Shine A Light

Deportation: an increasingly 'foreign' Britain at war with itself

The Government seems to be doing its best to detain and remove as many immigrants as it can. Usman Sheikh, a lawyer specialising in detention cases, asks why.

Usman Sheikh
11 February 2013

The UK Government's own most recent figures show that there are now more people in immigration detention than at any time since records began. In London, the police are working more closely with the UK Border Agency to ensure that as many immigrants as possible arrested by the police are removed from the UK. This is in line with my own experience as an immigration lawyer. I see increasing numbers of people in detention, many of them arrested while going about their ordinary day to day lives.

What goes through the mind of the police officer or the UKBA official as they, on behalf of the British Government, tap the immigrant on the shoulder to set this whole process in motion? The legal grounds are simple. In essence, they must have reasonable grounds to suspect that the immigrant has committed an offence, including any one of the ‘immigration offences’, or is liable to be detained under immigration powers.

However, many people could fall within this category and a choice therefore has to be made as to how these powers are to be used. Of course, that choice is made primarily in the realm of politics. The current situation suggests that the Government has chosen to increase greatly its use of these powers. The background is well-known: the Government wishes to cut immigration and the public sees immigration as a key concern.

Is this concern justified? This is of course a large question as well as a very old one. But recent statistics help us to think again about this. Some have suggested that the recent Census figures show that the concern is justified. However, this is far from clear. The Census shows that of the usual residents of England & Wales 75.7 per cent are British nationals, 86.6 per cent were born in the UK and 80.5 per cent are White British. One might think that this shows that the proportion of foreigners – however defined – remains low across the population as a whole. Moreover, some have argued that the police’s joint operation with the UKBA shows that the number of illegal immigrants in the UK is far lower than previously thought. This would suggest that the level of concern and the efforts put into the detention and removal of immigrants are disproportionate.

There are some areas where the Census figures are more striking. In London, only 44.9 per cent of the population is white British. In the London Borough of Newham, only 16.7 per cent is white British. However, only foreign nationals can be detained and removed under immigration powers. In terms of nationality rather than ethnicity, London is far closer to the national average: 71.2 per cent are British nationals. So to the extent that it is figures on ethnicity in places like London that are causing the political impulse to detain and remove, logically these measures are inappropriate: detention and removal cannot address the perceived 'problem' of ethnicity.

So it seems that behind the apparently straightforward legal grounds for the tap on the shoulder, the grounds for the political decisions are not so straightforward.

Yet perhaps the figures can provide us with some guidance on this matter also. Plainly there are more foreigners in the UK now than there have been in the past: for example, since the last census in 2001 the foreign born population has increased from approximately 9 per cent to 13 per cent and the foreign ethnicity population has increased from 12 per cent to 19 per cent.

In broadly the same period, approximately 1.7 million foreign nationals became British citizens and so obtained the right to contribute to political decision making through the vote. It follows that the citizens that the Government represents contains increasing numbers of people of foreign origin. As such, on this basic level the immigrant subject to the tap on the shoulder must be a relatively familiar figure to the Government that pursues them – they must to this extent remind the Government of itself.

Given the increasing numbers of former foreign nationals that the Government represents, one might expect that its policies towards foreigners would become more sympathetic. It seems intuitively correct that people of immigrant origin are more likely to be in favour of immigration and some recent statistics support this. The Government’s policies, particularly its emphasis on detention and removal, are instead increasingly unsympathetic.

It therefore appears that the Government is representing the views of the steadily decreasing proportion of citizens not of foreign origin. Some of these people in turn themselves feel increasingly foreign due to the growing numbers of people in the UK who are of foreign origin, whether among the citizenry or not.

It follows that the Government represents two groups of foreigners. First, those that are literally of foreign origin and second, those that metaphorically feel themselves to be foreign. The tap on the shoulder therefore reveals a disconcertingly familiar face. As the foreigner turns around, the Government finds itself looking in the mirror.

The apparently disproportionate and illogical political focus on detention and removal becomes a little more clear. A Government increasingly aware of its internally foreign character pursues ever greater numbers of external foreigners. This internal battle helps to account for the excessive character of the Government’s external conflict.

Some may say that this is unsurprising: it is precisely the disconcerting familiarity of the encounter with the foreigner that requires us to re-assert order by strengthening our borders and re-establishing the distinction between natives and foreigners.

Yet, I suggest, this revealing encounter is wasted if it leads us simply to recoil in horror. Before restoring the status quo, the metaphorically foreign have the opportunity to pause and consider whether being foreign need be such an unpleasant experience. They may even choose to listen to the voices of the literally foreign fellow members of the citizenry on this matter. This would allow the reconstruction of the citizenry as an alliance of foreigners.

Of course, borders would continue to have a role to play in this. Without metaphorical borders, there would be no distinction between the different members of the citizenry and therefore no basis on which to enjoy the experience of being foreign. But perhaps a different approach to these borders would lead also to a more nuanced approach to the literal borders of the State – one not quite so fixated on detention and removal.


This piece is republished, with thanks, from Migrant Rights Network.


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