Immigration controls: The racist British state

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Figh RacismFight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 1 – November/December 1979

‘British officials in Bangladesh are telling women and children who want to settle in Britain that they must first have X-ray examinations to prove their identity ... One such case involved a pregnant woman whose skull was X-rayed, despite the fact that Department of Health regulations would prevent such a test on pregnant British women except in cases of absolute medical necessity, because of the danger of an X-ray damaging the unborn baby.' (Guardian 8 February 1979)

Such brutal racist practices, X-rays, virginity tests, the splitting up of families and detention of immigrants, are daily events in the British state's drive to exclude and persecute immigrant workers. The racism of Britain's immigration controls is rooted in the nature of the British state. It is because the British state is an imperialist oppressor state that its immigration controls are necessarily racist.

Imperialism has divided the world into oppressed and oppressor nations. To maintain the highest profits the British capitalist class, with the aid of its state has systematically brutalised, exploited and impoverished the oppressed nations. To safeguard imperialist super-profits the British state sustains and aids viciously repressive regimes throughout Asia, Latin America and is a mainstay of the racist apartheid regime in South Africa. Britain is still today one of the strongest imperialist powers. Throughout the world its bloody tentacles retain a stranglehold on the masses in the oppressed nations. It condemns the masses in the oppressed nations to poverty, unemployment and starvation. This year in South Africa, black workers on strike were offered their jobs back if they accepted wages of 15p per hour. In India 40% of all children die before they are five years old; 200 million people live on less than 10 pence per day. In Kenya the average annual income is £84. In Pakistan it is £57. In Bangladesh it is £30. Unemployment in Jamaica is 25%.

Imperialism has robbed the oppressed nations of their raw materials, it has destroyed local manufacture and it has sucked out surplus value by super-exploiting their peoples. The systematic underdevelopment of the oppressed nations by imperialism has created a vast international pool of unemployed labour. Tens of millions of people in the oppressed nations have this choice: migrate in search of work or stay to slowly starve.

British imperialism drew on this international reserve of labour to feed the post war boom of capitalism in Britain. Immigrant labour from Asia, Africa and the West Indies was brought to Britain to do the worst jobs, the heavy manual labour in bad conditions, the jobs involving shift work, the lowest paid jobs particularly in the state sector. Racism serves British capitalism by keeping black and immigrant workers as an oppressed layer within the working class.

During the 1950s the British state actively encouraged immigration from the oppressed nations to meet the needs of expanding British capitalism. It had no need of formal immigration controls for Commonwealth citizens, it could rely on the very mechanisms of imperialism to drive these workers from their homes and families to occupy menial jobs in the heartland of racist British imperialism.

From the early 1960s onwards, however, British imperialism no longer needed to call on this international reserve to the same extent. On the contrary, faced with a crisis of profitability and growing internal unemployment, British imperialist interests demanded a speedy move to the contract labour system. It is this contract labour system which is in operation today. Immigrant labour is brought in for specific jobs and then expelled after use. The 1971 Immigration Act requires that non-patrial immigrants (all aliens and most non-white Commonwealth citizens) entering Britain have a work permit. The Department of Employment issues permits for a maximum of one year to the employer who has to show that he has been unable to fill the vacancy from the domestic labour force. If immigrant workers engage in trade union activity they can lose their work permit, they can change jobs only with the approval of the Home Office, and they can be deported without any appeal to the courts. This system reduces immigrant labour to labour without rights, including the right of residence.

The benefits to imperialism of this system are obvious. The British capitalist class is provided with a section of workers who are entirely at their mercy. The resulting wages and conditions of many of these workers are appalling. If the workers fight back, or when they are no longer required, then they can be deported. The further advantage for British imperialism is that the state bears no cost for maintaining these workers should they be made unemployed. Nor does the British state have to provide health, education or other services to these workers' families, since their dependents are largely excluded from the country.

