A teenage boy is forced to remain in Ukraine while his paperwork to come to the UK is processed. “Pop-up” visa centres for Ukrainians travelling through France to the UK keep moving from city to city, with no option to book an appointment, leaving people to gather in lines for hours on end. A mother and her two-year-old son are told they need a paper visa before they can come to the UK, so they have to travel to another city in Poland. These stories of the cruelty of the UK’s hostile environment for immigrants are not the exception, but the rule.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the end of February, more than 6.5m Ukrainians have fled their country, seeking refuge and safety in Europe and, in many cases, in the UK. Despite significant public outcry, Priti Patel’s Home Office first responded with apathy—before announcing a bespoke scheme for Ukrainian migrants to come to the UK.
But as the British government knows, you cannot construct a labyrinthine network of paperwork to uphold the immigration system, and then choose to turn it off for those deemed worthy of safety whenever suits. Bureaucracy is not the inadvertent outcome of the UK’s immigration system, but one of its foundations, continuously drawing arbitrary lines between those who are deemed to deserve refuge and those who aren’t. The UK’s immigration system is, like many others, a conglomerate of policies and objectives that carry out the aims of the governing party, many of which are set to become more inhumane with the Borders Bill. Policies that are notable for their blatant cruelty, such as the Home Office’s decision to open an offshore processing centre for migrants in Rwanda, are upheld by systems of paperwork, interviews and other kinds of box-checking exercises.
The most recent iteration of this is the “hostile environment” created by Theresa May when she was home secretary in 2012—a raft of policies and objectives designed to make living in the UK more difficult for irregular migrants. As Will Davies explains in his article on the Windrush scandal in the London Review of Books, “it’s almost as if, on discovering that law alone was too blunt an instrument for deterring and excluding immigrants, May decided to weaponise paperwork instead.” This “hostile environment” extended the borders of the UK ever inwards through document checks and paperwork, along with the threat of physical violence—immigration raids, deportation—always hovering under the surface.
As many others have pointed out, the UK’s—and other parts of the west’s—warm welcome to people fleeing conflict in Ukraine only throws into sharp relief its abominable treatment of those who have come from other countries, which inevitably hews across racialised faultlines. Unfortunately, there are countless examples of the cruelty behind the UK’s immigration bureaucracy.
By mid-2021, there were more than 65,000 people waiting for a decision on their asylum claim in the UK, many of whom for over a year, unable to work, travel, rent or move on with their lives. Whistleblowers from the Home Office have spoken about the pressures faced by staff, saying that there is an “indifference to suffering demonstrated by the Home Office” that leads to an exhausted and demoralised workforce. Others argue that there are good intentions, just fundamental misallocations of staff, funding and effort. Even so, these delays, the red tape and the endless waiting game that many migrants are still entangled in altogether produce the needless violence of the UK’s migration policy. These bureaucratic processes destroy lives and communities, but their mundanity makes these outcomes seem inadvertent.
It is at the site of the mundane—a document check or a rote piece of paperwork—that the UK’s borders are made visible, just as ordinary people seek to go about their lives. Since 2012, many asylum seekers who are awaiting a decision on their application have to physically go to a local “reporting centre,” a nondescript building run by the Home Office, to confirm that they are still in the UK. At any visit—whether it is weekly, monthly or in rarer cases daily—people can be taken away to a detention centre, marked for either indefinite detention or deportation. All this serves to do is remind vulnerable people of their insecure status in the UK under the guise of a document check. In 2018, the Windrush scandal typified how so many of the seemingly “normal” elements of the immigration system in the UK were turned against vulnerable communities. Trevor Donald was deported to Jamaica—which he had left when he was 11—and was then refused residency in the UK on the basis of his absence from the UK at the time he was appealing. Thousands of people who fled Afghanistan in August, another group of people who seemed to have significant public support, continue to languish in hotels, with no updates from the Home Office. They are stuck in limbo, as the paperwork that details their lives sits on office desks around London.
The past few years of increasing fortification across Europe and elsewhere, of ever more high-tech border walls and deterrents, has been met with the boundless determination of many to continue to move. The violence produced by the UK’s immigration system is not unique to Britain, but it is not inevitable either. The least we can do is resist attempts to frame it as so.