UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, January 2021. (No 10/Flickr)
They say that in the UK, you’re never more than 6ft from a rat. It’s an urban myth, but it’s now true that you’re rarely much more than 6ft from a border. Hospitals are sites of bordering, as are banks, schools, rented homes, and workplaces.
On Wednesday, the border got closer for about six million of us. While we were all trading outrage at the hypocrisy of pandemic parties at No. 10, the Nationality and Borders Bill passed quietly through the House of Commons. It’s an outrageously hateful piece of legislation, but it’s important to see it in its broader context as the latest consolidation of the ‘hostile environment’.
Like much of the rest of Europe, the UK’s leading philosophy when it comes to migrants is that it’s better if they die before they get here. They can perish in the countries they are desperate to leave, or on the treacherous journeys they make, packed into lorries or clutching battered dinghies on the English Channel.
For those lucky enough to reach these shores alive, the hostile environment kicks in to immiserate, tyrannise, and make them wish they’d never bothered. The hostile environment is the UK’s internal border, and it operates to persistently discipline and punish those with the audacity to enter. Unlike the physical borders we encounter at airports and land crossings, the hostile environment isn’t a spatial barrier. Rather, it is a force-field of misery and suspicion, a set of traps and deterrents distributed across a range of essential services and institutions including healthcare, housing, education, employment, banking, marriage, and citizenship.
Since the Immigration Act of 2014, a raft of ordinary people have been co-opted into the state’s border enforcement, bringing us into a new regime of everyday bordering. Landlords are now required to check the immigration status of their tenants, and risk fines or imprisonment if they neglect this duty. Hospital patients are asked to evidence their right to receive care, or else pay extortionate upfront sums for it. (Many undocumented migrants are deterred from seeking care at all, which can lead to complications and premature death.) In practice, shortcuts are taken: those who look ‘foreign’ are more likely to be pressed for documentation. Racial profiling has been given a free pass, and many of us have been forced to become complicit.
Attacking the non-white within.
Undocumented migrants are the stated target of the hostile environment. They are made to suffer for attempting to live in the UK ‘illegally’. Recall that Theresa May’s aim as home secretary was “to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration.” But the government knows that British racism runs broader and deeper than the details of who is legally entitled to be here. The hostile environment is deliberately indistinct and overzealous. If it spills over and harms those who have the legal right to be here, like asylum seekers, refugees, or the Windrush migrants and their descendants – all the better; it’ll keep them and others in line. If it hurts British-born people of colour, too – all part of the plan; overenthusiastic borders are a show of strength. The marginalisation of those who don’t belong, or whose belonging is supposed to always feel provisional, is intended to be fervent and conspicuous. It’s a reminder that Britain is for the British, and British means white.
Here I am working in the NHS.
I came to this country as a child refugee.
I have only ever had a British passport & only ever considered myself a British citizen.
Article 9 of the bill, entitled ‘Notice of decision to deprive a person of citizenship,’ turns up the dial on the British Nationality Act of 1981 and extends the reach of the hostile environment. 40 years ago, the government granted itself the right to revoke citizenship where “deprivation is conducive to the public good” (where the state defines the “public good”). In 2014, May twisted the knife with a vicious amendment: she could remove citizenship even if it left a person stateless. The latest amendments permit the government to strip a person of their citizenship without warning or explanation. Why does that clause matter? Because it’s a threat: be on your best behaviour, or we can get rid of you at a moment’s notice. If this sounds like something from the play book of the ultra-right – it is.
Those who are most vulnerable to this legislation are foreign-born British citizens and British-born citizens who are eligible for other citizenships. My father is a foreign-born naturalised citizen, and I am a dual national. We belong to a well-populated category: there are nearly six million of us with the border breathing down our necks. It’s an unambiguously racist piece of legislation: 40% of people of colour in UK could face citizenship deprivation without notice, as opposed to 5% of white people. While the threat is decades old, the government’s new powers heighten the sense that insecurity is right around the corner. We are literally second-class citizens, and we are all on probation. (This is how they beat so-called good immigrants into shape.) Brushes with the law will take on sinister stakes. Lapses in judgement could end in deportation. Daft, impressionable children (like Shamima Begum, who was born in the UK) can be abandoned to countries they’ve never known.
Brutality without, a police state within.
However brutal Britain’s internal borders are, things will always be worse at its edges. The bill will also intensify the dangers of the Channel. Helping someone to get to the UK safely is now a crime even if it’s not “for gain”, which makes rescuers equivalent to smugglers. The maximum sentence for violations has been ramped up from 14 years to life. Meanwhile, UK border police engaging in “pushback” operations to force boats to turn around won’t be culpable if those on board subsequently drown. Saving lives is an offence; letting people die is a service to the nation.
We should obviously protest the bill, but our ability to resist is also under threat. Another piece of authoritarian legislation, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, is currently making its way through the House of Lords, and will criminalise almost all traditional forms of protest. Causing disruption will be unlawful, as will stopping traffic. 51-week jail sentences await transgressors. Those engaged in civil disobedience might meet the unspecified threshold at which the removal of their citizenship is deemed to be “conducive to the public good”. With the threat of deportation layered upon increased vulnerability to police violence, will Black and minority ethnic young people be able to attend climate protests to fight for their futures? Will communities of colour feel able to resist the encroaching racism? Whose voices will these interlocking laws silence? And who will they come for next?
Arianne Shahvisi is a writer and academic philosopher whose work focuses on gender, race, and migration. She is writing a book on the philosophy of social justice.