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.

Photo: Getty
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David Cameron's prisons speech could be the start of something good

If the Prime Minister puts his words into action, then this speech could mark the beginning of a big shift on prisons policy. 

David Cameron’s speech condemning prisons as violent and failing could herald a seismic change in policy. He is absolutely right to point to the waste of money, effort and lives that characterises today’s prison system. He is also right about the direction of travel that needs to be taken and some of his ideas are at the very least worthy of discussion. The most important reform was missing, as none of his aspirations can happen unless the sheer number of men, women and children in prison is cut, and cut radically. Sentencing reform is the lynchpin.

The detailed proposals will be scrutinised as they are rolled out over the coming months, but the urgent over-riding challenge is to cut the prison population. Last week the number of men in prison increased by 185, and in the last four weeks the prison population has gone up by 684 men and women. Prison overcrowding is not standing still, it is rapidly deteriorating.

Chris Grayling closed 18 prisons and wings, reallocating the population into the shrunk estate. He cut prison staff by more than a third in each prison. The result was overcrowded, understaffed, violent prisons full of drugs and very disaffected staff trying to control frustrated prisoners on restricted regimes.

I was expecting some thinking on who we send to prison and what we do with them when they are incarcerated to create the conditions for radical reform. I was disappointed as the proposals were oddly reminiscent of things that Labour tried and contributed to this mess in the first place.

Labour was very proud of building lots of new prisons, hoping that they would build their way out of an overcrowding crisis. What happened of course was that new prisons were filled even before they were completed so the old prisons couldn’t be closed. Today we hear that £1.3 billion will be spent on building ‘reform prisons’ that will pilot new ways of working. My worry is that they will become warehouses unless the sheer number of prisons is restricted and resources are allocated to allow for just the sort of flexibility being proposed.

Giving governors more autonomy sounds good, and I support it in principle, but they always used to have their own budgets with discretion to choose how to spend it, including commissioning education and other services. It is no good having increased autonomy if they are constantly firefighting an overcrowding crisis and not given the resources, including well trained prison staff, to implement new ideas.

We already have league tables for prisons. Every few months assessments of how prisons are performing are published, along with regular inspections and independent boards monitor conditions. Reoffending rates are published but this information is less robust as prisoners tend to move round the system so how can one establishment be accountable.

I was pleased to hear that work inside prisons is going to be a key reform. But, the Prime Minister referred to a small project in one prison. Projects with desultory training in the few hours that men get to spend out of their cells will not instil a work ethic or achieve work readiness. Prisoners get a pack of cereals and a teabag at night so they don’t have breakfast, are not showered or clean, are wearing sweaty and shabby clothes.

Every day men and women are released from prison to go to work in the community as part of their programme of reintegration. This is extremely successful with incredibly few failures. So what is the point of adding extra expense to the public by tagging these people, unless the purpose is just to feed the coffers of the private security companies.

There are imaginative ways of using technology but what was being suggested today looks as though it is just adding restrictions by tracking people. That would be neither creative nor effective.

David Cameron is looking to his legacy. I fear that I could be listening to a Prime Minister in five or ten years bewailing the dreadful prison conditions in institutions that are no different to today’s overcrowded dirty prisons, except that they were built more recently. He will have achieved a massive investment of capital into expanding the penal estate but, whilst there will be more prisons, even the new jails could be overcrowded, stinking and places of inactivity and violence.

I want the Prime Minister to look back on today’s speech with pride because it achieved humanity in a system that is currently failing. I would like to see a prison system in decades to come that is purposeful, with men and women busy all day, getting exercise for the mind, body and soul. I would like to see prisons that only hold people who really need to be there because they have committed serious and violent crimes but whose lives will be turned around, who achieve redemption in their own eyes and that of victims and the public.

My job is to hold him to account for this vision. If what he announced today achieves radical reform and changes lives for the better, I will cheer. I will be watching.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.