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The cornerstone of the British government’s immigration policy is what they term the creation of a ‘hostile environment’ for undocumented migrants, intended to make life so difficult for people without the appropriate leave to remain that they will either not enter the United Kingdom in the first place or, if they are already here, they will leave of their own volition[1]. This entails the restriction of access to healthcare, housing, employment, banking services, and the right to appeal Home Office decisions for migrants (see Yeo). This has been in the news recently because retail banks will be expected to carry out quarterly checks on over 70 million bank accounts, matching names with a list of known people who have overstayed their visas, failed to seek asylum or face deportation for criminal offenses, and freeze those accounts that belonging to these people (see BBC, Travis). The government claims that the system is ‘firm and fair’, and that ‘people who are here legally will be unaffected’, but their track record on immigration is so appalling that these promises seem absurd. While ostensibly these policies are supposed to target immigrants without the appropriate documents or permissions, these hostilities affect all migrants regardless of immigration status because anybody with a foreign passport must submit to the same checks on residency status while going about their lives (see Travis).

I believe it is appalling that we are living in a world-system in which it is a crime to merely enter a country, a capitalist economy where migration is only permitted when it is useful or exploitable by capital. Moreover, immigration statuses are often complicated, as circumstances do not conform to the technical binaries that are created by the visa system (legal/illegal, documented/undocumented, et cetera). Just because somebody might technically not have the technical permission to remain does not mean they would have no moral or legal claim to do so. As such, the Home Office has drawn immense criticism for wrongful deportation (Ali) and for leaving over a million asylum seekers in limbo (Henley). These are the people who will be affected most adversely. The way this policy works is, as Alan Travis notes in his story in the Guardian, to ‘make it harder for them [immigrants who no longer have the appropriate permission to remain] to establish or maintain a settled life in the UK’. Freezing their bank accounts would mean that vulnerable people like these will be unable to seek further legal recourse. It is not quite denying people of their rights, but is rather a method of preventing them from claiming these rights. The policy is designed to cut off their resources so they can no longer hire solicitors or fight the system, thereby leaving them no option to leave. But the policy describes this as ‘creating a powerful incentive […] to agree to voluntary departure’ (Travis), as if it can be considered voluntary when one has a gun to one’s head.

According to Antonio Gramsci, a ruling class asserts its hegemony through a combination of consent and coercion (12). Louis Althusser elaborates Gramsci’s idea of hegemony and argues that coercion is enforced through what he terms the ‘repressive state apparatus’ (131-2) — the military or police — and consent is garnered by conditioning the masses to internalise dominant ideologies through the ‘ideological state apparatuses’ (136-7) — churches, education, political systems and culture. What we are seeing here, through things like the ‘right to rent’ scheme or the quarterly account checks by banks, is an increasing tendency to co-opt private entities like landlords or retail banks to police immigration on behalf of the state. The government is recruiting private corporations and citizens to act as arms of the repressive state.

Furthermore, the ensuing bureaucracy — having one’s immigration status policed by one’s bank every quarter, having to jump through inordinate hoops to rent housing, having to pay through the nose to use the National Health Service — creates what Hannah Arendt describes as a form of ‘tyranny without a tyrant’ (81), where the forms of oppression are diffused and multifocal. Because the there is no individual ‘tyrant’ who can be held to account and opposed, there can be no individual site of resistance, and instead this will be a battle fought simultaneously from multiple points of conflict. Vulnerable people will be evicted from their flat and have their bank account frozen at the same time. They will have no way of seeking legal counsel because they will have no money to do so. What’s even worse, people might have their bank accounts frozen by sheer coincidence if they just happen to have a namesake who is on a list of visa overstayers. That is what this policy means in practical, material terms, underneath the Marxist lexicon. This is what the sociologist Johan Galtung describes as ‘structural violence’, or violence where there is no clear actor, but victims might be ‘manipulated by means of carrot or stick strategies’ (170), violence characterised by ‘unequal power and consequently unequal life chances’ (171).

Moreover, the ideological apparatus provides the ideological justification for the use of force by the state. Raymond Williams takes analysis further and describes hegemony as a ‘lived system of meanings and values’ in which ideologies and material practices appear ‘reciprocally confirming’ (110). What is remarkable about the way in which the Home Office’s policy is worded is how it conflates the two in an Orwellian doublespeak in which the forced displacement from the country by having one’s means and livelihood cut off is being portrayed as voluntary ‘consent’ to departure. This deceptive attribution of consent by the ideological state apparatus — the Government’s media and communications — allows for the abdication of responsibility for coercive state action. This is not so much an ideological justification as it is a disavowal of blame. These people do not appear to be deported by the government — even though when in fact they are victims of structural state violence — but they seem to be leaving of their own volition because their lives are hard.

What really beggars belief, however, is that these measures that the Government has adopted have had little benefit while the harms are several and severe. The story in the BBC about the banks policing immigration quotes a former member of the board of TSB, Philip Augar, saying that it would make ‘poor individuals’ suffer, while the Guardian story even acknowledges that the measures may make banks discriminate against legal migrants when offering banking services. Besides, there is little evidence to suggest that the policy of creating a hostile environment achieves what it sets out to do in the first place: a report published by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants on the right to rent scheme found, for instance, that ‘the policy has resulted in instances of discrimination against tenants, including BME [Black and Minority Ethnic] tenants, who do have the right to rent in the UK’, ‘landlords are prepared to discriminate against those with complicated immigration status’ (Grant and Peel 56) and that ‘the policy has not and will not achieve its stated aim to deter irregular migration or prevent irregular migrants from settling in the UK’ (58).

Works Cited

Ali, Aftab. ‘Theresa May “Wrongly Deported 48,000 Students” After BBC Panorama Exposes TOEIC Scam’. The Independent, 29 Mar. 2016. Link Here Accessed 22 Sep 2017.

Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books, 1971. Print.

Arendt, Hannah. On Violence. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969. Print.

BBC. ‘Bank Immigration Checks “Nightmare” Warning from Expert’. BBC, 22 Sep. 2017, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-41357048 Accessed 22 Sep. 2017.

Galtung, Johan. ‘Violence, Peace, and Peace Research’. Journal of Peace Research 6.3 (1969): 167-91. http://www.jstor.org/stable/422690 Accessed 22 Sep. 2017.

Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. eds and trans Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1971. Print.

Grant, Saira and Charlotte Peel. No Passport Equals No Home’: An Independent Evaluation of the ‘Right to Rent’ Scheme. Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, 3 Sept. 2015, Link Here Accessed 22 Sep. 2017.

Henley, Jon. ‘More than a Million of Europe’s Asylum Seekers Left in Limbo’. The Guardian, 20 Sept. 2017, Link Here Accessed 22 Sep. 2017.

Travis, Alan. ‘UK Banks to Check 70m Bank Accounts in Search for Illegal Immigrants’. The Guardian, 21 Sep. 2017, Link Here Accessed 22 Sep. 2017.

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977. Print.

Yeo, Colin. ‘The Hostile Environment: What is It and Who Does It Affect?’ FreeMovement.org.uk, 29 May 2017, https://www.freemovement.org.uk/hostile-environment-affect/ Accessed 22 Sep. 2017.

[1] Not to be confused with the Government’s economic policy towards Brexit, which seems to be hell bent on making Britain a poorer and more miserable place.