The government is building a network of spies to make immigrants' lives impossible

Just try renting a house on a valid student visa after the latest proposals go through.

In the last four years, I have applied for three different types of visas and changed flats four times in the UK. Neither are prospects I ever look forward to. The last time I was searching for a flat was just a few months ago. I saw a cosy flat in Wapping and, walking around the canal and the pretty cobbled streets, decided to put down the "offer money". The landlord refused the offer on the grounds that I was on a student visa (I wasn't – I was on a post-study work visa, but not many people know the difference). I knew at the time that my housing and visa woes were not over.

So when I found another flat that I liked, I explained to the agents that I only had three months left on my current visa but was soon going to apply for a work visa sponsored by my employer. Luckily, I have a permanent job with a well-known employer and the agents accepted my explanation as a convincing one. But it was only that – luck. The agents could have just as easily rejected my explanation.

Every time I have looked for a flat, I have dreaded this situation. I can’t help but think how easily it could get worse if the proposals to make private landlords responsible for checking their tenants’ immigration status are implemented. It is no secret that housing is tight in London and so landlords have a lot more power and decision-making authority than tenants do. It is not unimaginable that if a measure making landlords liable for their tenants’ migrant status is introduced, landlords (and agents) would prefer to not let their properties to migrants at all to avoid "hassle".

These measures are among a number of absurd anti-immigration measures that have been discussed and proposed quite forcefully ever since the prospect of Romanians and Bulgarians being able to move to the UK to live and work has emerged. These have ranged from a negative publicity campaign (that is, "Don’t come to the UK! It’s a dump!") to not allowing children of illegal immigrants to attend schools in the country (because it’s completely the children’s fault for letting their parents come to the country and stay as illegal immigrants). The measures mentioned in the Queen’s speech, the third to be delivered since the Tories took charge, are yet more of the same.

The idea, if we are to draw any coherence in the proposed measures, seems to be to install proxy immigration officers within all vital services to make it difficult for migrants to stay in the country illegally and/or become "benefits tourists". However, the implications of these measures will be beyond just illegal immigrants; in practice, they will affect all immigrants (even the "good ones").

Any migrant in the UK (and I imagine in other countries too) will speak of how life seems to revolve around paperwork at every step of settling into some kind of normalcy – documents to prove your national identity, documents to prove your residence status, documents to prove your "leave to remain", documents to prove your finances and so on. Thankfully, one of the few places I haven’t been asked to produce my passport and visa in order to register is health centres. All I’ve ever been asked for is a proof of address (which is easy to produce, at least once the housing situation has been resolved). Healthcare is a basic human right and I have always liked to think that it is recognised as such in the UK which is why I don’t have to demonstrate the legality of my residence in the country to be able to see a GP.

But now there is speculation about even the NHS becoming another proxy immigration officer by being required to determine the status of migrants before allowing them access to treatment. Would this mean that with three months left on my visa, I would have either limited or no access to a GP? Worse, what would happen to vulnerable migrants, such as domestic workers, who often become "illegal immigrants" because of circumstances not under their control?

Under the new visa rules for migrant domestic workers, domestic workers are no longer allowed to change employers or the type of employment. Domestic workers are often made to work as slaves and abused by their employers. The most significant implication of these changes is that if a domestic worker runs away from the employer, they immediately become illegal immigrants – that is, if they try to escape violence and abuse, they face deportation. Requiring NHS to check residence status of migrants before offering them treatment would mean that healthcare would become yet another service they can’t turn to.

The government’s anti-immigration rhetoric is sloppy populism. The proposals have clearly not been thought through and demonstrate no understanding of current immigration issues, including those caused by the many complicated rules around visas. It needs to be recognised and acknowledged that migrant statuses are not always very straightforward. There are also more complicated situations, such as mine, where my visa was about to run out and I knew I’d apply for a new one but had no evidence to prove that. Or, more importantly, such as that of migrant domestic workers who have to often choose to put up with abuse to continue living in the country to support their families back home.

Obviously, with such complicated situations, the distinction between the "good hardworking legal immigrant" and the "bad illegal leaching immigrant" is not always a clear one, but this anti-immigration discourse creates and contributes to the sentiment that all immigrants are bad, undesirable and to be suspected and scrutinised all the time.

This growing web of proxy immigration officers – schools, landlords, NHS – not only belies the incompetence of the Border Agency but is also immorally and unashamedly targeting basic human rights without any relevance to or understanding of the practical situation. What’s going to be next? Show your resident card before you can buy food?

Papers, please… Photograph: Getty Images

Asiya Islam is a feminist blogger and currently works as equality and diversity adviser at the London School of Economics. She tweets as @asiyaislam.

Getty
Show Hide image

Is TTIP a threat or an opportunity?

TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US - we should keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Barack Obama made it abundantly clear during his visit to the UK that if Britain left the European Union then it would be quite some time before we would be able to negotiate a trade deal with the United States. All the more reason to examine carefully what the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will mean for the UK. For Labour this is especially important because a number of trade unionists and Party members have expressed concerns about what TTIP could mean.

The economic worth of such a partnership between the European Union and the US has been questioned and it has been frequently stated that TTIP could give multinational companies unprecedented influence and undermine the British NHS.

With regard to the economic benefits of TTIP there are few that would argue that there are no economic gains to be achieved through the partnership. The question is to what extent economic growth will be stimulated. On the positive side the European Commission has argued that an agreement could bring economic gains of between €68 billion to €119 billion per year to the EU (0.3% to 0.5% of GDP) and €50 billion to €95 billion (0.2% to 0.4% of GDP) to the US. For Britain, this means that an agreement could add up to £10 billion annually to the UK economy.

