EU: Policing immigration: Britain and Europe

(Statewatch bulletin, vol 5 no 2, March-April 1995)

There is an irony in the recent seizure by British politicians of the right of the proposed abolition of internal border controls as a pretext for raising the racist spectre of hordes of illegals and scroungers swarming in to Britain. For thepriorities of the French presidency of the EU for the first six months of 1995, and its proposals for joint actions, reveal the continuing obsession of the EU states with defining, identifying and excluding more and more people as "illegal". In the process, the lineaments of a Euro-police state have become more clearly drawn.

The French presidency proposals describe as their main priority combating unauthorised immigration and illegal employment of foreign nationals not authorised to work in the EU. They aim at approximating national policies on controlling and combating clandestine immigration. To that end, a proposal for a joint action by the EU member states has been circulated among ministers for their agreement. This would commit member states to imposing requirements on foreign nationals to carry and produce on demand residence and identity documents.

Under the joint action proposal, systematic checks would be carried out:

* when an offence was investigated or prosecuted (whether or not suspects only, or only victims and witnesses as well, the document does not say);

* to "ward off threats to public order on specific occasions (demonstrations, sporting events, open air concerts) or in specific places (sensitive neighbourhoods, the Underground)".

* in frontier zones, ports, airports and railway stations handling international traffic;

* when the competent authorities "have questioned a foreign national for any reason whatsoever".

Foreign nationals must carry ID and residence documents with them at all times

Benefits in the area of health, retirement, family benefit, work-related or housing benefit are all to be contingent on verification of legal residence. Employers must verify the immigration status of workers before employing them, and will be punished for employing undocumented workers.

Each member State is to set up a central file with details of the immigration status of all foreign nationals in the country.

They are to take measures to guard against forgery of residence documents and documents providing proof of nationality, and "shall take every measure to reinforce means of identifying foreign nationals not in a lawful position" and with no travel or ID documents.

Detention for expulsion is to be mandatory for irregular workers, in "non-prison" accommodation, to enable them to be identified and returned. Those who refuse to supply travel documents or otherwise "bring about their illegal position" may be sent to prison. The requirement to carry identity and residence documents would make it necessary in practice for anyone likely to be stopped to carry proof of their right be in the territory. In practice, it is black people who are most likely to be stopped. The draft says that immigration status checks must be carried out in a "non-discriminatory manner", and assessment of who constitutes a foreign national "shall be based solely on objective criteria which comply with non-racist and non-xenophobic principles". This means, presumably, that the police can stop a black man on any ground other than his colour. It is meaningless.

The Pasqua-isation of Europe

Similar provisions were introduced in France two years ago, when the right won power, by the hard-line, strongly anti-Islam interior minster Charles Pasqua (see Statewatch vol 3 no 3). There have been constant and widespread allegations of police racism and brutality in carrying out the ID checks on the metro and elsewhere, and several immigrant youth have been killed by police since the increased powers were introduced. They also appear to be used as a means of punishment or revenge on whole communities; for example, 10,000 north Africans were subjected to ID checks by police in the immediate aftermath of the killing of two French people in Algeria in the summer of 1994.

Systematic ID and status checks and computerised files on all immigrants will provide the means of effective police control of Europe's immigrant and black communities. Their combination with employer sanctions and the barring of those unable to produce the right documents from all welfare benefits, will drive desperate migrant workers and de facto (but unrecognised) refugees deeper into illegality and modern slavery.

UK response

At present, the Home Office response to the proposal is cautious. Its publicly expressed view is that the provisions should not be legally binding: "The provisions of this joint action relating to identity checks, checks on immigration status linked to the delivery of certain public services and employer sanctions have considerable policy implications, which the government could not accept as binding obligations."

However, it adds that it is currently preparing a green paper examining possible options for the introduction of an ID card system in the UK. It also says that it is examining issues of linking benefit availability to entitlement in a "scrutiny of inter-agency co-operation in the enforcement of the immigration laws". At present there is no central record of all foreign nationals present in the UK and their status. The government is not convinced on the desirability of employer sanctions, being concerned at the "additional burden" on employers. It is content for the provisions to remain in the draft, so long as they are "permissive" and not mandatory.

Howard's proposals

However, in a separate announcement in March, Home Secretary Michael Howard disclosed his intention to tighten up even more on "bogus" asylum-seekers. The proposals include forcing employers to run immigration checks on new workers and punishing those who hire illegal workers. In addition, benefits to asylum-seekers are to be cut from their current rate of 90% of Income Support (about £40 per week). Further measures include abolishing oral appeal hearings for those asylum-seekers whose claims are deemed "manifestly unfounded", denying asylum to people from a list of "safe" countries, and imposing visa requirements on citizens of more countries.

The announcement came a month after ex-immigration minister Charles Wardle resigned from his new post in the Department of Trade because of his unhappiness at the Single European Act of 1987. The resignation bemused observers, but did its job, setting off wild speculation about millions of illegal immigrants, terrorists, drug-smugglers and so on strolling through a passport-free Europe to come to Britain. Equally importantly, it came three months after a firm of accountants, KPMG Peat Marwick, commissioned to study the operation of the immigration appeals system, reported that the "practical and effective" options to speed up the flow of appeals were the introduction of more visa restrictions, the publication of a "white list" of countries deemed not to put asylum-seekers at risk, and the removal of multiple appeal rights. The report recognised that "such options are not easy politically". They clearly become a lot easier when preceded by a month of media scare stories.

Which leaves the question: who is influencing the Home Secretary on immigration and asylum policy: his EU partners, or a firm of accountants?

Sources: Proposal for a joint action on harmonising means of combating illegal immigration and illegal employment and improving the relevant means of control, Note from the future French Presidency to: Migration Working Party (Expulsion), ref: 12336.94, Restricted ASIM 242, 22.12.94; Review of Asylum Appeals Procedure: Final Report, Home Office/Lord Chancellor's Department. Prepared by KPMG Peat Marwick, December 1994.

Statewatch bulletin, 1995