Crusade against the undocumented
By Frances Webber, Institute of Race Relations
5 February 2009
Every day, across the UK, aggressive raids are being carried out at workplaces to root out those without papers. Britain’s ethnic restaurant sector is under attack from government officials who, in their single-minded drive to meet ever higher targets for deportation, have no interest in the impact of their policies on small family businesses or the effect on Britain’s high streets. Workplace immigration raids, and raids on the homes of low-paid care workers and cleaners, carried out in unprecedented numbers and resulting in unprecedented rates of removal of people for transgressing immigration laws, see family assets wiped out, families criminalised, and skilled and hard working men and women jailed or deported.
Every day, somewhere in the UK, immigration officers, often with police, frequently wearing stab-proof vests, surround High Street restaurants, takeaways and convenience stores, seal exits and storm in, generally at the busiest time, to demand that workers prove their right to be working there. Sometimes they carry hand-held fingerprint terminals to perform instant identity checks on those they find working there. Those who can’t prove their entitlement are carted off to detention for further checks, possible prosecution and imprisonment for months, or at best, summary removal from the country. Managers or owners are served with penalty notices for up to £10,000 per irregular worker, and may also face ‘naming and shaming’ on the United Kingdom Borders Agency (UKBA) website. There is no compensation for the income lost as customers are told to leave midway through their meals and premises are closed down, nor for consequential loss as customers are put off returning by the aggressive tactics of the officials. In some cases, people unconnected with the business, who happen to be visiting or even in the vicinity, have been picked up and put to proof of their right to be in the country. We have already seen the way successive governments, in pursuit of their deportation targets, have ignored the basic humanity of failed asylum seekers. Now we see a similar ruthlessness and lack of proportionality in the crusade against the undocumented.
The needs of British business, and the rights of vulnerable individuals are alike being routinely ignored, as are notions of basic fairness. Many of those caught in the raids and sent to prison for using false documents are asylum seekers whose home countries, ravaged by war, invasion, famine, over-rapid industrialisation or globalisation, cannot satisfy even the basic needs of their people. For such people, return spells the final death of hope. For owners, many naturalised British, the massive fines spell financial ruin.
According to a parliamentary answer by immigration minister Phil Woolas in November 2008, in the year 2007-2008, 7,500 enforcement officers were deployed to work regionally, and carried out over 15,500 ‘enforcement visits’ or raids, resulting in 10,750 arrests. The raids frequently involve large numbers of police and immigration officials and sometimes resemble military operations. * Seventeen UKBA officers and three police officers descended on Makbros, a cash and carry warehouse in Stanmore, Middlesex, and detained and questioned five men, all of whom turned out to be lawfully employed. An eye-witness said that it was ‘quite scary with all these people running up’.
* Thirteen immigration officers raided the Unique Spice restaurant in Burnham, Buckinghamshire, to arrest two Bangladeshi men. * A convoy of five vehicles descended on the Waverley Hotel, Yarmouth in a raid in which two Mauritian men and a Brazilian woman were arrested. * Shabul Muhth’s two restaurants in Kent were raided by around eighteen uniformed officers and the restaurants closed at around 6.30pm on Friday and Saturday nights, the peak time for his business. No arrests were made. ‘Come in like gentlemen’, he said. ‘We’re not drug dealing, we’re selling curry.' * A full-scale search with dogs and a police helicopter were deployed to hunt for two men who ran out of the kitchen at Thariks Indian restaurant in Paignton during a raid. An immigration officer fell through the roof of a building in the chase, in which the two men got away. * The owner of the Bamboo restaurant in Exmouth, Martin Lai, who is chairman of the Devon and Cornwall Chinese Association, said that during an immigration raid on the restaurant he and his staff were treated as if they were terrorists. ‘Officers wearing stab vests’ Press reports on the raids frequently include the information that the officers involved were wearing stab vests. This appears to result from (and in turn contributes to) a characterisation of undocumented workers as truly criminal, dangerous, liable to pull a knife to evade capture – which, from the total absence of any evidence to support it, whether in court reports, police charges or otherwise – appears wholly false. It is the undocumented workers themselves for whom discovery and pursuit can have serious, even fatal consequences. A soon to be released IRR report shows that for the first time, the largest number of deaths related to immigration controls Europe-wide in 2008 was during immigration raids (thirteen deaths).
