Blog post

Policing Britain's borders

On the increase in the UK Home Office's violent border tactics in the pandemic, and the ongoing threats to human life caused by carceral regimes. 

Rachel Trafford19 February 2021

Policing Britain's borders

Society should not be brittle; hard and liable to break. It must be supple and agile, flexible to the changing needs of the people it should be there to serve. However nativist governments that put the ‘native’ population above and apart from those ‘from outside’, know they must continually pit those groups against each other. ‘The British public are absolutely sensible and conscientious. They understand the stay at home message,’ Priti Patel said, in almost total contradiction to her prior harsh enforcement of Coronavirus legislation.

Home Secretary Priti Patel’s statements against rule breakers endangering lives and promises of increased fines came days before Boris Johnson’s reassurances that the government ‘truly did everything we could’ to control the impact of the pandemic. Though displaying two overtly different parenting styles, the underlying origins and motive are the same. A deeply held commitment to police and punish first, in response to a public health crisis and social problems, despite its failure. 

Despite this, at the peak of the second wave in January, Britain had the worst death rate in the world in terms of fatalities per million of the population. 

Practical barriers however are more directly to blame, deliberate and knowingly placed. Years of austerity measures means people must continue to work to survive, which dramatically affects those who cannot work from home. Sick pay in the UK remains at a paltry £96 a week. Examples of ‘reckless rule breaking’ are more likely to be people forced into unsafe workplaces and those who cannot afford to self-isolate. Eight percent of those in insecure work have returned to work with covid symptoms. 

Lack of an ethic of care and support means the virus will continue to replicate in our communities. 

Police powers over the public have been extended without public scrutiny, under the Coronavirus Act since last March. Officers can detain anyone they think may be infectious and quarantine them for an indefinite amount of time. Freedom of association and assembly are also suspended. Liberty has reported that every single charge brought under the act has been found to be wrong, but still over 40,000 people have been fined for breaking the rules.

And yet the ‘blame the people’ narrative is continually advanced. ‘If you do not play your part,’ Patel warned in a January briefing, ‘our selfless police officers... will enforce the regulations and I will back them to do so.’ Our neighbours become the threat, just as those who need Universal Credit or have a disability are touted as a threat to ‘our resources’.

Over 200 years ago, the Home Office was created to oversee domestic and colonial affairs and law and order of the island, still at the centre of a vast overseas empire. Even now the department’s web page couches their role in militaristic terms, as being on the ‘frontline’ of the endeavor to keep citizens ‘safe and secure’. 

Just 10 years into its operation, the 1793 Aliens Act made major steps in immigration enforcement. in response to refugees fleeing the . 4000 people had landed on Britain’s shores in 1792 to seek sanctuary from Europe’s Napoleonic Wars, causing much anxiety to the ruling classes. The act enforced recording and registration with a local justice of the peace on arrival, migrants being held without bail and deportation measures.

Oppression is enabled through the criminalisation of survival, to justify expansion of policing and punitive powers. If we are consistently told our safety is at stake, a system built in response to threat seems logical. Calling for divesting from immigration enforcement and shrinking resources at our borders as a pandemic still rages may seem misguided. But why? Multiple lockdowns against movement have been necessary to control the spread of a new disease, in the absence of proper state support. A nationalist response to the pandemic now includes calls across government for border closures to protect the citizenry. An individualistic society begins to cannibalize itself when up against greater and far grander forces of human movement and viral mutation.

The expansion of the threat of people on the move, (often racialised ‘types’ of people at that), beyond the political and the social to the biological, is a direct result of the over-expansion of immigration enforcement and its accompanying systems. A simple ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ narrative imparts damage on those who are made most vulnerable by borders and simply does not work. For some, travel is absolutely necessary. Mostly not because they are a risk, but because people need work, they want to join family or simply because they are desperate. 

Migrants, asylum seekers and anyone seen as ‘foreign’ are framed as a threat to national security and sovereignty, blamed for actions that are a product of the Home Offices own cruel immigration system. A quieter increase in immigration enforcement resources within UK borders and along our shores has been directly responsible for making people less safe during a pandemic. This is of course by design. 

Ask why systems of punishment in general, and immigration enforcement specifically, are equated with public safety, when if anything they provide exactly the opposite and maintain public harms? The logic for why this exists must be questioned, then removed, while building something else in its place.

