I’m proud to live in Kensal Green, in the London Borough of Brent. Its biggest asset is the diversity of its people, with the strength of our community demonstrated by strong local campaigns to prevent the building of a nearby waste incinerator and to save the local library.
All of which makes what happened on 30 July even more remarkable.
As I approached the Kensal Green tube station, where I catch the Bakerloo Line to work every morning, I could see a group of burly men blocking the entrance to the station. As I got closer, I realised they were uniformed UK Border Agency officers, complete with protective vests and walkie-talkies.
I asked them what they were doing and was told it was a random check of identity documents to find illegal immigrants. They didn’t seem interested in me and I walked straight through, but the two Asian women who entered the station after me were stopped, taken to one side and questioned.
Even as a young man, over six feet tall, with the confidence of a free born Englishman who knows he has nothing to hide, I found this whole experience to be extremely intimidating. The station I use twice a day had suddenly taken on the suspicious air of a border crossing.
I shared my experience on Twitter and found many people had experienced the same feelings and problems. Another resident, Phil O’Shea, told the local paper how he found the behavior of the UKBA staff to be “heavy-handed and frightening” and how when he asked what was going on he “was threatened with arrest for obstruction and was told to ‘crack on’.”
I’ve no doubt that there is a problem of illegal immigration which needs to be tackled, but surely this is the wrong tactic in the wrong place.
Very close to the tube station is a hostel, and many of the people who were stopped will have been foreign tourists – perhaps here for the one-year anniversary of the Olympics – on their way to see the sites. At a time when we need all the money from tourists we can get, what message are we sending back out across the world? Britain: a place where you sometimes need a passport to board a tube.
Brent already feels under attack. We are the borough which is hit worse than any other in London by the bedroom tax and benefit cap and the last thing we need is anything with the potential to split the local community.
As a diverse borough we were also one of the areas chosen for the Home Office’s infamous “go home or face arrest” vans. With UKBA officers arriving just a week later local people will begin to worry what is next. Should we start carrying our passport with us to the supermarket, or cinema, or park, in case we are stopped and asked for it there?
The rules are clear. Immigration checks cannot be speculative, the UKBA must have a clear reason to suspect someone is an immigration offender before carrying out an on-the-spot check. Kensal Green does have a very diverse community, but surely this is not enough of a reason to target the station. Local people deserve a clear answer from the Home Office as to why we were chosen. (You can see the Home Office’s statement on the incident here.)
I fear this whole episode was more about posturing than a real desire to deal with the problem of illegal immigration.
Speak to any immigration caseworker and they will tell you that once an appeal to remain is exhausted and an applicant told to leave, the follow-up is very slow, or none-existent. Targeting resources at these people – who the UKBA have addresses for – would surely be more prudent. As would a real desire to enforce the legal minimum wage across the capital, which removes the demand for illegal immigrant workers.
Instead we get four large guys blocking the entrance to a tube stop located on a quiet residential road. The government may feel the need to shore up their right wing under threat from UKIP, but it’s not fair that people in Kensal Green should pay the price for that.