Since British imperialist interests demand the use of the contract labour system, from the early 60s both Labour and Tory governments alike have taken the necessary steps to bring this about, culminating with the 1971 Act. But British imperialism, facing a deep crisis, requires far more than that. It demands that all black and immigrant workers in Britain be forced to accept the racial oppression they suffer. So immigration controls are used by the British state as one of its weapons against all black people. The result is that increased racist brutality is required to implement the stricter immigration controls and to harass the black population. The British state uses immigration controls as an excuse for arbitrary arrests, mass passport raids and round-ups of so-called illegal immigrants in order to intimidate all black people.

The number of 'illegal' immigrants detained under the 1971 Act has increased yearly. In 1974 there were 811 cases, in 1978 there were 1,305 people held. The Illegal Immigration Intelligence Unit was set up in 1972. The unit is explicitly intended to gather information on people with no criminal record — to seek out suspected illegal immigrants. In practice the police assume that all black people are illegal immigrants unless there is proof to the contrary. The Unit and local police forces have carried out mass raids and passport checks. In December 1977 the police in Newcastle raided homes and restaurants in the black and Bangladeshi community. 70 people were arrested, all but three were eventually released. There were no charges but several people were gaoled for weeks while they proved their legality.

Over 300 immigrants are held in detention at any one time. Periods of detention (without charge, trial conviction or sentence) have been anything up to 12 months. The detainees are kept in abominable conditions. Last summer in Armley Gaol, 23 Asians awaiting deportation were kept six to a cell for 23 hours a day and they suffered constant racial abuse from the warders. Mr Kahn, a Pakistani community leader, described Harmondsworth Detention Centre at Heathrow Airport as ‘horrible' with a 'crowded, prison-like atmosphere'. There is no access to rooms between 9 am and 9 pm. There are two living rooms for seventy people and the bedrooms are shared by up to six people. The reason that the British state holds its ‘illegal' immigrants in such conditions for long periods is to deter and punish them. Mr Kahn said,

‘I met people who had been there for a month and they are in a state of agony —they would rather be sent back than spend another night in this prison camp.'

Britain's immigration controls tear families apart. Theoretically individuals settled in the UK have the right to bring their wives or husbands, children and distressed relatives to the country provided they can support them. A deliberately long-winded procedure means a waiting list to gain entry clearance of up to four years. The refusal rate for clearance is high — in Dacca for example it is 35%.

The interrogation of relatives trying to enter Britain epitomises the racist brutality of the British state. On January 24th 1979 at Heathrow Airport a 35 year old Indian woman schoolteacher was subject to a disgusting and humiliating internal medical examination. She was seeking admission as the fiancée of a Southall man. Under duress she agreed to be examined by a woman doctor. A male doctor made her undress and carried out the examination to test her virginity. The Home Office subsequently confirmed that this was normal procedure. In fact British High Commissions in India and Pakistan have been employing virginity tests at least since 1968.

The Home Office also directs immigration officials in the widespread use of X-ray examinations. In one case a 17 year old and a 13 year old applied to join their father. According to the doctor carrying out the X-ray tests the boys were 15 and 11 years old. The discrepancies were cited to refuse the boys' entry.

In June 1979, three Pakistani children (ages 6, 5 and 21 months) were held at Harmondsworth for at least four days. Police had taken them from their uncle who had adopted them in Pakistan after their mother's death and their father's disappearance. A 10 year old Pakistani girl was detained at Harmondsworth for a week, after arriving for a three month holiday with relatives. She was eventually granted temporary release, but entry has still been technically refused.

These examples of British imperialist ‘humanity' can be compared to the case of Mrs Shirley Webb, a British mother of four, deserted by her husband in South Africa. After a personal appeal to Mrs Thatcher she was allowed to enter Britain. Mrs Webb is white.

