The UK Home Office exploiting the powers of social media to turn people against them. (Image via)
A photo surfaced a couple of weeks ago in which a dark-skinned man is being directed towards the back of a van. Two people in black, padded clothes – one wearing what looks like a bulletproof vest – are holding his arm. Inside the van, another person sits, waiting.
While that might sound like an image from a high-powered FBI drugs raid, it was actually a photo that accompanied a UK Home Office tweet last week. A tweet that read: "There will be no hiding place for illegal immigrants with the new #ImmigrationBill.”
At the time, I assumed there'd be a media storm. But apart from short pieces from the New Statesman and HuffPo UK, which both just chronicled some of the furious reactions from members of the public to the tweet, there was nothing much from any media outlet you might consider “mainstream”. Outside the mainstream, Elliot Ross skewered the tweet for Africa is a Country and the writer Musa Okwonga asked some pertinent questions on his blog. Interestingly, Belle de Jour – AKA Dr Brooke Magnanti, the call girl blogger who penned that Billie Piper TV show – got really mad about it. But really, little else was said.
The Home Office is often thought of as the most authoritarian department in the British government. And this tweet, with its sinister assurance that there will be no “hiding place” for illegal immigrants, only confirms that reputation. It has a sort of hunter and hunted feel to it, evoking some kind of deadly hide and seek scenario in which Britain is an idyllic back garden littered with bear traps ready to mangle the shins of any foreigners who dare tread near the rose patch of residence. It also didn't come at a good time in the context of various British institution's attitudes towards race, with a Police watchdog recently accusing the London Met of failing to properly tackle complaints of racism.
Home Secretary Theresa May laughing about some trees. (Photo via)
Being seen to be tough on immigration has forever been thought of as a politically sensible thing to do in Britain. With the thinly-veiled xenophobia of UKIP picking up support ahead of what will surely be a closely contested general election in 2015, the predominantly Tory government are letting the public know that Johnny Foreigner's going to have to earn his place on this hallowed island. It’s OK, the government are saying, we’ve got armoured vans and blokes with weapons for this sort of thing. No one’s going to take your jobs. Now vote for us! (Not that this is a strictly Conservative problem: no other party commented on the tweet and, come the election, all are likely to play tough on immigration.)
I wanted to get some idea of the rationale behind the tweet, if there was one. It was my understanding that Simon Wren, the Home Office’s Director of Communications, had signed off on it and that Home Secretary Theresa May had approved of it. A Home Office spokesperson rejected my description of the tweet as “controversial” and insisted that, within the tweet, “the word 'illegal' says it all… The tweet was informative. There’s no other rationale”. So, something that is illegal is illegal. That makes sense, but it doesn’t explain the zealous language or imagery. An official response from the Home Office read:
"We use a variety of channels, including social media, to raise awareness of government policy and our work to deliver that policy, including tackling illegal immigration. We have a rich history as a diverse and welcoming society and we want to ensure we attract the brightest and the best, but those who are in the country illegally face removal.”
Here it is in all its glory: the coercively reasonable language of authority. It’s worth noting, of course, that not every case is heartbreaking – there are a wide range of immigrants coming to the UK, from those fleeing for their lives to others who are here because they have found a house, a lover, a job or a relatively lucrative position in an organised gang. Not everyone is a good, honest chap with a wry smile, a funny accent, a pair of shiny shoes and dreams of making a living and contributing to the glory of the United Kingdom. But that's hardly the point. The point is that, as Tony Smith, the global border security consultant and former Director General of the UK Border Agency, told me, “This is a really tough area of government and it's really hard to keep the politics out of it.” In this instance, with this tweet, the politics seem to be front and centre.
The UK border at Heathrow airport. (Photo via)
The political class, both in and out of government, sees the public as a territorial beast, fiercely protective of its turf. There is some truth in this, perhaps, although this recent YouGov/Sunday Times poll suggests that the situation is a little more complicated. Of the Britons polled, for example, 32 percent think that immigrants who come to the UK are more hardworking than people born here. Only 12 percent think immigrants are less hardworking. The poll suggested that, generally speaking, the average Brit has a taste for a highly educated immigrant who can speak English and perhaps has some family here to boot. The nuances of these positions are so often trampled over though, with politicians rushing to assure the public that the borders are on lockdown. With their "no hiding place" warning, this desire to be seen as strong and authoritative tipped over into darker territory.
Nevertheless, for much of the first decade of this century, as thousands and thousands of immigration cases were lost in archaic bureaucratic systems, the Home Office was loudly accused of being totally inept and of letting shiploads of “undeserving” migrants disappear into British life. According to Tony Smith, the "catastrophic" picture of the UK immigration services painted by the tabloid press and MPs since the Millennium was not a totally false one: "A lot of backlog problems go back to the year 2000; 100,000 asylum seekers were coming to Britain every year then, and it's only 20,000 now. The politics of this is that we were accused of not doing enough enforcement. We were, but we had a lot of old cases that needed to be sorted through." However, old impressions die hard, and the paranoia within the Home Office is that the public think those controlling our borders are infuriatingly laissez faire.
As often happens, politicians sought to buy themselves time and patience from the public with a PR campaign that showed them taking matters by the scruff of the neck. In this instance, that meant trying to show the public that the government was getting tough on getting rid of people who “don’t belong here” by breaking up the much-maligned UK Border Agency (UKBA). When Theresa May announced her plans to dismantle the UKBA in the Commons in March, she portrayed it as a deranged, secretive monolith staffed by petty idiots with hopelessly outdated computer systems. Were these really the people, she seemed to be asking, that we want to put in charge of deciding who our neighbours are? There's no doubting that May's words were emphatic, and this latest tweet expresses this attitude: before there were hiding places, and lots of them. Now, there is NO HIDING PLACE, so you better watch out, all you dark-skinned aliens.
A trade stand, bizarrely, for the now-defunct UK Border Agency at the New Forest Show in 2009. (Photo via)
Tony Smith and other ex-Home Office officials I spoke to were reasonable, intelligent people who were as concerned with properly integrating communities of refugees as they were with keeping people who they thought didn't belong in Britain out of the country. To me, the Home Office's tweet feels like a betrayal of these people's work, treating the issue like it's the same as running down people who haven't paid their TV license fees; something you need to scare people into doing because otherwise they might not bother and you might just not notice.
I put this to another ex-Home Office official, who said that the “threat of arrest, exposure and jail is similar, I suppose, to the adverts on social security fraud. This can look like bullying those who are poor and disadvantaged, although fraud comes in many different forms. In both cases, the adverts back up the line in a hundred ministerial speeches and you can object to the whole lot, either because they exaggerate a problem and stoke fears of voters, or that they send a message to foreigners generally that they are not welcome".
Those objections don’t seem too unfair to me. There has yet to be a proper, intelligent and honest debate about immigration in the UK – which is one of the sad things that became obvious from the lack of reaction to this tweet – but until there is, it would be nice if our government didn’t continue to make cheap political hay out of the future of people from other countries.
Follow Oscar on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow
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