Look a bit foreign? The Home Office would like a word.
UK Border Agency officers at Kensal Green station. (Photo via)
If you were anywhere near Kensal Green tube station earlier this week, you might have noticed an unusual proliferation of burly cop types doing all the things burly cops usually do. For example, intimidating civilians, grabbing anybody with brown skin and prodding them with their notepads, forbidding people from taking photos of them, talking down to everyone they encountered – you know, all the standard stuff.
Even if you missed that party you might be interested to know that these four guys weren't cops at all, they were officials from the much-maligned UK Border Agency, now operating under the Theresa May-approved auspices of the Home Office. It turns out they were there trying to catch illegal immigrants – or, as the widely mocked, disparaged and despised Home Office Twitter account has sought to rebrand them, "#immigrationoffenders". If you're lucky enough to look a little bit foreign yourself, you too might soon have the pleasure of being apprehended by a hulking man in a flak jacket as you try to beep your way through a ticket barrier.
Local resident Phil O'Shea told the Kilburn Times, "They appeared to be stopping and questioning every non-white person, many of whom were clearly ordinary Kensal Green residents going to work. When I queried what was going on I was threatened with arrest for obstruction and told to ‘crack on’."
The same thing happened at Stratford station on Wednesday – immigration officials were "assisting" the British Transport Police (BTP) in catching fare dodgers. What the Home Office has to do with people trying to scam free travel, I have no idea; "Hey, can I check your oyster card, mate? Oh, and your visa status?"
Neil Roberts was on his way to work when he decided to snap a few photos of the crackdown. “Immigration officers weren't stopping anyone who wasn't of an ethnic minority,” he told me. “There were white people stopped because they didn't have tickets, but that was dealt with by TFL." After being told by a police officer that he was “loitering on private property” and giving officers “reason to suspect [he] was involved in terrorism”, he was moved on.
“We routinely work with police forces all the time and carry out operations like this every year in London,” a Home Office spokesperson told me. “We take inappropriate behaviour by officers very seriously and have a comprehensive complaints process.”
And it's not just skin colour that can single you out; you could also be subject to questioning if you don't sound British. This month a British woman of Croatian descent successfully brought a discrimination claim against the Home Office for stopping her on the basis of sounding "foreign". According to her solicitor, Sophie Naftalin, the woman was "harassed and humiliated" by a dream team of those traditional purveyors of tolerance and decency: London Met police officers and immigration officials.
"My claimant doesn't have an English accent," Naftalin says. "And that's why they started to question her."
As if it even needs to be said, it's a little ill-advised to presume someone's immigration status on the basis of their accent or skin colour. You'd have thought that, working for the Home Office, these guys would know that London is a city with a large immigrant population and that a vast number of that population is white, meaning it's just as likely illegal immigrants would be white as any other race.
And besides their apparent rationale of racial profiling being illegal under the 2010 Equality Act, it also seems especially foolish – and hugely time-consuming – in an area like Kensal Green, where only 27.5 percent of residents are white.
UK Border Agency officers at Stratford station. (Photo via)
Clearly methods must be taken to suitably deal with immigrants who have entered the country illegally, but accosting people on the grounds of their skin colour – besides the obvious racist implications – hasn't even been proven to work. When I spoke to the Home Office, they refused to disclose the number of people who are actually deported after being caught out under these measures because it would reveal “operational intelligence”.
It seems the actual success rate of these stop checks isn't the government's primary concern. According to Jan Brulc from the Migrants' Rights Network, it's about "visibility, especially in public places". He continued: “The Home Office wants to give the impression that they are doing something about what is perceived as an issue.”
So basically the government has decided it can't afford to look soft on immigration, so they're bringing out the brawny, intimidating guys in stab proof vests to prove to xenophobes that they're looking out for their best interests.
The problem is that using stop checks to tackle illegal immigration is about as effective as using stop and search crackdowns to win the War on Drugs; you might catch one or two offenders, but in the process you end up alienating immigrants who are here on entirely legitimate grounds. It’s also a convenient way to let any ethnic minority Britons know that, no matter how long ago their great-great-grandma came over to the UK, they’ll always be regarded as looking (or sounding) a little bit "foreign" – and therefore suspect in the eyes of their own government.
True, not everyone agrees that immigration has been a good thing for Britain, and they’re well within their rights to think so. But that doesn't mean they should just watch on as the Home Office gets away with racial profiling, apprehending anyone they feel like on public transport for the deplorable criminal act of not being white.
While talking about his unpleasant run-in at Stratford station, Neil Roberts explained, “I live in the area. It's one of the most multicultural areas in the country and we don't need racist state officials coming down and targeting our neighbours. You know, there was so much fuss made at the time of the Olympics, celebrating multiculturalism. But almost a day to the year after the Olympics, you kind of think that, if Mo Farah was walking along trying to get to the stadium, he’d have been told to produce his papers, too.”
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