The summer is often termed the ‘silly season’ for news stories, when a lack of serious political news means frivolity makes the headlines. This summer of course there are plenty of serious international crises being reported. But there is still space in the news cycle for PR campaigns like yesterday’s visit by the Prime Minister and Home Secretary to watch an immigration raid in action.
It’s also a time when many people are passing through airports on holiday, including some of the researchers on our project. This has given us glimpses of more of the increasing signs of government communications of a ‘tough on migration’ approach when entering the country.
The sign pictured above, which was seen before passport control at arrivals in Gatwick airport, is ostensibly an informative sign for people entering the country to study. But it also makes it clear to anyone else pausing to read it that restrictions and checks on international students are more comprehensive than ever. Never mind the ‘welcome’, where are your papers?
The second sign (below) assumes that people reading it will be concerned about long waits to get through passport control, but more concerned about people entering the UK without proper paperwork, and so willing to wait longer if it helps to tackle that problem. As Will said when he spotted the sign, this seems rather like inefficiency being presented as sovereignty. But it plays on the assumption that by and large people will want to ensure thorough checks on anyone entering Britain.
It’s not just at the physical border of passport control that we are seeing border controls being enforced and actively advertised to those who are not immigrants, but assumed to be concerned about immigration. For example, this third sign (below) is a semiotics student’s dream.
Ostensibly it tells people who may not be entitled to free hospital treatment to ask for more details at reception. But it is also clearly addressed at the wider public – assuring them that the (white, male, authoritative) doctor at the front of the image is protecting NHS resources from people who are ‘not living here on a lawful or settled basis’, so that the blond woman can receive her healthcare (represented by the smiling – and white and female – nurses) in the background. Not only does the imagery allow us to speculate on the image of the nation, and of who provides and who deserves healthcare, but the presence of this sign raises material questions about the expectations the government has – and assumes the population to share – about the role of health and social care providers. Does the clipboard that doctor is holding contain paperwork to check immigration status, or a patient’s health? Are NHS hospitals expected to be checkpoints concerned with citizenship papers, or places people go to for help and care?
So these are some of the signs we have seen creeping into everyday spaces to signal how tough the government is on migration this summer. But more overtly demonstrating the ‘tough on migration’ message, yesterday one of the main news stories in the UK was the Prime Minister’s announcement of plans to limit further the social security benefits available to citizens of other European countries who are living in the UK. This was launched with a series of photographs of the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary accompanying Home Office Immigration Enforcement Officers on an immigration raid on a house in Slough. The Prime Minister’s office stated that the politicians had not been present during the raid, but had visited the house afterwards to have their pictures taken in the rooms formerly inhabited by people who were now in an ‘immigration detention facility pending their removal from the UK’ as they chatted and laughed with the officials who had conducted the raid. The Prime Minister then made a statement on video outside the same house, where he said
‘what we’re doing today is a whole series of changes that says to people if you come here illegally we will make it harder for you to have a home, to get a car, to have a job, to get a bank account, and when we find you, and we will find you, we’ll make sure you’re sent back to the country you came from … It’s really right that the British people know that we have a fair immigration system that says to people: if you’re here illegally, you should go home’.
The Prime Minister made this statement about people in the UK ‘illegally’, and he was present at a raid that was conducted on the home of people who were arrested on suspicion of this. He also mentioned further measures being taken against ‘bogus student colleges’. In fact, measures in the Immigration Act 2014 that come into force in November will apply to all universities and colleges that teach international students. All these educational establishments will be at risk of losing their ‘highly trusted sponsor status’ (which means they may not be allowed to offer the full range of courses to international students) if they do not implement immigration checks with a greater level of accuracy than is currently allowed. This means that not just ‘bogus colleges’, but all public universities and more are employing people to check immigration status rather than academic qualifications before admitting students. It also means that international students are under an intense level of monitoring, and publicity about this monitoring is seen as something that will be popular with the general public.
The photo opportunity and the ethics of attending it have been questioned (though note this is not a publicity tactic invented by the current government). But this fanfare about ‘tough measures’ by the government yesterday was also another indication of how these communication campaigns confuse the discussion of immigration. The raid which the Prime Minister attended was on the home of people suspected of being in the UK ‘illegally’ to work. However the two main points promoted in the Home Office’s own press release were firstly, the ‘tougher rules’ for universities and colleges (which are to do with preventing students from entering the UK rather than removing workers with incorrect paperwork) and secondly plans to reduce the period over which EU migrants can claim benefits to three months.
The second point – about EEA (European Economic Area) citizens’ entitlement to benefits – is only at this point a ‘plan’ (though ‘plans’ to reduce this entitlement already to 6 months, and to institute a qualifying period before which new arrivals are entitled to claim benefits already came into force this year). However, the key issue is that this is what made the headlines from the government announcement. The press releases issued by the Home Office thus directly confused the EEA migrants – who are entitled to live in the UK – with people who would be subject to raids, arrests and deportation.
This type of communication can only contribute to the anxiety described by one of our interviewees, an advice worker and activist in Bradford, where he has been asked by second- and third-generation British Asians – i.e. people who are British, born and bred, and whose parents are too – “Are we going to be allowed to stay here?”