Need to see a doctor? Want to take the tube to work? Look ‘a bit foreign’? You’d Better Bring Your Passport!

5 August 2013
Zrinka Bralo

One of my New Year’s resolutions—and there were only a handful—was to focus on positive things at work.  I decided to stop feeding the negative discourse on immigration as it made me depressed and unproductively angry. Instead, I would write only when there was something positive to do or say, so as to inspire myself as much as others.

That is why I have been avoiding writing about the new #HostileEnvironment proposals: primary NHS care charges for some migrants, or the proposal to introduce £3,000 fines for landlords who are caught renting to ‘illegal’ immigrants.  Then came the ‘Go Home’ advertising campaign by the Home Office coupled by the stop and search operation at the train stations across London, racially profiling and harassing commuters who look or sound a bit foreign. But as we know, New Year’s resolutions are made to be broken.

This crackdown is happening in the context of the Jimmy Mubenga Inquest, which found that he was unlawfully killed by an agent of the state in an attempt to deport him.  The coroner, Karon Monaghan, raised serious concern about  “pervasive racism” among G4S detention custody officers and exposed dangerous and unlawful practices in the treatment of people being deported. 

Furthermore, the Appeal Court  overturned  the criminal convictions of five wrongly convicted refugees, but there could be thousands more who were jailed for using false documents to escape persecution. Lord Justice Leveson criticized  the lawyers for failing to defend refugees:  “It is both surprising and disturbing that neither solicitors nor counsel appear to have been aware of the position in law and we repeat that this situation should not recur in the future,” he said in a written ruling.

What I found the most challenging about the past several weeks is not so much yet another depressing swing from uncaring to hostile in the immigration debate.  It wasn’t the disingenuous use of words such as ‘lawful’ and ‘fairness’ by politicians with ulterior motives.  It is not even the sheer ignorance and insensitivity of those who actually came up with the ‘Go Home’ slogan and decided to drive it around London’s diverse neighborhoods at the expense of its taxpayers. And it definitely wasn’t the professional incompetence of those in charge of immigration enforcement (if you think that someone who does not have documentation is waiting for a billboard truck to pass by, to tell them to text the Government’s number so that they can deport themselves, perhaps career in immigration enforcement is not for you).

All of the above was not a challenge because it is not new. Over the past 20 years as an advocate for justice for refugees and migrants I have seen it all: the most appalling violations of human rights of migrants and refugees ranging from the detention of children to deaths in detention and during deportation.  Like many of my colleagues, I have developed a resilience that helps me to stay sane and organise my experience without using expletives (most of the time), and that resilience is based on some deeply held truths that I hold to be self-evident.

What I found the most difficult over the last few weeks, as the ‘Go Home’ case and the police + immigration enforcement stop and searches at London underground stations started happening, was to accept the depth of the spirit of intolerance that is degrading our democracy and our way of life.

In addition to insensitivity, the disproportionality of enforcement and negative campaigning by the Government has been condemned by both mainstream and social media (including some celebrities—from pop star Lee Ryan to  writer and columnist Charlie Brooker).  It is reassuring to see how quickly campaigners and decent people of Britain responded with protests, legal challenges and complaints to local councils,  the EHRC and the Advertising  Standards Agency. There were some surprising reactions such as Ukip’s condemnation of the campaign.

But none of it is reassuring enough.  One look at the @ukhomeoffice twitter account of this insight from Alice Thomson’s column in The Times makes my heart sink:

“When I asked a Tory strategist why they needed such an antagonistic message, he said that I was being oversensitive. ‘The slogan isn’t nasty, it’s kind. It’s like ‘ET Go Home’ He is afraid, he is alone, he is three million light years away from home. We are helping these illegal immigrants to return to their countries’. The problem is the billboards appear shrill. They look like an attempt to stir up anti-immigration sentiment and woo the UKIP vote, without considering whom they might alienate.”

All this fills me with familiar feeling of the most awful dread.  As a Bosnian refugee, twenty years on, I am still trying to make sense of the scale of inhumanity that happened in my country.  I am haunted by the desire to pinpoint the exact moment when the big moral leap happened after which there was no longer any limit to the evil that friends and neighbours could do to each other.  What line in the sand did my country cross right before the situation deteriorated into genocide?

As result of these experiences, I live in constant fear that I might once again miss that moment when, injustice and discrimination that dehumanizes the ‘other’ will overtake my adopted country.

I know I have given myself an impossible task, because the descent into inhumanity is gradual and cumulative, until one day we stop noticing that we capitulated in front of infinite selfishness, stupidity and evil, and there is no escape.

I want to believe that my fear, although based on some real experiences, is irrational. The underlying assumption, the self-evident truth that I need to believe in, is that I now live in civilised, democratic country, ruled by law, where these things are fixable, as opposed to a country where genocide could happen and things are beyond repair.  I need to believe that Britain is my sanctuary or at least the place where I don’t have to be afraid of being different. Even if most of the time I am clutching at straws in my attempts to believe in it.

