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Home Opinion Migration control and the surveillance myth

Migration control and the surveillance myth

Christina Boswell - 23 January 2011

Media-driven expectations fuel harsh, simplified government rhetoric, masking the impediments to controlling migration, the more complex reality and the pragmatic approach of officials on the ground

Media reporting on surveillance and policing tends to feed an image of the state as all powerful, all knowing. British citizens are the object of constant monitoring by an intrusive, illiberal state that is intent on maximising control over its population. In academic literature, the notion of the surveillance state is heavily influenced by Michel Foucault’s work on techniques of state control, or “governmentality”.  These ideas are very modish in current debates on immigration policy, much of which examines how policies on asylum, illegal migration and immigrant integration are being “securitised”. The idea is that governments seize any opportunity to link immigration to security problems such as terrorism or organised crime, in order to justify ever more stringent surveillance and controls.

But there is another image, epitomised in recent fiascos around lost data and failed IT systems, unreliable estimates and statistics, not to mention the release of foreign prisoners. This version sees the state as rather less rational and effective than the Foucauldians would have it. Instead, the Home Office and other departments involved in immigration are essentially engaged in fire-fighting, limping from crisis to crisis and trying desperately to meet public expectations about migration control.

There is much to support this second image. In his 2005 biography of former Home Secretary David Blunkett, Stephen Pollard quotes Blunkett as saying “the Home Office was reactive, an absorber of punishment. All home secretaries whom I have ever seen interviewed talked about things coming out of the blue sky and hitting them”. This image of the Home Office was illustrated by the 2006 scandal on illegal immigration. When questioned by a parliamentary committee about the number of irregular migrants in the UK, the Head of Removals, David Roberts, admitted that the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (now the UK Border Agency) “didn’t have the faintest idea”. The admission was instantly picked up on by the mass media, and the Home Office was lambasted for its incompetence. But as one former Home Office official related to me in an interview in May 2007, “most people in IND said, good on you Dave, you told it as it is. Of course we haven’t the faintest idea. Why are they asking this question? Don’t they know, we only know what we know? We know what we control. By definition, we don’t know who we don’t control”. The anecdote suggests how very far off the Home Office is from a Foucauldian style agency, intent on maximising intelligence to enhance its control. Instead, the organisation is quite pragmatic about the limits of migration control, and would have rather this particular stone had been left unturned.

If we take a closer look at immigration policy, it becomes clear why the Home Office would doubt its own capacity to stay on top of this dossier. Immigration processes are immensely difficult to steer. Let us take the example of attempts to control irregular migration. The decision to leave one’s country of origin to seek a better life elsewhere will have an absolutely fundamental impact on well-being, and many people take extreme risks to enter countries such as the UK. Such choices are unlikely to be influenced in a reliable way by border controls, internal checks, the threat of deportation or even detention. And more punitive measures are difficult to justify in liberal democracies. Indeed, there is much to suggest that harsher measures simply engender more sophisticated attempts at evasion on the part of migrant smugglers and traffickers. Thus migration control policies can have the counterproductive effect of pushing people further underground, making them vulnerable to exploitation.

Things become even more complicated once migrants are present in the UK, where they are often able to access a range of opportunities and services – employment, housing, education, health care, social support networks – even if their stay is not authorised by the state. Indeed, it is precisely the openness of these various systems to migrants that makes the prospect of irregular migration appealing and feasible to many. But again, the state faces immense barriers in trying to steer such processes. For example, employer sanctions are designed to increase the costs of employing undocumented migrants, disincentivising the employment of irregular labour. But such interventions are fraught with problems. In order to be effectively implemented, they require high penalties and extensive resources to check up on employers and bring cases to court. Once in court, judges often have a hard time determining how far employers can be liable for failing to detect sophisticated counterfeit documents. And employers may end up violating anti-discrimination rules rather than risk employing someone who is not obviously British – with adverse consequences for ethnic minorities.

These sorts of impediments to effective migration control surface in other areas of immigration policy – asylum, labour migration, and many aspects of immigrant integration. Yet they are poorly understood by the public. The mass media has little interest in the nuances of policy problems and prefers to present issues in highly simplistic terms. Simplified narratives of migration policy are fuelled by populist party politics, with opposition parties often generating quite unfeasible expectations about what governments can do. Such narratives tend to adopt dramatised accounts of migration and the impact of policy on these dynamics, often favouring restrictive and punitive approaches. They share an underlying idea that states could prevent all illegal immigration, if only they could develop the right border control systems, ID checks, penalties, and so on. This sort of rhetoric places governments under immense pressure to be seen to be acting to realise these goals. They must embrace the simplified narratives pedalled by populist political debate, or else risk being lambasted by the mass media.

The upshot is a tendency for politicians to belie the complexity of migration processes, and bow to popular pressure for (largely symbolic) policy measures. Such simple narratives are unlikely to be shared by officials working in the field, who are on the whole well acquainted with the various impediments to effective control. So a disjuncture emerges between popular expectations about migration control and the more complex reality on the ground. Governments reconcile the tension between the two accounts by adopting harsh, securitised rhetoric about control, while in practice pragmatically accepting the limits to their capacity to control migration. This helps to explain why government rhetoric often panders to notions of a restrictive, controlling surveillance state. But the reality is far more messy, disjointed and imperfect.

Christina Boswell is a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Edinburgh

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on "Building public confidence in immigration policy", which forms part of the "Immigration and political trust" research programme

                                                                                                                                        © Policy Network


This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Understanding Populism .

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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