Britain's Immigration Policy Is Just as Draconian as Donald Trump's 'Muslim Ban'
Trump’s revised travel ban is yet to come into effect, but Theresa May has already built a wall, deported Muslims and thrown innocent people into detention centres.
(Collage by Marta Parszeniew)
When Bashir Naderi was nine years old, he walked out of his back door in Afghanistan carrying a plate of fresh food prepared by his mother. He was taking it to his father, a local policeman, who was working out in the field behind their house. As Bashir closed the door and turned back around, a group of Taliban soldiers approached his father. A conversation began, but they were too far away for Bashir to hear or for them to know he was approaching. Then the chatter abruptly stopped, and his father was shot in the head. "They wanted him to go and he wouldn't," Bashir told the BBC. "I can't forget it. It will always be on my mind."
Bashir's mother sold the family's land and used the money to pay traffickers to get him out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. After an arduous journey as an unaccompanied child, he found himself in the UK, where he was adopted by a family in Cardiff. Here, he began a second life. He attended Mary Immaculate Comprehensive school in Wenvoe, learned to speak English, forgot how to speak Pashto and earned nine GCSEs. He began studying painting and decorating and is now in a long-term relationship with his girlfriend Nicole. When you hear him speak in interviews, he has a subtle Welsh accent. Two months ago, he turned 20 years old, marking his tenth year in Cardiff. He has never heard from his family in Afghanistan and has no idea whether his mother is still alive.
Last October, after reporting for his usual monthly check in at the Home Office, he was arrested, thrown into a detention cell and told he would be deported back to Afghanistan promptly. Even if you escape to the UK as an unaccompanied child from a war zone like he did, you must apply for indefinite leave to remain at the age of 18. If this is unsuccessful, for whatever reason, you are sent back to where you came from, regardless of whether you still speak the language, have family there or have anywhere to go.
Until recently, Bashir's case was an extreme example, but last week the Home Office quietly announced a gruelling new policy that would see all refugees settled in the UK targeted with a "safe country review" after five years to decide whether they should be allowed to stay here, leaving all refugees with the permanent psychological burden of never being able to settle.
New stories of deportations now flood the British media on a weekly basis. Irene Clennell – a 52-year-old Singaporean woman who has been in Britain for 27 years, is married to a British man and has British children and grandchildren – was detained and placed in a detention centre for a month. In February she was deported to Singapore with £12 in her pocket, all because of a technical fault in her "indefinite leave to remain" status. Similarly, Sri Lankan-born Shiromini Satkunarajah – a student who has been in the UK since she was 12 and has just three months left of her engineering degree – was arrested, placed in a cell at Yarl's Wood (an infamous detention centre with a history of sexual assault allegations and a reputation for detaining pregnant women) and given a date for her deportation. Her case has now been put on hold while she finishes her studies, but an existential question mark floats over her.
"If the general public understood what was going on with migrants in our country, there would be nationwide outrage."
The depressing truth is we're only hearing these stories because they are heart-wrenching enough for the press to deem them of sympathetic interest to the British public. Most migrants snared by Theresa May's brutal policies don't have a foster family or righteous white relative who can kick up enough of a stink on social media to get their story told in the news. Most are just quietly removed to whatever country their birth tenuously links them to, left to figure out how to survive.
"Occasionally a case ends up on a crowdfunding website and everyone is up in arms," explained one immigration lawyer who wished to remain anonymous, "but what you need to realise is that these are completely standard cases. This is happening all the time now, and there is a real sense in our industry that if the general public understood what was going on with migrants in our country there would be nationwide outrage. But the reality is: it's too complicated, too poorly publicised and just isn't a very sympathetic topic in 2017."
Since Theresa May first came into the Home Office in 2010, her favourite hobby has been making life a fresh hell for anyone who dare not be 100 percent British. In 2012, she introduced new rules (known as "Appendix FM") which turned the immigration system upside down and left migrants, courts and lawyers reeling to learn her cryptic new guidelines. These changes targeted a migrant's right to a family life, making it essentially impossible for them to bring over any elderly dependent relatives from their home country, and introduced a rule that any British citizen wanting to bring a non-EU foreign national spouse to the UK must earn at least £18,600 (a bracket that penalises 42 percent of the British population and 55 percent of women). She also removed legal aid for the vast majority of those fighting these cases, meaning anyone who wasn't loaded was left to represent themselves. Please read the Ulysses of byzantine legal complexity that is Appendix FM and imagine English not being your first language.
