Britain must choose: identity cards or hostile environment?
More and more people are tangled in the net of the hostile environment. The latest victims are part of the Windrush generation, who came to the UK as children under Commonwealth free movement, and lived and worked here for decades. Now they are being threatened with deportation. Some are denied free care on the NHS, which they paid in for decades.
It has come to the point that the UK government is turning on its own citizens, born in the UK and never having lived elsewhere, but with no passport or other documentation to prove their citizenship. Take 53-year old Paul Tate, who was born in Wales, and now being held in a detention centre. He is to be deported, but the question is, to where? The US claims he is not a citizen of their country, so he cannot go back there (as the UK wanted to do originally). Yet two months later, he is still locked up.
These are not isolated incidents. They are linked and ultimately expose a deep problem of the Hostile Environment, namely that it is impossible to enforce strict immigration controls in the absence of an identity card or registration system. The Hostile Environment was installed in 2012 by Theresa May, as Home Secretary, who famously said "The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants". This was one of her most memorable quotes (before her more recent catchphrases, such as "Brexit means Brexit"). The problem is, how to enforce it?
Take, by contrast, a country like Belgium, where every child gets an identity card at age 12 (see picture). You need to always have it with you, and it is used when you register with a bank, as well as for any other service. Moreover, when you move to a new city you need to give your change of address formally with the municipality. The police come and check in person whether you really live there. When I first moved to the UK, I tried registering in the town where I came to live, and to my surprise there was no registration system.
By registering people locally Belgium is able to send people back who cannot sustain themselves, are not studying, or who have not found a job within three months, as per the EU free movement directive. The UK does not register, has no identity cards, and so cannot enforce the EU free movement directives.
Once the UK became committed to driving down net migration, they faced a problem: how do you detain and deport immigrants without identity cards, and without formal registration? Their solution was to let landlords, medical practitioners, schools, and employers play immigration officer. Impose heavy penalties and fines if they dare to let out their house to an illegal immigrant, or give them treatment, or offer them a job.
Unfortunately, given how cobbled together the Hostile Environment policies are, it's not surprising that lots of people slip through the net, and now, we have come to the point where UK citizens find themselves detained and deported to nowhere.
The climate that led to Brexit was caused in part by the government's lack of enforcing free movement rules as it did not practice registration or identity cards. But if the government is serious in continuing its total crackdown on illegal immigration they will have to choose. Ordinary people cannot enforce immigration rules. Identity cards and local registration is the only way to do it consistently. But UK citizens don’t like identity cards for their own citizens.
What will the government choose?
- continued hostile environment with more and more false positives, or
- identity cards and a registration system for everyone.
Of course, they might also just ditch driving down net migration to the 10,000s (especially as the UK has no reliable immigration figures, due to said lack of registration system, and vastly overestimates, for example, student overstayers anyway).
But in a nation where the BBC radio airs Enoch Powell's full Rivers of Blood speech to commemorate its 50th anniversary, that is probably too much to ask.