Migrants' Rights Network

Firewalls and Tunnels: Migrants Need Protecting from the State

The Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016 are well into the process of implementation. A slew of measures aimed at entrapping undocumented migrants will take effect in the weeks leading to January 2018, turning banks and building societies into agents of border enforcement. As the UK pursues its ‘hostile environment’, parts of the EU are, in stark contrast, recommending routes to protecting undocumented migrants from abuse and discrimination. What would it take to achieve this in ‘hostile’ Britain?


‘Firewalls’ and tunnels

A couple of weeks ago, PICUM and ECRI (Council of Europe) hosted an event to discuss how undocumented migrants could be safeguarded from discrimination, with a primary focus on ‘firewalls’: a means to prohibit the sharing of information between public and private services for  immigration enforcement purposes.

As I listened to the positive examples shared by Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands, it dawned on me that such ‘firewalls’ are being actively dismantled in the UK. Where these firewalls exist, the Government will have dug a tunnel underneath, finding ways to enlist public or private services in its obsession with immigration enforcement.

We have such a network of tunnels by now that you’d hope the foundations might collapse, and the whole plan would come tumbling down. But it seems that there is ever increasing boldness in pursuing some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Just last week, it was revealed that the Data Protection Bill, currently under examination in Parliament, creates an exemption to privacy rights for immigration investigations, and risks creating a “two-tier” data protection framework. Wherever we turn now, we hear of another, immigration-focused data-sharing agreement or privacy exemption coming out of the woodwork.

EU States v the UK

‘Firewalls’ exist in other European countries because these countries can see the benefits of treating undocumented migrants as rights-holders. This involves certain measures of protection from the State, in the name of humanity and dignity.

It is a fundamental principle of democratic rule that citizens be protected against institutions intruding upon their private data and personal lives. Undocumented migrants deserve similar protection, and while the State can decide their immigration status, this should not be a route toward abolishing people’s broader civil, social and political rights. As Professor Elspeth Guild put it, “We should remember that migrants don’t get to choose to their immigration status… this is decided by the State.”

Protecting undocumented migrants from abusive profiling has true social benefits. Take the example of the Amsterdam police force. Under the slogan a ‘Police for Everyone’, the Amsterdam police decided that its main objective was to reduce crime; it realised that in order to do so, it would have to create a space for undocumented migrants to come forward and report crimes, too. Otherwise, undocumented victims would continue to fall prey to exploitation and abuse, and the police would lose out on significant intelligence that migrant communities might hold.

This was an initiative not borne by the NGO or voluntary sector, but developed and championed by prominent members of the police force itself, who wanted to build trust with undocumented migrants and other marginalised communities.

The Amsterdam experiment is currently being turned in policy and will be implemented across all Dutch police forces. By separating – or ‘firewalling’ – crime response and immigration enforcement, the Dutch police will thus allow victims and witnesses to come forward without risking their own future. More fundamentally, this measure restores undocumented migrants their dignity and human rights by treating them as potential crime victims like everyone else.

Can ‘hostile Britain’ be reversed?

We are seeing very much the opposite trend in the UK. The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration recently cited examples in which the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ measures backfired by pushing people with insecure immigration status underground.

There have been rumblings of grassroots resistance, but we need a more concerted and unified approach. One avenue to beat back the ‘hostile environment’ is to support and organise with the individuals and professionals – in both private and public sectors – who are being asked to enforce invasive immigration rules. It might also be possible for local and regional authorities to provide their own protections for migrants, as has been the case in many EU cities and municipalities (and in so-called ‘sanctuary cities’ in the US). Will the Mayor of London, for example, stand up for undocumented migrants’ rights? Making London truly ‘open’ would require ensuring that migrants can count on local authorities to protect their privacy and other fundamental rights.  

As more and more migrants fall victim to invasive (and error-prone) Home Office monitoring, and as more and more professionals are asked to join the surveillance effort, can we shame the UK government into backtracking? Can grassroots resistance, supported by local and regional authorities, as well as key EU bodies, rebuild the firewalls necessary to protect undocumented migrants from State abuse?

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Fabien Cante

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