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Asylum watch: Now what?

Labour says it is planning to 'simplify' immigration legislation. Frances Webber argues that its real agenda is to subvert human rights and give more power to the state

March 23, 2009
5 min read

At least two new immigration bills are proposed for the 2008-9 session of parliament. They are the citizenship, immigration and borders bill and the immigration simplification bill. Together they cover the full gamut of immigration law, replacing the ten existing pieces of primary legislation. It is nothing short of a complete rewrite of the immigration laws.

The UK Borders Agency (UKBA), established as a sinisterly-described ‘shadow agency’ of the Home Office, is to gain new customs and visa powers, protecting our borders from ‘impermissible’ substances, commodities and people. Its powers will include detention without statutory limit, including detention of children.

Detention, according to the UKBA, is increasingly important in immigration policy. The ‘detention estate’ has grown from 200 places in the mid-1990s to 2,500 places today, with plans for another 1,300 to 1,500 places in the next three years. This has attracted the attention of Europe’s human rights commissioner, who also objects to the failure to set limits on detention.

Entering the country will become harder. The ‘authority to carry’ scheme will require airlines to perform real-time immigration checks on passengers, meaning no one will legally be able to travel to the UK without prior approval. The stated aim is to stop people using fake passports and visas, but the effect will be to condemn those seeking international asylum to illegal and dangerous methods of travel.

There will also be new powers of detention and questioning away from ports. This power is already applied by officials who raid small businesses daily in search of ‘illegal’ workers (always claiming the raids are ‘intelligence-led’, pre-empting accusations of illegality). Officials sometimes carry hand-held fingerprint terminals to check whether those arrested have applied for asylum or otherwise been fingerprinted.

Such technologies are increasingly important. Biometrics are taken from all visa applicants, and by December 2007 more than a million sets of fingerprints had been taken. On 24 November 2008, the first biometric ID cards were ‘rolled out’. Eventually, everyone subject to immigration control will have to carry one, and show it to do everything from opening a bank account to receiving NHS treatment or getting married. All aspects of life will be subject to immigration status.

The integration of visa, port and internal controls, together with the enhanced powers of examination, arrest, detention and powers of data collection, consolidate UKBA’s position as a powerful, autonomous border police. But structures of accountability are absent.

Alongside enhanced powers for the enforcers, the proposals erode migrants’ rights. Under the cover of ‘simplification’, anyone who is not British or a European Economic Area (EEA) national will need ‘immigration permission’ – including Commonwealth citizens who have the right to come and live here. Other ‘simplification’ proposals could replace deportation and administrative removal processes with expulsion and a re-entry ban, applicable with the same force against students who work 22 hours per week instead of 20 hours as it is against murderers.

The much-trumpeted ‘earned citizenship’ provisions reflect the facile and condescending debate over ‘British values’. They require not only testing on language and life in the UK but also longer qualifying periods, with unpaid community work used to shorten the period. Other provisions – from the requirement of bail bonds to powers to charge above the administrative cost for processing applications and to require deportees to pay the costs of their own removal – show that migrants are seen as at best a source of income.

With this inhuman and instrumental approach to migration in the ascendant, human rights and asylum (already dirty words in some quarters) look set to continue their long downward slide.

New immigration minister Phil Woolas sees his task not as educating the country in the social, political and economic benefits of an internationalist outlook, but as showing the right-wing press how tough he is on immigration. ‘It’s been too easy to get into this country in the past and it’s going to get harder,’ he tells the Times. He says employers shouldn’t employ immigrants (‘you should … attempt to fill skills shortages with your indigenous population’) and the NHS shouldn’t treat them (‘it’s not an international health service’). He adds that he has to be tough to pre-empt BNP support: ‘We’ve never had a BNP councillor [in his Oldham constituency] – I hope I’ve had something to do with that.’

But with Labour policies like this, what’s the difference? Opposition to such cynical ministerial soundbites and government policies needs to be loud, determined and principled if universal human rights are not to be undermined by little Englandism.

To view the government’s proposals visit:

http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/cm73/7373/7373.pdf

The Citizenship, Immigration and Borders Bill

Immigration Simplification Bill http://www.commonsleader.gov.uk/output/page2668.asp

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