Negative immigration rhetoric is one thing, and as xenophobic and unpleasant as it is, we can agree to disagree respectfully. But putting it into practice without any regard for the feelings, rights and safety of our citizens or standing and reputation of our country, is something else.

Call me oversensitive, but unless we ALL agree to carry passports to work or the GP surgery, and unless we ALL consent to wait in line for hours until we are ALL stopped and checked at the tube station, there is no way of doing this without racial profiling, which is a euphemism for discrimination and racism.

Smart analyses of the hidden political motives behind these divisive and dehumanising policies and stunts, as helpful as they are, are not enough.  The time has come for all decent people to take a stand and tell our government to take the political toxicity out its approach to the issue of undocumented migrants.  There are ways of managing immigration that do not involve: a) destruction of community cohesion through the use of National Front slogans, and b) discrimination and intimidation of minority citizens.  The time is running out and if this political and administrative recklessness continues, soon we will be beyond that moral breaking point that leads into violence.

So what can the Government do that is different, lawful, fair and decent?

First, fix the immigration service so it can do its job properly in a humane and lawful way.  Take border control back to the border and not our tube stations and GPs surgeries.  We need an immigration service that serves all its citizens and visitors—with properly trained and resourced staff.  For example, get a computer or two with software that actually works for things like, I don’t know, counting people when they come in and out of the country.

Secondly, to make that realistic and doable, fix past mistakes and regularise those who have spent years either stuck in the system or falling out of it, because we have not had a functioning immigration service for decades. Face up to the facts—enforcement just does not work.  No amount of threats, raids or ‘Go Home’ stunts will make any difference. Stop embarrassing yourself, and the country by creating yet another scandal, resulting in hundreds of thousands of files being hidden from inspectors or worse killing someone in an attempt to deport them.

Thirdly, make voluntary return a genuine and meaningful exercise.  It is not nuclear science and when done properly, it works.  Don’t be ashamed to look at the evidence from other countries where it has worked.

For these three things to happen the government, politicians and some media need to stop the hysterical politicking about immigration and enforcement.  Our honorable members need to show some leadership and backbone and stop talking about ‘fears and perceptions’ about immigration and start talking facts and fair, sensitive and realistic solutions—wishing immigrants away is not going to happen.

Finally, we need our political leadership to listen to and work with, not against, minority communities, do not dismiss us as ‘oversensitive’—check your privilege and remember we are also taxpayers, but more importantly, we are voters and citizens, too.

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If you feel strongly about this there are number of things you can do:

You can write to your MP and tell them that you disagree with discriminatory immigration enforcement on our streets, stations and in GP surgeries.  You can join in with Hope Not Hate’s call to action here.

You can sign an online petition  asking the Home Secretary to stop targeting immigrants.

Send complaints to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Home Office, local council, NHS and other relevant public bodies by writing to or tweeting at: Immigration Minister, Home Secretary, Health Secretary, Deputy Prime Minister, Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition and let them know you disagree with the scapegoating of immigrants and minorities.

If you are into tweeting @ukhomeoffice is waiting for you to follow them and let them know what you think.

Share, share and share. Tell your friends about it and ask them to do the same. This is not the time to be a bystander.

And if you are stopped and searched – know your rights

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3 Comments. Leave new

Zrinka, I would like to thank you for this excellent analysis of challenges facing documented and undocumented migrants in the UK.
You are in the unique position to highlight the danger of invisible transition between liberal/tolerant state and nationalist/discriminatory one and I have to say that you have done excellent job here.
It is also my fear, and I would like to believe that it is fully irrational, that we might be sleepwalking into the new era in politics where scapegoating migrants is fully acceptable. This will eventually trickle down to wider society and might destroy social bonds in our communities. We need stand united against what we have seen in our street in recent weeks before it us too late.

Reply
Cynthia Dize
7 August 2013 4:18 pm

I agree with Marek – thanks Zrinka. When I’m being still hopeful, I hope that this is a bad mistake, back of an envelope job. Then I get more worried about a drip, drip, drip of deliberate negativity and ‘dog whistle’ politics, and that has frightening implications. I hope that everyone who can remember what it feels like to be a stranger of any kind and at any time in their lives takes a stand.

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Zrinka Bralo
8 August 2013 7:51 am

Thank you Marek and Cynthia. I am afraid our fears are not that irrational. This morning I read in the Independent that: “Switzerland’s local authorities have introduced draconian restrictions which ban asylum-seekers from frequenting public places such as school playgrounds, swimming pools…” news like this disturbs me no matter where it is happening, but we must keep resisting. So thank you for support – knowing there are good people out there helps. Best Zrinka

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