The cruelty of Tory immigration policy is also being felt by British citizens. The law regarding non-EU spouses, upheld by the Supreme Court two weeks ago, means that if you were to live or work abroad, marry a non-EU citizen and perhaps have children, you would not be allowed to bring your family back to Britain. You would need to return alone, find work that pays more than £18,600 and then earn this for at least six months. Only then could your family begin their application, and even then it may not be accepted. Brazilian Monica Leal told The Guardian how she is being deported back to Brazil in two months because her British husband of 10 years does not meet this wage requirement.
Families are an easy target in the government's rigid determination to reduce immigration. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants found that 15,000 children are separated from one parent or forced to grow up outside the UK because of our immigration rules. "People often don't realise these things until it has an immediate impact on them," explains Colin Yeo, a barrister specialising in immigration law at Garden Court Chambers and founder of FreeMovement.EU. "If they go abroad with their family, there is a chance they won't be able to come back again, and then they find themselves in a situation where they must break the family up, or just stay abroad for good. There is no way around it any more – those are the choices."
There is a reason we now see deportations more often in the media. In December of 2016, the government widened their "Deport Now, Appeal Later" policy – originally used only on foreign-born criminals – to include all migrants. Usually, if the Home Office rejected your application, you would then stay in the UK to launch your appeal, but now you are deported immediately without questions. "The kicker is: it's almost impossible to win an appeal from abroad," said one immigration lawyer. "You would need to find video links, equipment, laptops at both ends, an internet connection and a secure location to appeal from, and remember you have no legal aid to do this with." In essence, the savage subtext of "Deport Now, Appeal Later" is simply the removal of your right to appeal altogether.
This buffet of migrant-targeting policies doesn't just exist at our borders any more either; they now pervade everyday life, creating invisible borders inside public institutions, from the hospital ward to the classroom.
Take the "Right to Rent" legislation which threatens landlords with fines or prison should they be found to be housing an illegal migrant. Most landlords are unlikely to be versed in valid immigration documentation, and so some just use a broad brush stroke with potential tenants. Evidence from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants shows the "Right to Rent" checks have led to housing discrimination towards British people of colour, people with accents and anyone who just appears a bit foreign. Seventy-seven percent of landlords do not support the scheme.
It's the same with public services. In December, it was shown that British schools were now instructed to share data on their pupils' place of birth and nationality with the Home Office. From April of this year, Jeremy Hunt will force the NHS to introduce upfront charges for non-urgent care for overseas patients, which means British doctors and nurses will be forced to check passports before approving free primary healthcare. But 20 percent of residents in England and Wales do not own a passport (mostly those in poor economic situations), meaning the policy attacks the lower classes, especially those who may seem "foreign".
"These policies don't even make economic sense... this is about politics and ideology. It's about racism and an attitude of hatred towards the poor."
This is the reality of Theresa May's "hostile environment" tactic, which is supposed to target illegal migrants but has in fact been shown to punish all of us, forcing landlords, nurses, doctors, school teachers and charities to become reluctant border control orcs.
"These policies don't even make economic sense," explains Zoe Gardner, a researcher at the European Institute of the London School of Economics. "If you limit a person's access to primary health care, they just wait until their situation becomes untenable and they access emergency services instead, which is way more expensive to the taxpayer. This is about politics and ideology. It's about racism, an attitude of hatred towards the poor and getting those headlines in The Daily Mail."
The lack of economic sense is evident in one of the Tory government's most callous immigration policies: detention centres. The UK immigration detention centre estate is one of the largest in Europe, with most run by private contractors for profit. Over 30,000 people – vulnerable people, many of whom have no risk of absconding – are kept in these facilities each year. It's common knowledge that detention of innocent people has an adverse effect on mental health, but in April of 2016 it was revealed (after a Freedom of Information request by the NGO No Deportations) that suicide attempts within these British facilities had now reached an all time high.