Vast swathes of immigration policies brought into force in the UK over the last decade continue to make life incredibly difficult for non-UK nationals with visas and especially those without status. Xenophobic policies legally keep groups of people trapped in poverty, cut off from public services by the no recourse to public funds (NRPF) condition and ghettoized in poorer housing. The daily reality of structural inequality for those that live it has only been made more visible by the pandemic. An estimated 1.4 million people were excluded from emergency support during lockdowns due to NRPF.  Coined the ‘hostile environment’,  the policies have encroached so far into social and public life that all migrants can feel their effects, including those who have sought asylum or are merely profiled as ‘foreign’. 

Immigration Enforcement states it’s vision as ‘to reduce the size of the illegal population and the harm it causes’. Despite its stated aim, since 2015 both voluntary and ‘enforced’ returns (generally deportation) have fallen dramatically. Voluntary returns dropped by 60% and in the year up to March 2020 and numbers of enforced removals were the lowest on record since 2004.

The Home Office also has no reliable metric for measuring how many undocumented people, or those without proper leave to remain in the UK, are still in the country. They last provided the estimate of around 430,000 in 2005. By using the tools of policing and punishment, people who are in need of support are instead swept up in mass criminalisation. Simultaneously, the narrative of vast swathes of ‘illegals’ that are at once everywhere and nowhere continues. There is no need to deny what you cannot prove.

By every measure and metric, even its own, the Home Office is objectively failing to control immigration and remove undocumented people. Compare this fact with their £392 million net resource cost for 2019-20 and the £42 million income, and argue this couldn’t be better spent in public health and social care policy.

Moreover, marked escalations in collaboration with, and therefore funding to, France have occurred throughout 2020. At the end of November, the UK committed €31 million to double the number of officers that patrol the French coastline, supply technology such as drones, radar and fixed cameras and increase French port security. This is in addition to the hundreds of millions already spent over the past five years in the expansion of the UK’s border into Calais.

Military planes and army drones have all been used in the Channel to surveil and deter increased numbers of people crossing in small boats, due partly to Covid lockdowns but primarily to lack of other safe legal routes. Other draconian plans refused to be ruled out, such as the use of nets and ‘floating walls’ to push back against people making the journey. The appointment of an ex-royal marine as Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, Dan O’Mahoney last August, only further proves the point. 

Estimates say between 8000-9000 people made it across the English Channel in 2020. Into 2021, at least 150 more people have made the incredibly dangerous journey. Even the ‘Threat Commander’ himself had to admit that ‘most if not all claim asylum’ if they reach Britain alive, as is their right under international law. A September 2020 House of Commons Home Affairs Committee report found the Home Office had ‘no idea’ of what their budget achieves or the impact of their policies. 

That same month saw the internment of 600-700 asylum seekers on Military of Defence sites, Napier in Kent and Penally in South Wales. Unable to access proper legal advice, lacking facilities and kept more than 20 to a room, conditions have caused multiple coronavirus outbreaks. Despite not being detained for any crime and requiring protection under international law, they were physically locked inside for 25 days of January. Clearsprings, the private company contracted to manage the housing, are set to make up to £1bn over 10 years from their provision to the Home Office. 

While Covid outbreaks are the most visible and alarming product of profit over public health, the perception is of keeping a criminal outsider at bay. Containing people in temporary ‘camps’ in militarised settings recreates the violence of borders again and again upon the bodies of those on the move and keeps ‘them’ apart from ‘us’. 

Rampant pursuit of violent carceral border regimes despite their failure and risk to life shows the need for radical change. Abolitionist demands mean centring the migrant voices and organisations that have been making them for decades. The London Steering Group of the Permanent Peoples Tribunal used evidence on the violations of the hostile environment in the UK to draft a manifesto calling for ‘a rights based approach to immigration policy which empowers migrant and refugee people’. To this end, retracting the reach of the state means ending the current system that prevents legal routes and repealing laws as barriers to services and settlement. Safety in this context is about rights and freedoms and builds on an ethic of care and support, not crime and punishment. 

Many NGOs and academics including from BLM and Migrants Organise to Abolitionist Futures have called for divesting from carceral structures to invest in public and social services, and heal the cuts of austerity. A fundamental move away from resource protectionism to invest in communities, integration and outreach so people can find support without fear. Harms  It might seem hard to even comprehend a different system because the one we have feels so natural. But the harms perpetrated upon those who migrate affect us all in our everyday lives and cannot be legitimised. Anti-immigration rhetoric is rising, fueled by the government in the name of safety. Calling for defunding or divesting from the Home Office and immigration enforcement therefore is not about creating a void. In addressing the logic that deems these responses necessary, we can build anew. 


Rachel Trafford writes for the Immigration Advice Service