Here in the UK, a man died in a fall from a second- floor window during a raid by immigration officials in Woodford in September 2008. Injuries have been recorded too; in January 2008, a Malaysian suspected illegal immigrant broke his leg trying to flee immigration officers during a raid on the Chopsticks restaurant at Hersden, near Canterbury, during which five Malaysian and Chinese workers were arrested, and, in March 2008, a UKBA operation on a restaurant in Tooting led to a man breaking both his legs after an immigration officer followed him onto the roof of the building.
Ethnic Minority businesses targeted
In the drive to catch ‘illegal’ workers, it is overwhelmingly the small, ethnic minority-owned businesses which are targeted – the restaurants and take-aways, kebab shops and convenience stores whose visibility on the High Street makes them easy targets for a policy driven by numbers. Frequently, all the ethnic minority-owned restaurants or takeaways in a particular street or village are raided, simultaneously or sequentially on one day. Thus, two adjacent restaurants in Faversham, Kent (one Indian, one Chinese) were raided by immigration officers who arrested seven men, and four Falmouth restaurants were raided on one Saturday evening. Two restaurants were raided simultaneously in Barnstaple; twice in three months, three Plymouth restaurants were raided on the same day; and three restaurants were raided in one operation in north Essex. False documents The raids result in detention followed by immediate removal (where this is possible) for irregular workers without documents. But migrants who have resorted to using false documents in order to work are generally prosecuted, and are frequently sent to prison and recommended for deportation. Very often, their resort to illegality has been caused by Home Office delays in deciding asylum claims, which can last for years, causing immense hardship and distress. This was the case for 49-year-old Zimbabwean paramedic Thomas Mvemve, who waited four years for his asylum claim to be decided before, in desperation to provide for his family, he got work with a care agency using a fake Home Office letter. He had already spent nearly three months on remand for obtaining a pecuniary advantage by deception when the Home Office finally accepted his asylum claim. He was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment, which enabled him to be released immediately, as the judge accepted that he was hard-working and dedicated, and had suffered in custody.
Refused asylum seekers
Many refused asylum seekers are in an impossible situation. Only a small fraction of Zimbabweans, for instance, are successful in their asylum claims, yet they cannot return home – the Home Office has not returned anyone to Zimbabwe since 2005. But those refused asylum can’t work, and are frequently refused all support. Yet even they have been jailed for using false documents to work. * In April 2007 Daniel Moyo and Likhwa Mnkandla were sentenced to 8 and 12 months’ imprisonment respectively for obtaining pecuniary advantage (the ability to work) by deception (that they were permitted to work). * When Zimbabwean Florida Ziki, who overstayed with her husband after being refused asylum, was arrested for using false Home Office documents to get work in a care home, she broke down and said, ‘What was I supposed to do? I can’t live or work here without these papers’. It was accepted that Florida, a former member of an opposition party in Zimbabwe, could not go back there, but as a failed asylum seeker, she could not work or obtain benefits. But she was still jailed for eight months. Her husband fled during the immigration raid, and has not been seen since. * Iraqi Kurd Shaho Abdulkadr of Eastville, Bristol was sentenced to fifty-one weeks imprisonment suspended for two years and 150 hours’ community work for using forged papers to try to get a job. Abdulkadr was refused asylum in February 2004 but was not required to leave. His father was murdered when locals decided to take over the family farm north-east of Baghdad. A fresh asylum claim was being made for him. * A failed asylum seeker from DRC who used a stolen French passport to work as a cleaner and support his partner and two children, had his sentence reduced – but only from 12 to 10 months. And the court showed no sympathy to four failed asylum seekers from DRC who had bought false passports to find work, upholding 12-month sentences in order to send out a message to deter others, although they quashed recommendations for deportation.
