There’s a flashback in one of the early episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, the TV version of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, where June, the protagonist, tries to pay for a coffee under the new regime and her card is declined. She discovers that every woman’s bank account has been frozen, and she is now entirely reliant on her partner for money. Deprived of money, she realises, there is even less chance she can flee. It is a remarkable reminder of the way the state can control the population with the click of a button.
The government’s decision to force banks and building societies to freeze the accounts of failed asylum seekers, foreign national offenders and visa overstayers has a ring of The Handmaid’s Tale – only in this case, Theresa May really wants them to leave. As home secretary, she oversaw the creation of “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, including requiring landlords to check their tenant’s immigration status, and a “deport first, appeal later” policy.
There are four problems with this kind of measure, aside from making The Handmaid’s Tale look more and more credible and Theresa May seem more and more like its draconian enforcer Aunt Lydia. First, there is the question of whether the punishment fits the crime. Around half of asylum claims are rejected, and the legal battles are complex. The Home Office recently disobeyed court orders by deporting Samim Bigzad to Afghanistan (he spent days holed up in a hotel there before, in the glare of negative publicity, the Home Office agreed to bring him back). Should the penalty for being on the wrong end of one of these disputes be absolute poverty and starvation, not to mention being unable to pay for legal advice?
Second, there is the risk of over-enforcement, combined with a lack of accountability. Half of landlords interviewed about the immigration checks said they were less likely to rent to a foreigner, according to Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants research. Given private renters already struggle to receive basic rights, to whom should the foreign renter appeal?
Then there’s the banks’ existing record on blacklisted accounts. Banks do need to be able to freeze accounts – hey there, money launderers – but they also make mistakes. In 2016, Maajid Nawaz, the founder of the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam, who has advised Tony Blair and David Cameron, nevertheless discovered he was an international blacklist because of his support as a young man for a non-violent Islamist group. HSBC closed the bank accounts of Syrians in the UK en masse based on a risk assessment.
Third, one of May’s few insights on immigration has been the widespread existence of exploitation and slavery in the UK. Employers that exploit workers already prefer to pay (very little) cash in hand. Traffickers demand free labour to pay back debts and accommodation costs. If vulnerable immigrants with an uncertain status are forced out of the visible economy, they are ripe for the recruiting by unscrupulous bosses.
Finally, the problem with tinkering with the environment – as any climate change scientist knows – is that you can’t control the consequences. May’s measures seem designed to target a group of people without a voice while winning approval in the right-wing press. But for the reasons outlined above, sooner or later, one will be heard. Britain is not Atwood’s Gilead, and the economy still relies on the work of immigrants. And if you are a highly educated taxpayer, and living in the UK holds the prospect of spending your evenings pleading with letting agents and banks, where you have to justify your existence because you are an immigrant, why on earth would you want to stay?