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Britain’s migrant shame: It’s up to all of us to combat insularity

Morton Hall immigration removal centre, Lincolnshire - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Our treatment of those who fall foul of our immigration system shames our country. And more and more people are going to become ensnared in it

Earlier this month, a 27-year-old Polish man detained at Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre became a father.

According to detainee support group the Unity Centre, he had been denied bail in order to attend the birth of his child, his girlfriend being too pregnant to travel to the hearing and act as his ‘surety’, guaranteeing he would fulfil his bail conditions.

The same day his child was born, he was found in his cell, hanged, by guards, after a suspected suicide. I do not know his name.

Morton Hall is a detention camp near Lincoln, where foreign nationals are held pending their removal from the UK. It is not a prison, and does not generally hold people who have committed a criminal offence. But it has many of the hallmarks of a prison and is even run by the Prison Service on behalf of the UK Border Agency. This was the second death to occur at Morton Hall in the space of five weeks, the third in that time across all UK detention centres.

It is relatively unusual for EU citizens to be detained in immigration removal centres. Mainly detainees consist of asylum seekers, asylum seekers whose claim has been rejected, and other non-Europeans who have overstayed their visa conditions. Generally, EU nationals come to the UK to find work, and are allowed to stay under the provisions of free movement. They don’t have to fear deportation, and so they are largely unaware of the existence of our detention estate, wherein a few thousand men and women are locked up every year, without trial or charge, on the say-so of a relatively junior civil servant, for an indefinite period of time.

But the right to freedom of movement is not unconditional, as you might assume from the debate around Brexit and immigration. In fact, an EU citizen can be removed after six months, if they have not found a job, have no realistic possibility of finding one, and require support from the welfare system.

Deportation also applies to any non-UK national who is convicted of a criminal offence carrying a 12-month sentence or longer. In the case of the young Polish man, however, fellow detainees say he had not committed any crime in the UK (they did say he had sought help for mental health issues). Somehow, he had simply fallen foul of our immigration system.

And now that freedom of movement (such as it is) is under threat, and unlikely to survive the Brexit negotiations we are hurtling towards, more EU nationals are likely to gain a better understanding of how our immigration system treats people who are not protected by their EU status.

What freedom of movement really entitles people to, rather than an absolute right to go and stay where they please, is freedom from discrimination; freedom to be treated in most cases, in employment and by the state, no differently than ‘local’ citizens.

The breakdown of this protection, the process of ‘othering’ more and more of our immigrant communities has already begun. In the past six months, not only has there been a spike in hate crimes, but there have been reports of EU citizens too scared of compromising their right to remain in the UK to report incidents to the police. We have also had anecdotal accounts of EU citizens having mortgage applications denied due to their ‘immigration status’ and of employers and landlords discriminating against EU immigrants, not on the basis of their legal status, but because of vague doubts and half-truths in the press.

The government’s ‘hostile environment’ strategy for targeting undocumented immigrants (the term was coined by then Home Secretary Theresa May in 2012) that has already trickled through to affect black and minority ethnic communities in the country, is beginning to affect the lives of more and more people.

The ‘hostile’ approach involves spreading the role of border guards across every part of our society. It has criminalised renting property to undocumented immigrants, led to schools collecting nationality and country of birth data from children to pass on to the Home Office, and seen proposals for identification checks in NHS A&E and maternity departments.

Whether or not one agrees with such authoritarian measures aimed at undocumented migrants, it is vital to remember the true effect of these policies spreads much further.

By tasking teachers, bank clerks and landlords to take on the role of untrained border guards, we encourage discrimination. It is far easier to target or exclude people with ‘foreign-sounding’ names or accents, than it is to understand the complex paperwork regarding different kinds of status governing who can remain in the country. This has already begun to affect EU citizens.

There is considerable academic evidence to suggest that when we restrict the rights of certain national groups to reside in this country, we do not reduce the number of people, we simply increase the number of undocumented people.

Europeans are likely to find themselves, more and more, in situations where they cannot adequately prove, or simply no longer have, the right to continue their lives here in the UK. They will join the African, Asian and South American workers who subsist in the exploitative, illegal economy, with no recourse to justice or the assistance of the state. They will join the asylum seekers in our detention camps.

And as all of this occurs we must never forget we Brits are not safe from any of it. Every EU country practices immigration detention and deports unwanted foreigners. We face losing our right to live and work in other EU countries, and we should not think it impossible we could be the ones in a cell, like that unnamed Polish father. As exploitation at work becomes easier for a larger group of people, conditions for all of us will fall further. This is about every one of us.

As this happens, our societies become more divided, people’s status and livelihoods become more insecure, we close ourselves off, look inwards, let ourselves become weaker and meaner.

But I don’t want to be entirely pessimistic, however. The rise of populist and xenophobic politics in this country has been devastating to many, but it has also motivated people to start fighting back. Standing up for the rights of immigrants takes courage in this climate, especially from politicians. So it is down to us to back them up and to show them the support that exists for evidence-based, humane policies that include people and break down barriers, rather than the reverse.

As more Europeans come to see what the border agency ‘taking back control’ of their lives and their futures really means, I hope we will see a surge in people joining the movements to end immigration detention, and put an end to the policies of the ‘hostile environment’. Labour, traditionally the party that would take up these causes, is rudderless and weak; so each and every one of us now needs to find new ways to build our own politics of tolerance and strong communities.

Zoe Gardner is a PhD student at the London School of Economics European Institute, where she is studying the management of migrant and refugee flows into the EU; she has worked to promote better race relations and the rights of migrants and refugees. She is also a campaigner and tweets @ZoeJardiniere

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