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Hostile environment: border guards and border guardees

Border checks are no longer one-off encounters… but… a myriad of micro-encounters. They have penetrated the everyday, mundane interactions in people’s daily lives and imposed new meaning on them.

lead Hospital and housing administrators, 2013. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ policy is under scrutiny. The government is doing all it can to contain the Windrush scandal from spilling over into a broader criticism of the last decade of UK immigration policies (but, in fairness, some elements date back to the Labour government). Various affected groups and advocates, on the contrary, are vociferously  arguing that far from an exception, a distortion or a bureaucratic error – all explanations offered by government’s supporters – the treatment of the Windrush generation is instead the tip of the iceberg, and the iceberg is the policy-driven ‘hostile environment’ built under Theresa May’s tenure of the Home Office. Admitting defeat on her flagship policy, the one that arguably made her a darling of the likes of The Sun and Daily Mail, would land a major, perhaps even fatal, blow to her premiership. 

One tenet of the ‘hostile environment’ is that it operates diffusely, co-opting public service providers, landlords, employers and even private residents in the job of immigration enforcement. Border checks are no longer one-off encounters between border guards and immigrants confined to the geographical borders of states, but are routinely repeated in a myriad of micro-encounters. They have penetrated the everyday, mundane interactions in people’s daily lives and imposed new meaning on them. Pregnant women avoiding interactions with their GPs or cutting short their stay in hospital after delivery for fear of being reported to the Home Office for their immigration status is but one example.

The proliferation of internal borders came in stages, one little step at the time, and often changes were initially challenged but then they came back, slightly repackaged, and they slipped in unchecked. The British Medical Association, for example, mounted a challenge to initial attempts to impose visa checks on patients in hospitals. Doctors are not border guards it was said. But then visa checking came back more subtly: it was not doctors who would be in charge of it, but less paid and less vocal administration staff. New compliance officers appeared all over public services. ‘Compliance’ is a key word, apparently depoliticised and yet far more bureaucratically effective in filtering access to services to various groups of the population. Visa checking came back more subtly: it was not doctors who would be in charge of it, but less paid and less vocal administration staff.

In the higher education (HE) and further education sectors, more stringent visa checks on students were introduced to unmask abuses of the immigration system by allegedly bogus English language colleges. But they travelled a long way from there, and are now a central part of the bureaucratic machinery of British universities: imposing straining and time-consuming bureaucratic requirements, leading to numerous new administrative appointments, and more importantly affecting the relationship between students and teachers and the very nature of what universities should be about, that it is the production and circulation of knowledge across disciplinary and geographical boundaries.

Recent news stories in The Guardian and Times Higher Education highlights the broad ranging and far reaching consequences of the ‘hostile environment’: behind the veil of compliance, universities are embracing the Home Office agenda to the point of having  become better border guards than the Home Office itself. The unconditional and zealous endorsement of this policy affects international students and international staff. Any individual who fails to report their attendance as well as any time spent off campus on a weekly basis is at risk of being reported to the UK Border Agency. Failure to comply may result, it is explained in an email sent to international staff in a British university, in ‘disciplinary action and/or withdrawal of your certificate of sponsorship, and thereby your eligibility to remain in the UK’. Universities are embracing the Home Office agenda to the point of having become better border guards than the Home Office itself.

Thousands of non-UK citizens working in UK universities, including many EU nationals, find themselves in a paradoxical position: at the same time co-opted in the job of border guarding their students, for example collecting signatures, reporting unjustified absences and even being granted the power to decide if an international student can or cannot travel back home for a wedding or a funeral – while increasingly experiencing themselves the ‘hostile environment’: border guards and border guardees.

One may be excused for thinking that such an unconditional and zealous endorsement of this policy, by producing docile international staff whose rights and freedoms are restricted by the requirements imposed by the Home Office with limited rights, for example, in relation to participation in the recent strike actions, subject to continuous monitoring of their activities and whereabouts, may serve well the now dominant model of university that thrives on casualized work, precarious contracts, underpaid academic staff and a systematic undervaluing of academic work.

Not only about foreigners

The normalisation of border checks in public services must be resisted. The ‘hostile environment’ is not about ‘illegal migrants’. It criminalises preventively all migrants, treating all as potentially ‘illegal’. But, be sure, this is not only about ‘foreigners’. The Windrush scandal shows the contempt of the UK government for those who came from the former colonies as British subjects, a contempt no doubt deeply rooted in colonialism and racism. The ease with which the UK government has turned the EU citizens living in the UK in bargaining chips in the Brexit negotiations is also a testimony of the extent to which the hostile environment is pervasive and operates as a logic of governance that reshapes the rights of citizens and immigrant alike and the relationship between the state and its subjects, redefining the meaning of citizenship in the process. 

About the author

Nando Sigona is Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham and Deputy Director of the Institute for Research into Superdiversity. He is also Research Associate at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) and the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. His research interests include: irregular and child migration, governance and governmentality of forced migration in Europe, Roma politics and anti-Gypsyism, statelessness, and the intersection between migration, citizenship and belonging. He is one of the founding editors of Migration Studies, an international journal by Oxford University, co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies (OUP, 2014) and co-author of Sans Papiers: The Social and Economic Lives of Undocumented Migrants (Pluto Press, 2014). He maintains a personal blog and is active on Twitter @nandosigona

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