Immigration control, racism and public opinion

By Gargi Bhattacharyya

In the week before Christmas a mixed crowd gathered outside the Home Office, once again chanting ‘I can’t breathe’. The protest, to mark International Migrants Day and to continue weekly demonstrations against the ending of any UK contribution to the EU search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean, this time also met to protest against the not guilty verdict in the trial of G4S officers charged with the murder of Jimmy Mubenga.

In the weeks before London had seen large protests in response to the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson (outside the US embassy) and the killing of Eric Garner during his arrest (a die-in the Westfield shopping centre). Echoing the massive protests across the US, the solidarity slogans moved from ‘Hands up don’t shoot’ to ‘I can’t breathe’.

These two killings – only two among so many deaths in custody across the US and beyond – reignited a movement of global protest against state racism and violence. Even the UK media condemned the unaddressed racism of US society, apparently without a trace of irony or self-awareness.

The death by asphyxiation of Jimmy Mubenga, on the other hand, has drawn little reflection on the continuance of UK state racism and its consequences. Although Mubenga died while being restrained by three G4S guards charged with overseeing his deportation and despite the testimony of other witnesses on the plane that he repeatedly shouted that he could not breathe for as long as thirty minutes before becoming silent, this death was not seen as a racist killing in the manner of Ferguson or New York. No broadsheets printed pictograms depicting the whiteness of G4S guards and the blackness of those facing deportation. Despite the explicitly racist text messages found on the phones of two of the accused, the trial judge did not allow this material to be known to the jury. In effect, this disallowed any informed consideration of the role of racism in Jimmy Mubenga’s death.

In so doing, this trial mirrors the much-repeated official line on immigration control in the UK – that this has nothing to do with racism. This assertion has characterised almost all mainstream political debate. If, by some temporary accident of conscience, any murmur of concern is voiced about the racist treatment of migrants, party machines must be mobilised immediately to reassert that immigration control has nothing to do with racism and that those who are concerned about levels of immigration are not, and could not be, racists.

In our examination of Home Office immigration campaigns, this concerted quarantining of discourses of racism from discussion of immigration control appears to have influenced popular understanding. However, the pretence that these two logics are separate and unrelated can raise some irresolvable tensions.

We commissioned Ipsos MORI to survey a representative sample of 2424 adults in the UK about their knowledge of and attitude to Home Office campaigns about immigration.[1] When asked about overt instances of racial profiling, a majority expressed concern. We asked how people viewed reports that immigration checks in public places such as stations were being targeted on the basis of skin colour. In response:

  •  60% of people felt that it was fairly or very unacceptable for immigration officers to carry out checks on the basis of someone’s skin colour.
  • 24% had no opinion either way on this issue.
  • Only 14% considered it acceptable.
  • 45% of ‘non-white’ and 42% of ‘white’ respondents found this ‘very unacceptable’
  • 10% of ‘non-white’ and 19% of ‘white’ respondents found this ‘fairly unacceptable’

In addition, 229 of the 928 who gave a further response to the question about racial profiling explicitly cited racism or discrimination as the reason for disagreeing with this practice. Others said that the practice was wrong or unfair, but did not name racism or discrimination.

Another set of responses disagrees with the alleged practice but cites practical considerations – skin colour is no guide to immigration status; Britain is a multicultural society and those with a right to be here come in many colours; white people, too, can be illegal.

Only a handful of responses argued that the approach of racial profiling was desirable, citing the difficulty of performing this difficult job (of undertaking immigration checks) or a belief that irregular migrants were less likely to be white.

The considerable agreement that we found in relation to the undesirability of ethnic profiling is much harder to discern in relation to other aspects of Home Office campaigns.

Firstly, we found that quite small proportions of respondents were aware of any of the campaigns in question. Even the infamous ‘Go Home’ vans had registered with only 26% of respondents. Yet among those who were aware of any Home Office campaign, reactions were mixed. As can be seen in the summary below, even the relatively popular initiatives such as warning signs about eligibility for NHS treatment and changes in the signage and uniforms at passport control points also occasion concern about cultures of suspicion for between 13 and 19 per cent of respondents. The attempts to grab headlines through ‘Go Home’ vans or tweets caused concern about cultures of suspicion for a third of respondents.

Home Office activity Proportion aware of this initiative Of those who are aware, those who feel ‘reassured that the government is taking action against irregular/illegal immigration’ Of those who are aware, those who feel ‘concerned that some people are being treated with unnecessary suspicion in everyday situations’
‘Go Home’ vans 26% 28% 34%
Tweets from the Home Office 6% 22% 33%
Journalists accompanying on immigration raids 13% 31% 26%
Signs in NHS premises 20% 41% 19%
Border branded signs 31% 41% 18%
Uniforms for passport control staff 23% 41% 13%
Immigration enforcement branded vans 18% 31% 28%


Respondents were far more likely to express concern about people being targeted on the basis of skin colour than about any other initiative.

A question outlining the threatening and militarised approach of immigration raids and asking about how respondents might feel if they witnessed such a raid in their neighbourhood revealed greater levels of agreement with the initiative when the survey included greater detail about the threatening manner of raids.

On Home Office raids for suspected illegal immigrants, officers may arrive in teams, wearing flak jackets. Following questioning, immigration officers may make arrests and take suspected illegal immigrants away in a van or other vehicle. How would you feel if you saw an immigration raid on suspected illegal immigrants going on in your local area?
Feel it is a necessary measure to help tackle irregular/illegal immigration in the UK 31%
Reassured that the government is taking action against irregular/illegal immigration 29%
Feel it is a necessary measure to help tackle irregular/illegal immigration in your local area 28%
Concerned that people may be unnecessarily arrested 13%
Concerned about the show of force in your local area 10%
(Respondents could choose more than one of the options in response)

Without the explicit warning that practices such as raids might target people on the basis of skin colour or accent, respondents appeared to be unconcerned about the potential racism and discrimination of such practices of immigration control. However, when invited to consider eye-witness reports that people were targeted by skin colour in immigration checks, significant numbers expressed concern. Quarantining talk of racism has the effect of silencing concerns about the racist and violent impact of everyday immigration control. At worst, such a quarantining can make it seem as if violent restraint leading to death falls under the heading of a ‘necessary measure to tackle irregular/illegal immigration’.

As Frances Weber has explained, carefully and eloquently, racist texts on the phones of two of the three G4S guards on trial formed an important component of the context of the Jimmy Mubenga case.

Without access to this contextual information, the jury were unable to see the killing as a symptom of a wider racist process or to register the abuse and violence of the G4S guards. Without sight of the explicitly racist views held by the accused, perhaps the jury was able to consider Jimmy Mubenga’s death as an accidental and unfortunate by-product of the necessary measure of immigration control. Disconnecting consideration of racism from any discussion of immigration control extends this effect, reducing each instance of racist terror into another necessary measure. Yet our research suggests that the public do not support overtly discriminatory practices of immigration control if they are given an opportunity to consider its racist context. It may seem counter-intuitive in the current climate, but perhaps proponents of migrant rights should return our energies to re-coupling debates about racism and immigration.

[1] All statistical data in this article is based on a face-to-face survey conducted for Mapping Immigration Controversy project by Ipsos MORI, 15 Aug-9 Sept 2014, with nationally representative sample of 2424 adults.



One thought on “Immigration control, racism and public opinion

  1. Pingback: What do women think? A view from Ealing/Hounslow | Mapping Immigration Controversy

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