On the negative side, a study commissioned by the European United Left/Nordic Green Left Group in the European Parliament has maintained that TTIP would bring only “limited economic gains”. These gains have to be weighed, it was argued, against the “downside risks”. Those risks have been identified as coming from the alignment of standards in areas such as consumer safety, environmental protection and public health.

These are important concerns and they should not be quickly dismissed. They are made all the more important because the existence of already low tariffs between the EU and the US make the negotiations to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade all the more significant.

There are a number of areas of concern. These include food standards and the regulation of GM crops and the worry that the EU’s focus on applying the environmental precautionary principle might be weakened. The European Commission, which has a responsibility for negotiating TTIP on behalf of the EU, is however acutely aware of these concerns and is mindful of its legal responsibility to uphold, and not to in any way weaken, the agreed legal standards to which the EU adheres. A concern has been expressed that irrespective of what European law may say, TTIP could undermine those standards. This I find difficult to accept because the ‘rule of law’ is absolutely central to the negotiations and the adoption of the final agreement.

But the EU is mindful of this concern and has brought forward measures which have sought to address these fears. The latest proposals from the Commission clearly set out that it is the right of individual governments to take measures to achieve public policy objectives on the level that they deem appropriate. As the Commission’s proposal states, the Agreement shall not affect the right of the parties to regulate within their own territories in order to achieve policy objectives including “the protection of public health, safety, environmental or public morals, social or consumer protection or promotion and protection of cultural diversity”.

Of course, this is not to suggest that there should not be vigilance, but equally I believe it would be wrong to assume the theoretical problems would inevitably become reality.

The main area of concern which has been expressed in Britain about TTIP relates to the NHS and the role of the private sector. Under the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions investors would be able to bring proceedings against a foreign government that is party to the treaty. This would be done in tribunals outside the domestic legal system. If a Government is found to be in breach of its treaty obligations the investor who has been harmed could receive monetary compensation or other forms of redress.

The concern is that the ISDS arrangements will undermine the ability of democratically elected governments to act on behalf of their citizens. Some have maintained that measures to open up the NHS to competition could be made irreversible if US companies had to be compensated when there is a change of policy from a future Labour Government.

In response to these concerns the European Commission has proposed an Investor Court System. This would be based on judgements being made by publicly appointed and experienced judges and that cases would only be brought forward if they were precisely defined. Specifically, it is proposed that cases would be limited to targeted discrimination on the basis of gender, race or religion, or nationality, expropriation without compensation or the denial of justice.

Why, you might ask, is there a need at all for a trans-national Investor Court System? The reason in part lies in the parlous state of the judicial systems in some of the relatively recent EU accession countries in Eastern Europe. To be frank, it is sadly the case that there are significant shortcomings in the judiciary of some countries and the rule of law is, in these cases, more apparent than real. It is therefore not unreasonable for investors to have an international framework and structure which will give them confidence to invest. It should also be noted that there is nothing proposed in TTIP which contradicts anything which is already in UK law.

We need to remember too that this is not only about US investment in Europe, it is also about European investment in the US. No US-wide law prohibits discrimination against foreign investors, and international law, such as free trade and investment agreements like TTIP, cannot be invoked in US courts. The Investor Court System would therefore benefit European companies, especially Small and Medium Sized Enterprises. 

It is of course impossible to come to a definitive conclusion about these provisions because the negotiations are ongoing. But it would surely be unwise to assume that the final agreement would inevitably be problematic.

This is especially true regarding the NHS. Last year Unite the Union commissioned Michael Bowsher QC to provide an opinion. His opinion was that “TTIP does pose a threat to a future government wishing to take back control of health services”. The opinion does not express a view on whether TTIP will “force” the privatisation of the health service (as some have claimed) and Bowsher admits that much of the debate is “conducted at a rather speculative level” and he has been unable to produce any tangible evidence to support his contention about future problems. On the other hand, it is the case that there is nothing in the proposed agreement which would alter existing arrangements for compensation. There are of course many legal opinions which underpin the view that existing legal arrangements would continue. While I accept that it is theoretically possible for the Bowsher scenario to occur, it is nevertheless extremely improbable. That is not to say that there ought not to be watertight safeguards in the agreement, but let us not elevate the extremely improbable to the highly likely.

A frequently heard criticism of TTIP is that the negotiations between the US and the EU are being conducted in ‘secret’.  Greenpeace, for example, has strongly sought to make this a central part of their campaign.  Although the Commission publishes EU position papers and negotiating proposals soon after they are tabled, it is impossible to see how complex negotiations of this kind can be practically conducted in public.  However, I believe that the draft agreement should be made public well before the final decisions are taken.

Once the negotiations have been concluded, the draft agreement will be presented to the European Council and the European Parliament, both of which have to agree the text. The European Council is, of course, made up of representatives of the governments of the EU and the European Parliament is democratically elected. Both Houses of the British Parliament will also debate the draft and there will need to be parliamentary approval of the agreement.

Transparency and democratic scrutiny are two things which there cannot be too much of. But, in practical terms, it is difficult to see how there could be more of either without making it nigh on impossible to secure such a complex agreement. Unite, of which I am a member, and others are quite right to express their concerns about TTIP, but let’s not exaggerate the potential difficulties and let’s not assume that the worst case scenario will always come about. TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US, and we should therefore at least keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Wayne David is the Labour MP for Caerphilly and is Shadow Minister for Political Reform and Justice. He is a former Shadow Europe Minister and was a junior minister in the last Labour government.