Working as an immigration barrister is an absolute privilege. My work is intellectually rewarding, requiring me to read about countries and conflicts around the world. The pay is generally better than criminal barristers’. Most importantly, it is my job to fight alongside some of the bravest, and yet most vulnerable, people you can imagine: my clients.
Part of a barrister’s privilege is that we get to speak and be heard where our migrant clients do not. Differences in status and language unjustly dictate that certain types of people are routinely excluded from describing their experiences. My job isn’t to speak on my clients’ behalf, but to amplify and centre the reality of their suffering and resilience.
Today I’m on the immigration bail applications. I have one in the morning, one in the afternoon. I’m unable to have a conference with my morning client because my solicitors, who act pro bono, can’t afford an interpreter. I’m left to rely on my solicitors’ prior instructions.
My first case comes before the judge. My client appears via video-link. He moved to the UK in 2006 from an ex-British colony, but ran out of immigration status and now faces removal.
The case quickly runs aground after the representative for the Home Office refuses to liaise with probation to check if an address is suitable. My client isn’t even on license anymore, so probation have nothing more to do with him and their approval shouldn’t even be necessary. He also has an outstanding asylum appeal, so he can’t be removed from the country anyway. Which begs the question: why is he in detention?
Immigration lawyers often rely on a concept called “bail in principle”. In theory this allows for a provisional grant of bail while minor administrative technicalities, like landlord or probation approval, are resolved. Despite judicial guidance outlining its availability, it is seldom granted.
The Home Office presenting officer in my case opposes bail in principle. He argues that it “tends to impose an administrative burden” on the Home Office. His official position is that the Home Office’s administrative convenience is more important than my client’s liberty.
The address issue persists, and the wheels come off our bail application. My client will need to wait 28 days before having another go. At that new hearing, some new nitpicker will try to find yet another, minuscule reason why we can’t be released.
I don’t get to see my client after the hearing. He is a bundle of papers that comes alive for the hearing, only to disappear into the shelves of my office and the labyrinth of Home Office bureaucracy.
I sit in a cafe and prepare for my afternoon hearing. I read how ‘Afternoon Client’ received a 16 month sentence after committing a violent offence. I read how ‘Afternoon Client’ was tortured.
“Tortured” as in medically corroborated descriptions of people dying in front of her. As in boiling water poured over her by her captors. As in multiple scars running the length of her back. Her trauma led to a recent suicide attempt while in Home Office detention. It’s truly horrific stuff. I feel vicariously traumatised just reading it. And yet she faces deportation.
Let’s be clear: this is double punishment. A Brit would not face what she now faces. The deportation regime is utterly and unambiguously racist. One rule for those with the relevant immigration document, another for those without.
The case is called on. My client appears via video link. I take the judge through the harrowing account of my client’s torture, and ask for bail in principle, subject to the Home Office sorting out an address. This whole farce had occurred a few months prior: bail in principle granted, Home Office fail to provide an address, client stays stuck in detention.
The judge shows mercy. The torture victim should be released “in principle” i.e. if an address can be found in the next two weeks. A half-victory. Again, I have no chance to congratulate my client. She leaves the video-link room at the detention centre. That’s probably the last time I’ll see her.
I walk to the bus stop and think about how much I hate my job. I hate it. The way I’m made to feel sentimental for being so overwhelmed with emotion at the realisation, the repeated reminder, that we “the British” consistently and deliberately do this to people who are already so vulnerable.
A person suffers horrendous trauma. She attempts suicide mere months prior to the hearing. The Home Office presenting officer has the barefaced inhumanity to argue that the interests of a suicidal, traumatised torture victim consist in yet more time in detention. How can we even form words to answer such barbarity?
My job often leaves me feeling despair. I don’t have hope that Corbyn will make a difference. His manifesto pledges 500 more border guards. The Labour party under his leadership were useless in opposing the Tories’ most recent immigration bill.
I also don’t have hope that the xenophobic British public will suddenly turn against immigration removal and force their representatives to shut down these detention centres. The British working class are an imperial labour aristocracy in decline. Protracted financial crisis is causing many of them to blame migrants instead of the wealthy.
And I’m starting to lose hope that “bail in principle” even exists. My hopes have been so narrowed, so whittled down, by this system that I can barely stand to do my job anymore. I’ve gone from a belief in a borderless, classless humanity motivated by love and solidarity, to the meagre hope that a devastated, wretched client might be released from a privately-run prison-for-foreigners, and allowed to nurse herself back to some semblance of health.
I try to cheer myself up. One out of two isn’t bad for immigration bail applications. Maybe this time the Home Office will sort out an address. You can’t let despair take hold or you’re fucked. And in spite of it all I do have hope: it’s the only way that I can do the job I do. While we fight alongside our clients on the front line, we hope some general is out there tackling the big picture, winning the war.
And important victories are being won along the way. The Stansted 15 provided an inspiring example. After activists bravely disrupted a deportation charter flight, several migrants managed to snatch the extra time needed to fight their cases. As a direct result, 13 of those set to be deported are still in this country.
I receive a call from my office. An 18 year old has contacted my clerks. I met him at a case management hearing a few months back, where he didn’t have a lawyer. He lived here most of his life, but faces deportation to Jamaica. A solicitor has agreed to act for him before his hearing tomorrow. This is outrageously last minute. I’ll be up all night preparing to represent yet another kid caught up in the British border.
These stories are tedious. They’re trite. Right-on barristers humble-bragging about how interesting their day job is. Let me be clear: barristers aren’t the victims in this. We get well paid to do incredibly rewarding work.
But our jobs shouldn’t exist. This violence isn’t necessary. I shouldn’t need to attend court to beg that a confirmed torture victim be released from administrative detention. I shouldn’t need to represent a Jamaican kid facing deportation to an ex-British colony. It’s madness.
Mostly I feel raw. I hate how this job makes me feel like I’m going mad, when in reality our society is going mad. Mad to let the Home Office get away with this time and time again. Mad to treat fellow humans with such bureaucratic savagery.
I hate this. I hate that at the end of an emotionally exhausting day in court, and after typing out what happened for my solicitor, I have to eschew so-called sentimentality of wanting to break down and cry for my clients.
Dismantling the British imperial border is one of the biggest tasks facing today’s British Left. It is difficult to imagine the end of such a deeply entrenched institution. But ending immigration detention is a more conceivable sub-goal: its current form is a recent, Blair-inspired phenomenon. Together we must fight to reverse it and make jobs like mine redundant.