It all started with a simple request for permission to use a photograph. We had researched and written an article on way the Home Office uses mobile phones as a tool of immigration control. Our article, for the new on-line magazine Discover Society, was based on a study of the lives of thirty young adult migrants in London. We needed an image to go with the piece.
We had spotted a photograph on Twitter — a cell phone with a text message sent, apparently, from the Home Office to a UK citizen, challenging his right to remain in Britain. Lesley Lee, who had tweeted the picture (@lesliealee) kindly put us in touch with the recipient: Bobby Chan, an immigration advisor in London’s Chinatown. Bobby said that we were welcome to use the image. We settled down to the idea that our article was complete.
On 9 October we received an email from Suresh Grover. Suresh is a leading civil rights activist and founder of the Southall Monitoring Group. He has led campaigns for justice for, among others, the family of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager killed by racist thugs.
Suresh wrote to us: "I understand you are doing research on the text messages from the Home office. Is this true?” Back in August he had received a similar text to Bobby Chan’s.
Born in East Africa, Suresh came to Britain in 1966; he holds a British Passport. At first he ignored the text, assumed it was a hoax, but it bothered him. On 12 September Suresh issued a Freedom of Information request to the Home Office asking them to explain why he’d received the text and what information they had on him. How many similar texts had been sent? How many people had complained?
The FOI response (PDF here) revealed that the texts had been sent on the Home Office's behalf by Capita — the gigantic outsourcing company that won the tender to track down ‘overstayers’ and migrants without leave to remain. The Home Office said 39,100 such texts had been sent, and almost 200 complaints received by the Home Office and Capita combined, some of which might be duplicates.
We redrafted our article to take in the new revelations. On Sunday 13 October “YOU’VE GOT A TEXT FROM UKBA: TECHNOLOGIES OF CONTROL AND CONNECTION” was published on Discover Society.
The Guardian's Hugh Muir picked it up, interviewed Suresh, and covered the story in the Guardian Diary on Tuesday 15 October, and on the Wednesday and on the Thursday. Our fellow academic Simon Parker (@sparkerworld) tweeted our original piece to his friend @ClareSambrook who republished it here on OurKingdom.
On Friday the story gathered even more momentum and further criticism of the Home Office.
The right wing Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail ran prominent news reports — as did The Guardian's Patrick Wintour (claiming our disclosures as Guardian scoop). Our story made BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme and BBC News, and ITV News online ran seven updates.
Then it got worse for the government.
"Londres invite les immigrés clandestins à rentrer chez eux... par texto", proclaimed France 24, reporting that Suresh was "choqué" and "horrifié".
Suresh was speaking German, Polish, Danish and Dutch on Friday alone as Süddeutsche, MojoWyspa, Jydske Vestkysten and Leidsch Dagblad took up the story. His words reached the people of Chile and China.
Under pressure, the Home Office owned up that 58,800 people, (not the 39,100 they had admitted to Suresh) had received the texts. Only a few people had been wrongly targeted, claimed a spokesman, plucking the number 14 from thin air.
Late morning on Friday, the Prime Minister's official spokesman made this statement:
"The point of the texting, which the Prime Minister does agree with, is to get in touch with people who may be here illegally and to say to them ... that they need to be considering going home voluntarily or being removed. The principle of the text message is correct. This is one of various means the Home Office uses to get in touch with people who are here illegally to bring about their removal from the UK. It's a tiny proportion of texts that may have gone to erroneous people and the wording of the text just says 'you may be here illegally'."
That garbled defense of government policy added to the sense that the political consensus around being ‘tough on immigration’ had been momentarily upset.
In the space of just a few days the story had embarrassed the government, forced a statement from the Prime Minister and prompted a call for an investigation into the events from Labour.
A change of heart?
On Thursday 17 October, just ahead of the Home Office's bad Friday, the immigration minister Mark Harper, appearing on BBC Question Time, had heartily defended the government's deployment of moving billboards bearing the message 'Go Home'. The vans, which displayed a picture of handcuffs with the message “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest", had patrolled the London Boroughs of Barking and Dagenham, Redbridge, Barnet, Brent, Ealing and Hounslow throughout the summer of 2013.
"I don't have any problem with saying to people who are here illegally that they shouldn't be here anymore," Harper said. "It's a pilot. We are assessing the results at the moment. If it's successful, we'll look at rolling it out. If it's not successful we won't."
Home Secretary Theresa May announced that she was scrapping it in Parliament on Tuesday 22 October. "I have looked at the interim evaluation of the vans," she said.
"Some returns were achieved, but politicians should be willing to step up to the plate and say when they think that something has not been such a good idea, and I think that they were too blunt an instrument."
She was speaking during a debate on the government's hateful Immigration Bill — full of blunt and dangerous instruments. Amongst other things the Bill will give further powers to immigration and police officers to search individuals and premises, it will enlarge the state’s powers to record, use and retain biometrics, and it will do away with the right of appeal against deportation decisions in many circumstances.
That same day businesses and restaurants in London’s Chinatown shut down for two hours in protest against the recent rash of ‘fishing raids’ by the immigration police. In the preceding weeks 13 businesses had reported heavy-handed raids on their premises. The demonstration, led by the London Chinatown Chinese Association and Min Quan, with support from Bobby Chan and Suresh Grover, was a historic moment. London's Chinese community - not known for being outspoken politically - had been pushed to its limit. People were angry and had come together to protest.
Chinatown, London 22 October 2013 LES BACK
Protesters assembled at the Two Lions Statue, Gerrard Street in Soho London. The countdown started at 3.00pm – simultaneously in English and Chinese. There was something eerie and significant as commerce in Chinatown ground to a halt. One by one all the shops closed their door and turned off the lights. Workers and the business owners came into the street together to protest. The speakers struggled to be heard against the shrill chorus of whistles being blown by a crowd of more than a thousand people. A friend who was drawn to the noise said the whistles could be heard half a mile away on the Charing Cross Road.
In Chinatown news spread about developments in Westminster. It quickly became clear that the Labour Party were not going to oppose the Immigration Bill.
Later that night the bill passed to its second reading by an overwhelming majority of 303 votes to 18.
In the end, what does all this mean?
Suresh has yet to receive an adequate explanation from Capita concerning how they got his mobile number or the extent of the information they hold about him.
Our story shows that it is possible to expose injustices and embarrass the government and momentarily shift the terms of the debate. Information travels faster and circulates differently in the whorl of email, Freedom of Information requests, Twitter and on-line publishing. Such victories are occurring though in the midst of threat posed by the politics of anti-immigrant times.
The piercing pitch of the demonstrators' whistles on Gerrard Street, serve as a reminder that aggressive border regulation and immigration policing will not go unopposed.