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.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.