UK border agents in the house of God

Immigration officers are now being placed in religious institutions.  It may not be too farfetched to ask: how long before we’re forced to wear our immigration status on our sleeves?

Rahila Gupta
25 May 2015

Just as we thought that immigration officers had every aspect of our daily lives covered - needing the right passport for getting married or getting work or medical treatment or a roof over our heads – their renamed body HOIE (Home Office Immigration Enforcement), woke up to the fact that it had failed to intervene in our relationship with God. I don’t happen to have one (since you ask, I ended it) but religiosity is high among immigrant communities and it was one area of their lives that had blossomed from the lack of surveillance until border agents were placed in Gurdwaras, Hindu temples and any religious institutions gullible or misguided or downright antagonistic to their own congregations to take them. Rita Chadha of RAMFEL (Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London) has described this as ‘the last bastion of the immigrant invaded’.

Activists became aware of this development when a six-month pilot programme, Operation Skybreaker which targeted employers, faith groups and registry offices in five London boroughs – Brent, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Ealing and Greenwich – was set up in July 2014. However, on further investigation, the Home Office press office said that the first ‘voluntary returns surgery’ in a place of worship was set up in 2009. Although the spokesperson was not able to give exact numbers, he stressed that this was only a London wide phenomenon. The Brent Anti-Racism Project made contact with local places of worship in order to alert them to their rights. They found that those faith groups which co-operated were less likely to suffer raids by immigration. One of the mosques had been raided and were reluctant to host HOIE clinics although the Hindu temple appeared to have happily welcomed their presence.

Women demonstrating with a Southall Black Sisters banner and megaphone

Southall Balck Sisters UK Border agency demonstration I visited the ‘surgery’ at that temple which has been running for over a year. The administrator thought the scheme was a great success because 20-24 people had been sent back in the first six months with most returning to Ahmedabad in India. When the temple was initially approached by the Home Office, they wanted reassurances about how the scheme was run because ‘people are fearful of immigration officers, especially people in uniforms. We don’t want people to be scared, this is a temple’. Sure enough, there were no uniforms, no signs of officialdom except for a discreet lanyard inscribed with the words ‘Home Office Immigration Enforcement’ that hung around the neck of one of the two young Asian women running the session. The desk itself was placed in the corner of a large hall at the back of the temple misleadingly signposted as ‘Toilets’. Or perhaps not so misleading.

I said I had come on behalf of a neighbour who was living with her relatives who were making her work day and night in return for board and lodging; she had come originally to the UK on a spousal visa and had been kicked out of her house by her husband. She wanted to go back because her mother was ill but didn’t speak the language and was afraid to come herself. ‘We’re here to help people who want to go back’ was the well-polished response of people trained to hide an iron fist inside a velvet glove although there was some fudging of the question I most wanted answered. What if she changed her mind after coming to see them? If her mother died, she may not want to go back. Would she be forcibly deported? They said they wouldn’t send anyone to her address, that in fact they had no way of knowing if someone’s address was genuine. But once they gave their name and date of birth, they would be in the system and anyone here illegally would be sent back. ‘We don’t want no time wasters’ said one of them. She must come only if she’s sure, she won’t be allowed to stay just because her mother died. Knowing that women who have faced domestic violence can make a case for the right to remain, I asked what if the husband was abusive. ‘Won’t make a difference. It’s his word against hers,’ came the pat reply. Whilst it is technically true that evidence of violence has to be provided, the way in which the advice was dished out would make anyone ignorant of the law believe that this was not an option. In fact, if this fictional woman was to give a statement to an experienced caseworker in a woman’s centre, a supportive report from the centre could be evidence enough.

The immigration officials could not explain how someone could be arrested if they did not verify or visit the addresses of potential returnees. This question was also fudged by the Home Office press officer who said, ‘The clinics themselves are unrelated to enforced removal’ but ‘We endeavour to help and persuade people with no leave to remain to voluntarily leave the UK, but where this option is declined we will take steps to enforce their removal.’  The administrator at the temple also didn’t know what would happen to people who changed their minds after they had passed on their personal information to the immigration officers but she was obviously worried enough about the consequences because she said she advised people to come forward only if they were 100 per cent sure that they wanted to return.

At a recent meeting on immigration organised by Southall Black Sisters, one of the speakers, Rita Chadha alluded to the Gurdwara in East London that hosts these clinics. Sikh temples are particularly known for their tradition of ‘langar’, providing meals for anyone who visits. Among the homeless and the poor who come for langar, there are people with uncertain immigration status. For immigration officers to be situated in places like that, however discreetly, can be unsettling for both settled and new migrants. The Sikh Council accepted £60,000 in grants in 2013 to run a voluntary return scheme.

Initiatives like these are inherently divisive, and encourage communities to spy on each other. Like the benefit fraud helpline, a regular presence of border agents makes it easy for neighbours and friends to report someone with whom they have fallen out. Compared to the sledgehammer approach of the ‘Go Home Vans’ in Operation Vaken in 2013 which led to the departure of only 11 people, this ‘softly, softly’ approach is also damaging because all migrants feel targeted. The Southall Black Sisters T-shirt, worn by protesters at their various anti-immigration laws demos, has the words, ‘Do I look like an illegal immigrant?’ boldly printed on them; it articulates perfectly the injustice of racial profiling involved in these enforcement measures.


While migrants feel hunted down at street level, there is a kind of pincer movement in operation: at the macro level, there have been calls, particularly by the Italian government, to move EU borders to Africa: setting up reception centres in countries like Niger, Tunisia and Sudan to screen potential refugees before they set foot in Europe. In the UK, the Queen’s speech promises a new immigration bill which will allow the police to seize the pitiful wages of ‘illegal’ immigrants. The whole weight of the new Conservative government will bear down on those least able to withstand it. We are all familiar with the dangerous consequences of racial profiling. It may not be too farfetched to ask: how long before we’re forced to wear our immigration status on our sleeves?


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