By Hannah Jones
Operation Centurion was the name given by the Home Office to a two-week programme of immigration raids that ran at the beginning of June 2014, with immigration enforcement officers working alongside other regulation and enforcement agencies (e.g. police, food safety, trading standards officers). Such raids are not unusual, but this operation was notable for three reasons. Firstly, that the plans for the raids were leaked to pro-migrant activists and journalists, including Anti-Raids Network and the Socialist Worker; secondly, that this revealed language which suggested planned raids were not ‘intelligence-led’, but opportunistic and aimed at workplaces to target people of specific nationalities; and thirdly, that the large scale and timing of the raids – just after the European Parliament elections in which migration controversy had loomed large – suggested to those reading the plans that the operation was intended to show that the Home Office was being ‘tough on immigration’, rather than having been planned as part of routine enforcement work.
Operation Centurion went ahead despite the leaks, but without the fanfare of last summer’s #immigrationoffender tweets from the Home Office Twitter account, or indeed much press coverage at all of the raids and arrests. If you saw any news coverage of Operation Centurion at all, it was likely either the Socialist Worker, Channel 4 or the Daily Mail stories. Despite their different angles, political perspectives and news values, all of their stories focused not on Operation Centurion per se, but on the leak of its planning documents to activists, and the consequent disruption and campaigning in areas and workplaces which the Home Office was expected to target.
But another way of following the story would have been on Twitter. There were several tweets from RAMFEL, the Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London, a partner on our research project and the charity whose users challenged the Go Home Van operation in court. During Operation Centurion, people from RAMFEL and from Anti-Raids Network tailed Immigration Enforcement Officers around London and tweeted about what they saw. Similar publicity and organisation through social media came from London Black Revs, the Unity Centre in Glasgow and others. Organisations and individuals concerned about the actions were encouraged to make contact through Twitter and did so, both sharing sightings of Operation Centurion raids, and organising actions such as arranging to hand out leaflets to people who might be raided about their legal rights. Some of these on-the-ground activities were then covered by Vice magazine, perhaps prompted by twitter contact.
So what is the story behind the story here? Operation Centurion appeared, for the reasons outlined above, to be part of a broader move towards the performance of ‘strong borders’ – that is, a set of actions to demonstrate to voters that the government is being tough on migration, where the number of actual arrests is less important than being seen to be doing something. Keith Vaz, Labour Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, hinted that this might be common practice by the Home Office when he criticised the operation, stating: “judging by what I’ve heard from this document it seems very clear that this is not based on intelligence, but they refer to particular nationalities and particular industries that they are involved in“. The Go Home van and @ukhomeoffice tweets of arrests in 2013 also seem to be examples of this kind of performance, but it seems the emphasis on demonstrating ‘toughness’ of immigration enforcement stretches back at least to under John Reid’s time as Labour Home Secretary, when he brought in a re-branding of the UK Borders and accompanied enforcement officers on dawn raids himself.
The reasons for and wider effects of such an approach are bigger questions for our research and subjects for further posts. But in the case of Operation Centurion, what is notable for now is that there was very little publicity about it demonstrating ‘toughness’ coming out of the Home Office. The main news story became that the operation had been disrupted by the planning document having been leaked to pro-migrant activists. For the Daily Mail, it became a story about too much bureaucracy when they suggested the Health and Safety Executive was the source of the leak. For our research, this allows us to explore further how traditional and social media are being used both to effect physical actions (immigration raids and their disruption), and to manage debate about migration. The physical actions have real effects, but so does their symbolism, as people hearing about them feel either threatened or protected (whether they are afraid of indiscriminate immigration raids, or of unchecked immigration). As we analyse the online debates in more depth, and link this to our interviews and focus groups with people directly affected by such initiatives, we are beginning to paint a picture of some of the localised effects of the politics of fear and how the power of communication intersects with the material realities of everyday lives. Over the summer we will be commissioning a national survey and hope that the questions we will ask will shed light on whether people feel that the spectacle of programmes like Operation Centurion make people feel reassured – or more fearful.