Families already settled in Britain are being broken up through deportations. Mrs Kusah from Sierra Leone came to Britain to live in 1955. In Feburary 1979 she faced enforced deportation because she had re-entered Britain on the wrong visa. 72 year old Mr Jaswant Singh lived in Birmingham with his son since 1967. He went to India for a holiday in November 1976. He returned in April 1977 but was sent back because the immigration officer believed his passport had been 'tampered with'. Akram Dogar is 8 years old and lives in Oxford with his uncle who adopted him when he was only 2 weeks old. Akram entered Britain nearly two years ago, but the family has been told that because he has not been legally adopted in Britain Akram must return to Pakistan.

The British state does not openly admit it, but it is carrying out enforced repatriations of immigrants. To split up families the Home Office officials are bringing into question the paternity of children. Gias Uddin is not his father's son according to the Home Office. Afzal Mohammed is not his son's father and should be deported according to the Home Office. Afzal is being forced to prove that he is the biological father of his children by undergoing blood and tissue tests. A fiancée is not a fiancée unless she is a virgin and proved to be so. No intimidation is too refined, no humiliation is too great for black people at the hands of Britain's immigration controls. This is the immigration control that is required by British imperialism.

The laws and institutions of the British state are being reshaped to deal with immigrants as contract labourers with no political or civil rights. The terms of the 1971 Immigration Act allows for immigrants to apply for settlement after four years of work permits. The government intends removing this right. Immigrants will never be allowed to settle. The qualifying period for the Employment Protection Act has been extended to 52 weeks, thereby effectively removing work permit holders from its limited cover. The Government plans to prevent foreign husbands of British wives from living in Britain. This proposal is primarily aimed at keeping out fiancées from the Indian sub-continent.

The Labour Government's proposals on citizenship are being put to Parliament by the Conservative Government in a new Nationality Act. Labour's Green Paper proposed two categories. The first category proposed is British Citizenship which would include patrial UK citizens. This category would be largely white. The second category proposed is British Over-seas Citizenship, including non-patrials without right of entry. This category would be overwhelmingly black. The Green Paper proposed removing civil rights for British Overseas Citizens. As the Brixton Black Women's Group explain:

‘It is obvious that the Green Paper is meant to do two things. First encourage `voluntary repatriation' by forcing any Black person who wants full citizenship rights to leave Britain and become a citizen of another country. And second, if we stay here, to weaken our fight against racism by making it difficult to organise in the way which we do at present.' (Speak Out No2)

To match these changes the British state's structures of immigration control are being centralised. In its state, British imperialism, is constructing a well-oiled machine for the oppression of black people. The Home Office recommends an expansion of the activities of the Illegal Immigration Intelligence Unit. It recommends the addition of a code digit to National Insurance numbers to help track down 'illegal' immigrants. The passports of immigrants are already marked by officials to convey information on visa status. The Home Office plans an extension of this system of close surveillance and control through the use of computer technology. It plans to install a mini computer in Harmondsworth to hold information on 'illegal' immigrants. It plans to provide immigration officials at points of arrival with access to a central computer in Croydon. They plan to connect these two systems by the end of 1980. It plans to introduce a third stage in 1982 when a new type of passport will be introduced. Passports will be machine readable cards; details will be kept stored in the computer rather than stamped on the card.

The last Labour Government drew up plans for a detention centre at Heathrow with three time the capacity of the existing buildings for holding detainees. The new centre is due for completion in 1983. The conditions planned for inside the centre will be of the standard immigrants can expect from the British state. The Home Office plans that the accommodation will be `essentially for a third world population'. The centre will include a 'Moslem ladies room' and 'Asian toilets'. Nine security staff will guard the detainees and a ten foot high fence, topped with alarms, will surround the site.

These plans are not the policy of a particular government: Labour and Tory will implement them alike. They are a necessity for the maintenance of the British imperia-list state. They mean greater and more brutal repression. The future under the rule of British imperialism means more suffering, more divided families and more detention, more police raids, round ups, more terror and intimidation. It is not a future which black people are prepared to tolerate.

Andrew Goddard