‘Foreign criminals’ – questioning the consensus

It's taken as a given that foreign criminals should be deported. But is it really sensible or justified?

Luke de Noronha
29 October 2014

‘Foreign criminals’ are once again in the spotlight, with both David Cameron and Theresa May facing criticism over their failure to track and deport non-citizen offenders.

A recent National Audit Office report has highlighted that one in six foreign offenders living in the community have absconded, and has criticised the police for not conducting overseas criminal records checks on arrested noncitizens. This latest report has revitalised the debate on ‘foreign criminals’, which began in the summer of 2006 during the so-called Foreign National Prisoner ‘crisis’ – when Charles Clarke lost his job as Home Secretary.

The message now is as it was then: ‘foreign criminals’ should be deported after serving their sentence. Commentators have been incensed in the last week by the fact that the numbers removed have not been increasing year on year – despite increases in spending. However, the number of foreign ex-offenders being removed each year is hardly insignificant (around 5,000), and we might question whether some ex-offenders might have legitimate claims to remain. The tenor of this conversation is worryingly illiberal, with ‘common sense’ being set in opposition to pesky human rights considerations.

This debate provides yet more ammo for the assault on the Human Rights Act (and by extension the EU). The problem is seen to be a simple one: foreign offenders are circumventing their (rightful) removal through appeals to human rights. Notably, Article 8—which protects the right to respect for family and private life—has been criticised for protecting criminals and subverting ‘common sense’.

The debate surrounding ‘foreign criminals’ is highly emotional. Foreign offenders provide a rare point of consensus in conversations about deportation, serving as a kind of benchmark – an agreed upon ‘baddie’ in an always-uncomfortable state practice. But emotion, consensus and ‘common sense’ are dangerous impulses when civil liberties are at stake. We should not take lightly the forcible removal of individuals from a country they may have resided in for many years, often their home in the deepest sense, and the place in which their partners, parents and children live. Unfortunately for the British state, citizenship and belonging rarely cohere neatly.

We need to question why we narrate the ‘foreign criminal’ in the ways that we do and think about the consequences of the stories we tell.

The stories we tell

In my research into the Foreign National Prisoner Crisis of 2006, I found that certain heinous offences were inordinately covered in the press, and made to represent the ‘crisis’. The danger here is that individual cases of violent and shocking crimes serve to justify a legislative response that casts its net much wider.

In the coverage of ‘foreign criminals’, journalists and parliamentarians consistently invoke the ‘rapist’ and ‘murderer’. In 2006, during the foreign national prisoner crisis, around one third of articles on ‘foreign criminals’ featured the word ‘rape’ or ‘rapist’, even though only 9 of the 1,023 released criminals had been charged with rape.  These extraordinary stories about ‘foreign rapists’, let loose on our streets, echo deeply entrenched fears about the dangerous sexuality of racialised men.

The ‘foreign criminal’, then, is made foreign through association with violence (often sexual). Media coverage relies on case studies in which offenders are invariably hyper-masculinised. Articles are devoted to criminal histories, details of offences, descriptions of brutality, and the anguish of victims and their families (for examples in the last week see here, here, and here). But we should be wary of this victim-centred anecdotalism. There are other stories that need telling.

‘Foreign criminals’ are not usually the monsters of the dominant imaginary. Their lives are complex and their reasons for offending manifold. Importantly, they are much more likely to have violated immigration laws or to have been convicted for drug offences than they are to have committed murder or rape. While ‘foreign criminals’ are imagined as men, around 5% of foreign prisoners are women (nearly half of whom are imprisoned for smuggling drugs – knowingly or otherwise).

We do not have to absolve all foreign offenders of wrongdoing to recognise that there is something dangerous in jumping from justifying one deportation to sanctioning ten thousand.

Importantly, in the process of dehumanising ‘foreign criminals’, media coverage has legitimated a number of profoundly worrying state practices.

Punishing foreign offenders

In 2012, the Metropolitan police instituted a joint operation with the UKBA, titled Nexus, which sought to embed immigration teams within London’s police stations, ensuring arrestees’ personal details could be checked against UKBA databases. This efficient data-sharing enterprise ensures those arrested—not yet charged, least of all convicted—can have their immigration status verified. Such policies, implemented to make “London’s streets safer”, in fact transport the border into the heart of British police work, and promise, in true ‘minority-report’ fashion, to catch ‘foreign criminals’ earlier and to ‘deport on suspicion’.

Both Detention Action and Bail for Immigration Detainees report that the majority of long-term immigration detainees are ex-offenders. Moreover, as of 31 December 2013, 1,214 individuals were being held under immigration powers in prisons, after having served their sentences (HC Deb (9 April) 2014, cc.248-250W). The Home Office fears the political consequences of releasing noncitizen ex-offenders, cognisant of the inevitable media backlash should they reoffend. As a consequence, many ex-offenders are spending protracted periods in prisons and detention centres, after having served their criminal sentence.

The consequences of the Immigration Act 2014, in which appeal rights have been drastically cut, so that the UK can “deport foreign criminals first and hear their appeal later”, have yet to be seen.

The hysteria surrounding ‘foreign criminals’ has caused unknowable suffering. Noncitizens are increasingly threatened with deportation for minor crimes. Many spend months and years incarcerated post-sentence, in prisons and removal centres, while the Home Office pursues their deportation. Others pursue lengthy legal battles, appealing their deportation against a determined Secretary of State. Add to this the suffering of their friends, families, lovers and children who might rightly question why serving a prison sentence is not enough. Ultimately, over 5,000 noncitizens, each with their own story, are being deported each year. I am not convinced that their being labelled ‘criminal’ is enough to justify all of this.

As Cameron and May seek to allay public concerns in this latest flare up, we should be concerned about what further actions are in store.

Thinking differently

Only by zealously guarding the rights of the most humble, the most unorthodox and the most despised among us can freedom flourish and endure in our land. (Judge Frank Murphy)

The moral panic regarding ‘foreign criminals’ brings a number of worrying narratives to the surface. Why are offenders, especially foreign ones, so despised, so worthy of vitriol and punishment – regardless of their offences and biographies? What stories are we telling and with what effect, and which stories are we not?

It is important that we begin to think about ‘foreign criminals’ in different ways and avoid joining the chorus that would see their deportation as necessary in all cases. This latest episode, in which Yvette Cooper is calling for tougher action, is a frightening indication of the level of consensus regarding the deportation of foreign offenders. Profoundly illiberal approaches to crime, immigration, and the EU are all stewing in debates about ‘foreign criminals’, and it is worrying that there are so few audible voices questioning the consensus and reminding people that ex-offenders are diverse, complex and human.

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