The sentences handed down to migrants who use false documents to work are similar to those imposed on people who use theft or fraud to enrich themselves, and do not take account of the fact that falsely documented migrant workers actually do the work for which they are (usually poorly) paid. Sometimes, adding insult to injury, workers find their hard-earned pay confiscated as ‘proceeds of crime’. A Liberian failed asylum seeker, Masdan Kamara, was jailed for 15 months for using false documents to obtain employment through nursing agencies in Staffordshire, and was told that an application for confiscation of her earnings would be made, as ‘proceeds of crime’. In the West Midlands, police took away £4,000 in cash found in the possession of an asylum seeker employee at a Vietnamese-owned nail bar, under the Proceeds of Crime Act, claiming that the money represented his illegal earnings. An appeal against the confiscation is ongoing. Businesses penalised It is not just the workers, but also their bosses who are targeted. Since 29 February 2008, employers are subject to a civil penalty of up to £10,000 for employing someone not entitled to take the job he or she is employed in, and can be sent to prison for six months if they can be proved to have known of the illegality. (Employers have been legally liable for employing unauthorised workers since 1996, but there were only thirty-four successful prosecutions in seven years.) The UK Borders Agency (UKBA, formerly the Immigration and Nationality Department of the Home Office) claims that in the two months after the law was changed (March-April 2008) 137 businesses were caught employing illegal immigrants, and that over a million pounds was collected in civil penalties from May to October 2008. The average penalty paid is £5,000 per employee. The agency now publishes the names of employers and companies against whom civil penalties have been imposed, in a ‘naming and shaming’ policy. The list on its website showed that 95 per cent of those targeted in the first four months were South Asian, Chinese, Vietnamese and Turkish businesses. Six months later, the same pattern of raids is evident. In some cases, the combination of losing workers in raids and having to pay hefty penalties have forced small businesses to close.
The treatment of undocumented workers and their employers as ‘real’ criminals is generally taken up enthusiastically by the media. Some local reporters write from a position ’embedded’ with the immigration officials for a day, as if from a military front line, and report with evident excitement on the operations, the methods (sealing exits), the new technology (hand-held terminals for checking fingerprints). For these reporters, the officials are self-evidently heroes and the undocumented workers clear villains. None question the need for the raids or their methods, nor do they follow up on what happens to those arrested – unless they are prosecuted for using false documents, in which case the court case is reported like any other.
All accept, apparently unquestioningly, the characterisation of undocumented workers as ‘immigration cheats’, rarely discussing the reasons for their predicament, the services they perform and the high price they pay for the jobs they do. The only story deemed worthy of reporting is their ‘illegal’ status. In November 2007, a huge scandal ensued when it emerged that the Security Industry Authority, set up by the Home Office in 2003 to vet doormen and security personnel, had failed to check applicants’ entitlement to work in the UK. In Birmingham, the fact that fifty City Council employees were found to have no entitlement to work was seen as more headline-worthy than that eleven (British) workers were sacked for downloading porn on their council computers, or that a worker on long-term sick leave was found working full-time for a neighbouring authority.
When Ghanaian Prisilla Sarpon, who worked as a cleaner for Doncaster Council using false documentation, was jailed for eight months, the local paper reported that she had ‘illegally earned more than £34,000 over four years’ – neglecting to point out that she had worked for the money, which amounted to only £8,500 a year. When 21-year-old Amanda Banda, a Liberian woman who was smuggled to the UK in 2004, was jailed for six months for using a Portuguese friend’s passport to work as a cleaner at Stansted airport, the security implications of someone working airside were deemed more significant than the traumatic story of a trafficked orphan. The court heard that after Ms Banda’s parents had been massacred when she was six, she was taken to Ghana, and then moved to Togo, Algeria and Morocco, where she was forced into the sex industry for some years before travelling to Italy and the UK without papers, documents or personal possessions. Fighting back In April 2008, thousands of Chinese, Indian, Bangladeshi, Turkish and Pakistani catering staff and owners came together in London in an unprecedented mass protest to demand an end to the raids and to new rules making it even more difficult to employ foreign workers. The protest followed a three-hour strike called by Chinese community groups in protest at raids in Chinatown in October 2007. Meanwhile, a legal challenge to the UKBA’s blanket policy of denying failed asylum seekers the right to work for years, when they could not be removed, succeeded in the High Court in December 2008. The Home Office is appealing the decision, and meanwhile is refusing to change its policy. In January 2009, hundreds of Zimbabweans protested outside Downing Street to demand the right to work legally.
Demands for a one-off amnesty for irregular workers, made by groups such as Strangers into Citizens, are supported by a broad spectrum of people including London mayor Boris Johnson, while a permanent route to regularisation has been argued by JCWI among others. These actions could be the beginning of a movement, demanding recognition of the intrinsic worth of the work performed by ‘irregular’ migrants, the criminal waste of the ban on working, and the huge human cost of the criminalisation of workers.
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