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Slave state: how UK immigration controls create ‘slaves’

British immigration controls aren’t working and policies stripping rights from large numbers of migrants are creating a ‘slave’ population in the UK.

The term ‘modern slavery’ is used to describe the terrible reality of some people’s lives, but it is used selectively. Stories of slavery today tend to focus on an ‘evil’ perpetrator and often offer fetishistic descriptions of bondage while neglecting the processes that allow one group of people to dominate another. Historically, chattel slavery has meant much more than the simple ownership of one person by another. To get to the heart of slavery, we must move beyond images of chains and frightened faces and look at how people become victimised and stripped of their humanity.

Slaves are institutionally powerless and perpetually dependent in a capricious world. They are obliged to abide by laws that don’t protect or benefit them, existing in a liminal state between a lost social place and new communities and identities. Slaves are ‘marked’ as different and, as people without rights, can lawfully be rejected and abused. They are not free to make their own choices or work towards their own goals. In declaring many migrants in the UK ‘illegal’ and ‘deportable’, refusing them permission to work, to rent or even to marry, the State has declared them ‘unwanted’ and without personal rights.

Migrants who have lost or been refused leave to remain in the UK are liable to detention, destitution and deportation. Many have been living in the UK as students, visitors, workers and members of settled families but have lost their rights for a variety of reasons. Their visas may have run out or policy changes may have re-branded them as undocumented or irregular. Some may have been asylum seekers refused refugee status, or perhaps they have had their temporary protections withdrawn. Some might have been convicted of criminal offences carrying more than a year’s sentence which, since 2008, has meant automatic deportation. Some may have lived in the UK for most of their lives, embedded in communities where they feel, and are accepted as, ‘British’. For all of them, a Home Office decision denying further right to remain means that they become effectively banished to the fringes of society.

Many migrants in the UK today experience the restraints on freedom that academics have linked to slavery. They are not ‘owned’ and they do not necessarily work unrewarded for the gain of others, yet without rights to support themselves legally and with the threat of detention and deportation hanging over them, they are marked as aliens with no chance to belong.

Immigration detention in the UK is administrative—meaning it results from a bureaucratic rather than a judicial procedure—and indefinite. Drawing on many studies, the recent All Party Parliamentary Inquiry described the damage detention can inflict on already vulnerable people. Detention is promoted as a means of facilitating deportation but, despite the rhetoric, recent official figures show that only 53 percent of detainees leave detention for countries of origin.

Many migrants are released from detention into a British community, put under curfew and monitored by electronic tag. They must often live at specified addresses and almost all will have to sign regularly at Immigration Reporting Centres, from where they can be re-detained without warning. If eligible for ‘Section 4 support’ (Immigration Act 1999), they receive no-choice accommodation and an ‘Azure’ card, a cashless, pre-paid card, worth £36.62 per week in designated shops. Through tags and the Azure card, some 5,000 migrants on Section 4 are surveilled and monitored. Reporting requires migrants to submit themselves to further monitoring and also saves the Home Office the trouble of rounding up potential deportees. In other words, detention is not the end of many migrant stories in the UK. It remains a constant threat even after they have been ‘released’ into the community, and some people are detained and released many times before they are removed..

The pain of this contingent situation is evident from the testimony of Said, a Middle Eastern man released after 20 months in detention:

…I’m not allowed to work and I am reporting every 3 months … and believe me when I go I know they can detain me anytime—they can detain me forever … so I will be in the same circle—if this happens again I don’t know … I thought of finishing my life, to end this suffering…

Consider the experience of Abdul, a young Afghan who was in Local Authority Care as an asylum-seeking child and who worked hard to integrate into British life. Refused asylum as an adult, he is not only rejected as ‘one of us’ but subject to clumsy attempts at deportation to a country he knows little about and where he fears persecution and death.

… we are not sleeping at night we don’t know what to do with our life ‘cos we haven’t got nothing we can’t work we can’t go to college. What we can do – I’m just going to kill myself (bangs table) its really bad – its really difficult to think about this stuff.

This is the ‘hostile environment’ that Theresa May boasts she has created for ‘illegal’ migrants. Living under threat of detention, destitution and deportation, the migrant is ‘everywhere in chains’—chains represented by Section 4 ‘support’, tagging, reporting, immigration raids, illegal employment and a lack of recourse to the law or protection from abuse.

Excluding a group because of their place of birth and heritage is as unethical as stripping rights from any group without the possibility of reprieve or redemption. The privatisation of the control of migrants and with it reliance on remote methods of surveillance brings further concerns. The same companies that profit from the detention, deportation and warehousing of migrants are bidding to run prisons and other formerly public functions. Not only do they profit from keeping people in the system and by failing to resolve cases, they also distance the British government from the messy end of immigration control. As even citizenship in the UK becomes contingent, we should all fight for the rights of people already defined by their lack of rights and their enslavement by the State.

About the author

Dr Lucy Williams is a freelance researcher and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Kent. She has been involved in community work and research with refugees and asylum seekers since 1998. Her current focus is on detention, destitution and deportation.


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