Since Monday, the UK Border Agency (UKBA) and anti-racism activists have been engaged in a frantic hunt-off to find as many illegal immigrants as possible. UKBA are trying to arrest and deport as many of them as they can, while the activists are trying to reach them first and warn them that they may soon be getting a knock from people who want to kick them the fuck out of the UK.
“Operation Centurion” is the latest in a series of UKBA arrest-and-deportation schemes designed to make the UK a shitty place to be for illegal immigrants. It got off to a bad start after a list of the operation's targets was leaked to pretty much the last people in the world that the Home Office would have liked it leaked to – a newly formed anti-racist group called the London Black Revolutionary Socialists, or Black Revs for short. In case the name didn’t give it away, they’re a left-wing group who love Malcolm X T-shirts.
The scale of the operation, detailed in the leak and revealed by Channel 4 News, is extensive – nine pages of intelligence listing specific businesses in every part of the country, revealing the exact numbers of paperless migrants suspected of being employees, the nature of their work, and their nationalities – indicated by three-letter codes, like NGA for Nigerian, or VNM for Vietnamese. It’s an interesting insight into migrant labour. It made me think that the reality is probably more complicated than immigrants coming and “stealing” jobs – how many UKIP members would apply for jobs in Nigerian barbers, anyway?
Since they got their hands on the documents – which the Mail reckoned must have come from a Home Office mole – the Black Revs and other activists have been tearing up and down the country, using UKBA’s own intelligence to inform the identified businesses that they might want to disappear for a couple of weeks, and what their legal rights are in the event of a raid.
“It’s been absolutely hectic,” JJ, a tired-looking member of the Brixton Chapter of the Black Revs, told me yesterday. “We’ve got other parts of London and then there’s national stuff as well. We’ve delegated it out and there’s small sub groups in each area.”
“A lot of pavement pounding”, added DK, another Black Rev.
“Door to door,” said JJ. “Yesterday we did Aldgate station to Whitechapel – every shop, every small business, everybody. We gave out maybe 2 to 3,000 leaflets. Some people with cars have been hitting industrial workplaces further outside London, one after the other. Sometimes you have to go at certain times – in some places [UKBA’s document] says specifically, ‘We tried to raid here before but we came at the wrong time. Come back in the morning or come back in the evening to get this set of workers.’”
I joined the two as they hit South London. We started in Brixton market, because it’s listed as a target in the leak. The fancier streetfood places in the Village weren't interested in what the Black Revs had to say, but stallholders in the market seemed pretty grateful for the info. One trader said, “No, I don’t want what you’re selling,” with a dismissive flick of the wrist, before listening intently as soon as the words UKBA were uttered, taking some leaflets and thanking DK for the trouble. “Keep up the good work,” said another stallholder. A butcher was less than sold on the Black Revs' “Don’t Talk, Walk” tactics, saying, “If UKBA come and ask your name and you go, ‘I don’t wanna give you my name,’ they’re gonna do something else, aren’t they? They’re gonna call the police.”
Whether or not the suggestions were all that viable, those four letters – UKBA – were enough to grab a fair few people’s attention. I asked a guy selling handbags about the border agency. “They come twice, three times a year,” he said. “They check your papers and ask if you’re legal or illegal. It’s based on if you’re Asian or African.”
Did he mean there's something a little bit racist about how UKBA conducts its searches?
“Yeah. They don’t ask white people. I know people who got deported. They had to go back – back to Afghanistan.”
The Home Office has totally denied using any racial profiling – saying that the operation is intelligence-led and slamming suggestions to the contrary as “both abhorrent and completely without foundation”. Quite a strong reaction, given that the document mentions that there are laundries employing Eritreans who are, “not the best nationalities for us, but a new sector nonetheless”. It wouldn't be the first time they've erred on the side of just targetting non-whites; having been accused of racial profiling on the tube and using a racist van to tell people to go away. Meanwhile, asylum seekers continue to hunger strike over conditions in detention centres.
The Black Revs accuse UKBA of indiscriminate “fishing”. Brixton market’s vague listing as a “site of concern” in Lambeth seems to back up that view – as would the fact that, across the Coral and William Hill bookies chains, 900 profiles are to be checked with a predicted five arrests. Can an expected success rate of half a percent be described as anything other than "fishing"? To be fair, the leak does suggest an almost stalkerish level of intelligence in some places, naming individual businesses and even implying that a specific worker is known in some cases. I’m not sure that makes it any less creepy, though.
A text sent by an activist after a raid was successfully disrupted
The Black Revs are quite radical in their take on the matter. They reckon the idea of telling people whether or not they're allowed to inhabit a particular country is inherently racist. “The nature of the job of immigration is racial profiling,” said DK. “The home office coming out and saying they don’t do racial profiling – that’s a lie. How else do you find immigrants without profiling them by their race? An intelligence-led operation could be someone calling up and saying, ‘This Paki might be illegal.’ That’s ‘intelligence’.”
Arbitrary though UKBA’s approach might be, the reaction of people in the market seemed to imply that it works on some level. Nobody 'fessed up to being there illegally, and a lot of people clammed up at the implication that they might be of interest to border agents, but many wanted leaflets for "somebody they knew".
Finishing up at the market, we headed to a care home, which are being heavily targeted by Operation Centurion. But the receptionist dismissed the activists, saying, “Immigration can come whenever they want, We have no illegal immigrants here.” Then to a bookies, where the woman at the counter enthusiastically took leaflets.
The hotel's staff canteen
Then it was back on the bus to get to the final target of the day – an expensive hotel by the Thames. It seemed like the kind of place frequented by the "right" kind of foreigners – tourists dropping hundreds of pounds in Selfridges and and business people striking deals in the conference centres. According to UKBA, the people replenishing the pillow mints at this place are likely to be altogether the "wrong" type of foreigner.
After failing to convince some cleaners and chefs smoking by the service entrance to listen to them, we headed into the hotel’s plush lobby. We travelled up and down the lifts trying to find a way into the hotel’s less extravagant inner core. The key to this kind of thing is to look like you’re supposed to be there, but it was kind of difficult to blend in with the guests when one activist was wearing a T-shirt with “BLACK REVS” plastered on the back.
Eventually, we found a service lift and got talking to some staff. In some cases the workers’ inability to speak English was a barrier and while the Revs had some leaflets in various languages, they couldn’t cover all of them. After plastering the staff canteen with leaflets, we headed back out into the fresh air and called it a day.
Based on feedback from activists, JJ estimated that about 80 percent of the London establishments on the list were reached before UKBA showed up. Outside of London, they put the figure between 40 to 60 percent – adding that they're "not impenetrable" and that plenty of arrests were made in the first couple of days. It’s hard to say how accurate that is, and there are reports on social media of UKBA vans in several London locations today – suggesting that Operation Centurion continues. But what’s clear is that illegal immigrants, given a hard time by pretty much everyone, finally have someone sticking up for them.