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26 March 2009

A dangerous paranoia

The Home Office is attempting to sell the concept of ID cards to the public by claiming they are an

By Sigrid Rausing

I thought I would write a column about national identity cards in the context of civil liberties, inefficiency and cost. What I found instead was that the Home Office is conceptualising ID cards as a way of controlling immigrants.

On the Home Office website, it states: “Each applicant will have their fingerprints and an image of their face taken to lock them securely to one identity, and to help businesses crack down on illegal working . . . Ultimately, identity cards will be mandatory for all foreign nationals.”

The cards, according to the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, “demonstrate our commitment to preventing immigration abuse”. There’s a link to a promotional video, too, posted on YouTube. It starts with Smith in a storm of flashlights. “Foreign nationals living and working and studying here legally,” she begins, “want to be able to prove that easily, and we want to be able to prevent those here illegally from benefiting from the privileges of Britain.”

The Home Office Border and Immigration Agency published a document on 6 March 2008 entitled Introducing Compulsory Identity Cards for Foreign Nationals. It states: “Our roll-out strategy targets risk and maximises efficiency.” One might be forgiven some scepticism. National data-handling has not been associated with security and efficiency so far. But the failures of data-handling are not the point. The point is that the identity card project is actually, covertly, about immigration policy.

Thus Liam Byrne, the former minister of state for borders and immigration and now a cabinet enforcer, states in the foreword to the March document that the government will reduce risk “by tackling higher-risk categories, such as students and people applying for leave to remain for marriage”. The document lists the questions the authors of the plan asked themselves as they worked out the logistics: “Who commits criminal activity while in receipt of leave to remain? Who gains leave fraudulently? Whose identity is used for leave applications without their knowledge? Who breaches their leave conditions? What kind of documents are potential routes to abuse?”

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I defy anyone not to sense an association between the notions of foreign nationals and criminality in that text. Illegal immigrants have, in effect, been criminalised – but, unlike British criminals, they are without recourse to any help: “Those here illegally will find it increasingly difficult to access work, benefits and other privileges of UK life.”

The Home Office is blurring the concepts of “foreign subject” and “illegal immigrant”. It emphasises the importance of “locking down” individual immigrant identities, particularly of “high-risk” groups. This tendentious language trickles down to the detention centres. It sends a message to immigration officials and the police, and to the individuals whose job it is to remove illegal immigrants. The message is simple: Foreign = risk.

Bail for Immigration Detainees is a small NGO that helps some of the 30,000 or so illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers detained in Britain every year. (Annual numbers of detainees are no longer published by the UK Border Agency, so this figure, which dates from 2006, may now be an underestimate.) They believe that long periods of detention have become “normalised”, because detainees have the right to appeal every 28 days. The problem (or the solution, depending on your point of view) is that the appeals nearly always fail.

The detainees are a pretty random selection of illegals. Some are arrested after years or even decades of residence. Some are parents, taken away from their families, which themselves may have a right to remain.

I visited the Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire a couple of years ago. The outdoor space for mothers and children was then an empty wedge-shaped yard, enclosed within razor wire coiled on top of a high fence. In the women’s ward there was a mix of detainees: eastern European, Caribbean, African and Chinese, many of them trafficked. I remember that the guards had quite illegally removed diaries from the women, claiming, falsely, that they were not allowed to keep written records of their detention.

Seeing the young Russian women in that room, I was struck by how ironic it was that one of our criticisms of the Soviet Union was that it refused to allow its citizens to emigrate. We thought of the people who tried and failed to leave as victims of excessive state power. Now we intern young people from Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union before we return them. We think of them as illegal immigrants, the trashy flotsam of our porn and prostitution industries, without families, childhood memories, hopes and longings.

Arthur Koestler’s memoir of life in France before the war, Scum of the Earth, is a scathing indictment of the French treatment of foreigners: exhausted communists from Germany and Spain, Jewish refugees, Russian émigrés and a handful of fascists. Many, including Koestler, were eventually interned in Le Vernet camp and forced to do heavy manual labour on inadequate food rations, subjected to the petty sadism of the camp guards. Xenophobia led to Le Vernet, which, in turn, was just a step away from the deportations of Jews from Vichy.

In the years before I was granted “permanent leave to remain” in Britain, I had to register annually at the London alien registration office (appropriately located in Lunar House). What now strikes me as odd was the thinly veiled hostility and condescension of the staff. We, the aliens, sat submissively on the orange plastic chairs, moving up one chair at a time to follow the queue.

Most members of my husband’s Hungarian Jewish family were killed in the Holocaust. History has taught us that xenophobia is too dangerous to be used as a political tool. It is a discredit to this government that it is doing exactly that.

The author is a publisher and head of the Sigrid Rausing Trust. For more information go to: