt and cruelty displayed towards detainees at Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, and shown on BBC1’s Panorama, shocked many people (News, 8 September), as did news of the treatment of the Afghan asylum-seeker Samim Bigzad, flown to Kabul at the Home Secretary’s behest in defiance of a court order.

To say that these are simply ex­­amples of human failings in the midst of a necessary policy of “securing our borders” distracts at­­tention from countless other un­­reported indignities: there are the hours that applicants spend in queues at Lunar House in Croydon; the letters of rejection that have authority, but would not pass the most cursory examination of their logical coherence; the early-morn­ing raids; and the prison-like experi­ence of being held in removal centres and airport holding facilities.

It will be said that I have surely noticed other things as well: people behaving towards migrants with com­passion and an energetic en­­gage­ment with their needs. I have seen not only compassion, but a proper zeal to correct injustice and to remedy faults in the system when they arise.

Furthermore, the system includes its own mechanisms for correcting things, and there are many examples of their ameliorating injustice. The Prisons Inspectorate; the Indepen­­dent Monitoring Boards, over whose National Council I presided for five years; and the firms of immi­­gration lawyers who do their best, under increasing financial constraints — all of these work with determination, and often achieve change.

I HAVE, indeed, noticed these praise­­worthy mechanisms and dedi­­cated individuals giving time and expertise beyond the call of duty. But the indignities, bureaucratic delays, and episodes of unwar­­ranted violence still happen in the service of immigration control.

Most shocking to me was when Lady Scotland, then the Home Office spokesperson in the House of Lords, and a person of un­­doub­ted wisdom and compas­­sion, answered with a simple ne­­­ga­­tive my question whether records were kept of what hap­­pened to migrants deported on the basis of Foreign Office reports that the country to which they were flown was “safe”.

If no records are kept, we cannot determine whether wrong decisions have been made; and, if we do not check whether such life-and-death decisions are right, that has to mean that we do not really care what hap­pens to people once they have been removed from the UK.

Those realities require us to face one obvious truth: all immigration policies involve enforcement and, therefore, the exercise of coercive power by the state and its agents. Controlling borders is inevitably about controlling people. Every new rule, every turn of the restrictive screw, will mean that people’s houses are raided in the small hours, and their families are torn apart, and that people will be locked up in centres such as Brook House, and forcibly transported to airports to be held there for hours, and then manhandled onto aeroplanes.

Even before those things happen, people will be involuntarily sub­­jected to intrusive enquiries and bureaucratic and legal nightmares. Some amelioration of the system’s worst features is possible, and cer­tainly worth campaigning for, but these worst features are not inci­­dental, let alone accidental. Coercive power is not an optional feature of immigration policy: it is intrinsic to it.

IS THIS to say, then, that no im­­migration policy can be sup­­ported? With great reluctance, I concede that uncontrolled immigra­tion has its own entail of violence, because it can have its own victims — and that is not only because among the migrants are the hidden perpetra­­tors of crime, trafficking, and ter­­rorism.

The case for control, however, has to be subject to robust provisos. First, in principle, people have the right to seek to migrate, and that quest must never be responded to as though it were a criminal act: our history would have been very dif­­ferent had we not assumed a right to travel the globe in times past.

Second, there has to be a reform of the whole notion of “targets” for those who enforce immigration policy. Those targets must relate to the making of just and humane de­­­cis­ions, not to implementing a down­ward pressure on immigra­­tion. Nu­­merical targets are bound to pro­duce unjust and even illegal de­­cisions, and to generate a zeal among enforcers which will easily lead to the culture that the Brook House report revealed.

Third, the effect of outsourcing enforcement has to be taken ser­iously. If companies with a duty to their shareholders are rewarded mainly for achieving deportations, and punished mainly for failing to achieve numerical targets, that adds further pressure that can lead to the culture of contempt that the Panorama report showed. Security and “efficient” deportation must not be the primary achievements that are rewarded: justice and humanity have to be signalled financially as society’s priority.

Fourth, whenever a new rule or restriction of migration is proposed, it must be accompanied by an audit of the amount of coercive activity against individuals and com­­mu­nities which will be required to enforce it. A mature debate about how immigration is to be controlled proportionately can happen only if we know how many people will be raided, locked up, and transported as a result.

The many volunteers who devote themselves to the needs of de­­­stitute and frightened migrants are doing something wholly ad­­mirable. They need to be sup­­ported by an equally robust — and passionate and com­pas­sionate — engagement with the coercion that is not just individ­ual excess, but intrinsic to “control­ling our borders”.


Dr Peter Selby, a former Bishop of Worcester, was President of the National Council for Independent Monitoring Boards from 2008 to 2013.

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