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Red Wristbands, Refugees, and Britain's Refusal to Allow Assimilation

Let's not pretend that life for asylum seekers here won't be totally prescribed.

A wristband. Photo via Flickr user Morten Knutsen

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

It's that time of year again: it's cold outside, there's ice cracking on the pavement, time to huddle up warm under the blankets and dream up new ways to dehumanize the vulnerable. Last week, it was revealed that contracting corporation G4S was housing asylum seekers in the northeast of England in houses with red doors, marking them out as targets for any welcoming party of brick-throwing racists. On Monday, the Guardian reported that another company, the Clearsprings Group (slogan: "Value Through Innovation," which really ought to send shivers down your spine) has been issuing red wristbands to asylum seekers at its Lynx House facility in Cardiff.


Residents at Lynx House have been required to wear the wristbands to receive their three free meals a day, and they cannot be taken off without being damaged. As a result, asylum seekers risk drawing attention to themselves wherever they go—one former resident described motorists honking horns and shouting at him to "go back to your country." With the kind of brutality you only really get from the private sector, staff would threaten that anyone who refused to wear the markers would be "reported to the Home Office"—passed to another stumblingly callous bureaucracy, itching to meet its deportation targets, and careless of the corpses. According to the BBC, Clearsprings insists that the wristbands are a "reliable and effective way to guarantee service delivery"—you could, incidentally, say the same of a slave-labor camp—but despite this, following much outcry, the program is being dropped.

However, the scheme had its defenders. Take David Davies MP, who proudly tweeted "i wear 1 every year on holiday." Because apparently the member of Monmouth's annual continental pleasure-cruise is on the same order of things as someone fleeing persecution trying to eat every day.

What's wrong with a wristband?, you ask, holding out an arm wrapped to the elbow with old fraying festival bands, all of them from back in 2008 when you were young, and the sun shone, and it really did seem like your life might have a purpose, and fun was something you could actually do rather than an impossible Saturday-night mountain you try to scale before collapsing, exhausted, into bed.


I've got loads of them, you continue. Anyway, it's not an identifier, it's a meal ticket, it's no different from having to wear a wristband at a club. You don't have to wear them, in the same way that you don't have to buy a ticket for the cinema and you don't have to buy an subway card; it's a token that entitles you to a particular service, that's all.

Why a wristband and not just a ticket? It might be cheaper, but the function of the wristband isn't only to designate a person, but to mark their body, to separate them out from everyone else. This is why it's necessary to go beyond the simple look of the thing and consider what it actually does.

Red bands are a physical manifestation of a calculated separation of asylum seekers from society at large, which will persist long after the flimsy bits of plastic are done away with. The people being marked by red wristbands are deliberately kept outside of the general economy: under a network of regulations designed to keep the people of Cardiff safe from the marauding hopeless, they're not allowed to work; they're not allowed any money; they're not allowed anything to do.

All they're given is the reproduction of life at its most basic biological level: a bed and three meals a day, and to get that, they need the wristband. We complain that recent immigrants don't fully assimilate into British communities, and then do everything in our power to prevent that from happening, to keep them vulnerable and dependent. The wristbands might not have been introduced with the explicit purpose of marking out the unwelcome other, but with the situation as it is, that's exactly what they did. Your festival tags do not do the same thing. So no, they don't have to wear it. In the same way that you don't have to breathe.

But in a way, the cynics have a point: what's happening to asylum seekers in Cardiff is in its barest concept not too different to what's happening to everyone else. The implied conclusion of all this is that if you do something selectively, to a few people—cutting off their little toe without anesthetic, for instance—then it's bad and should be stopped. Cut off everyone's toes, and that's just the way things are; this is good, and we should embrace it.

It's just a wristband! I wear my lanyard to work; it has my face on it; I look miserable. I take my passport to the airport; it has my face on it; I look miserable. I live in a totally administered society in which every conceivable action requires me to endlessly demonstrate my identity, a hideous warren of walled-off little places that can't ever be accessed without some kind of ticket or token or ID, where I'm blocked off from everyone around me, where success means being able to do a few things that were forbidden from me before, where just staying alive means you have to wear a stupid red wristband provided by some inhuman outsourcing company so racists can abuse you in the street; it has no face whatsoever; we're all miserable. This is how we greet our guests: welcome to Britain; here's your wristband, here's your lanyard, please bring a recent gas bill, you are a mute and inert quantity, and it'll be like this until you're dead.

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