"Detention centres have been shown by mountains of evidence to be an absolute waste of money," explains Zoe Gardner. "Keeping someone in a prison is an expensive thing to do. You have to pay for everything, so the taxpayer is being completely ripped off here. Yet, even after all of these inquiries that recommend a massive reduction in the use of detention centres, the use of detention centres has been steadily increasing."
Two months ago I stood cramped and trapped in the concourse of Westminster tube station with thousands of other people, trying to get through the exits so I could join the first of two #StopTrump protests in London. Donald Trump's "Muslim Ban" had come into effect four days prior and Britain was incensed. Protests swept up and down the country with an infectiousness not seen since the 2011 riots.
"I just don't get it," said 51-year-old man Nick when I asked how he felt about Theresa May's reaction to it. "I expected our politicians to be more intelligent!" His wife agreed. A group of lads next to us with placards depicting Trump as a pig started waving them like foam hands at a baseball game, chanting: "You can't build a wall! Your hands are too small!" When I finally got out of the station I was swamped by seemingly endless crowds. The message was clear: the British people weren't going to tolerate Trump's persecution of Muslims, they weren't going to tolerate him turning his back on refugees and they weren't going to tolerate his dreams of building a wall.
It is, of course, vital to show solidarity to those in the US. But six weeks and five days prior to this protest, Theresa May's four-metre high, £2.3 million "anti-migrant" wall – paid for by British taxpayers – was finished on the edge of Calais to very little noise from the press or the public. Last week, a majority in Parliament voted against The Dubs Amendment, which gave unaccompanied and vulnerable child refugees a safe passage to Britain, essentially consigning them to homelessness, exploitation and sexual abuse.
A recent Guardian report showed that out of Europe's major countries, Britain has the worst rate of approvals for asylum seekers, the majority of which come from Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria. In fact, Syrian VISA approvals to Britain have decreased year on year since the conflict began.
Though no UK politician would ever use words as antagonistic as "Muslim Ban", buried beneath this plethora of bureaucratic and restrictive rules exists an immigration policy that vilifies and debilitates a certain kind of immigrant: poor, non-white, unable to defend themselves.
It's easy to get yourself into marching gear for Trump. He is bullish and open with his language; his fascism is clumsy and overt. The path to resistance is floor-lit by every new tweet he posts. The phrase "Muslim Ban" is not an entirely accurate description of his executive order, but it nevertheless got a message across and willed people into the streets.
Our unelected leader Theresa May will never make it that easy for us. Ever stately and subtle, she rarely gives speeches, and when she does she speaks in diplomatic and opaque language that resists outrage and thrives on muddying the water. Like May herself, this nightmarish deluge of ultra-conservative, ultra-discriminatory and ultra-confusing immigration policies hides how cruel it is behind its own arbitrary complexity. But it's vital that we begin to understand how our government treats migrants and refugees, because when pulled into focus, these policies paint the most accurate picture of the modern Tory ideology – one that is heinously xenophobic and ruthless.
As Brexit negotiations reach tipping point, the immigration fight now extends to the 3.5 million EU migrants being used as Theresa May's bargaining chips, who now live in doubt and insecurity regarding their future. The only positive is that as more and more Europeans are subjected to the brutal policies that have punished non-EU migrants and refugees for years, they too will join the fight to stop it from happening. Every campaigner and activist I spoke to for this article is working tirelessly to devise simple and attention-grabbing ways to explain this vast and impenetrable quagmire of immigration policy and raise public awareness. But with Brexit and Trump dominating the UK news agenda throughout 2017, the full extent of how our country treats innocent men, women and children continues unchecked.
Bashir Naderi hasn't yet been deported to Afghanistan. In October, a judge ordered for his removal to be halted while he was being transported to Gatwick in the back of a van. When I rang the office of his local Labour MP Jo Stevens, I was told that he is now at home, checking in with the Home Office every week, waiting anxiously to find out what happens next. Earlier in the year, he travelled to London with his girlfriend and family to deliver a petition of 14,000 signatures pleading he stays in the UK to Home Secretary Amber Rudd. At the time of writing, she's yet to even acknowledge it.