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Why Britain’s neurosis about illegal immigrants is bad for our privacy

United Kingdom UK police border

By Simon Davies

In case you missed this nugget, two weeks ago UK border guards swooped on US comedian Joan Rivers as she attempted to land a fishing boat in the company of a TV crew. It was an understandable mistake. Cunning illegal immigrants are apparently adopting ever-more ingenious tactics to board this island, including hiring television crews, traveling inside circus elephants and pretending to be UK border control officers. Still, no matter what your view of Joan Rivers, even she didn’t deserve that sort of treatment.

Cunning illegal immigrants are apparently adopting ever-more ingenious tactics to board this island, including hiring television crews, traveling inside circus elephants and pretending to be UK border control officers.

According to the Labour Party (which ironically had established much of the current border control system when it was in office) the illegal immigrant problem is spiralling out of control. If the Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee is to be believed there are some 300,000 reported cases of illegal immigrants awaiting investigation by the Home Office. Just how many of these are famous US comedians with TV crews has yet to be determined. Reporting suspected illegals is a game anyone can play – and they do so, often.

While it is true that at some levels the UK Border Agency seems to be unfit for purpose, it would be unfair to hand it all the blame. Vast cuts in public service budgets coupled with mass hysteria over illegal immigration have put the agency under unprecedented pressure. Yes, there’s no excuse for misplacing entire rooms-full of correspondence, but the dysfunction goes much further than the agency itself.

Paranoia over illegal immigration has reached the level of open hysteria in the UK, with estimates of the illegal population ranging from 174,000 to, well, whatever figure you choose to pick out of the air really. Perhaps only the Australians are more openly paranoid, though at least they have the decency to stick to a reasonable estimate – generally hovering around 50,000.

Paranoia over illegal immigration has reached the level of open hysteria in the UK, with estimates of the illegal population ranging from 174,000 to, well, whatever figure you choose to pick out of the air really.

The chief problem is one of constructed delusion. So scared is everyone of having anything to do with suspected illegal immigrants that even at the sniff of suspicion people will fall over themselves to alert the press. This includes the ruling Tory party, which is desperate to appease its authoritarian wing on this issue.

Anyone not of obvious White Anglo-Saxon origin is fair game for such a label. If tabloid reports of illegal immigrant involvement in crime is any litmus test then these people would be spending all their time mugging and pillaging. The reality of course from the known evidence is that such people tend to keep their profile low. The fact that the Home Office refuses to institute an amnesty makes their situation more entrenched and desperate.

If tabloid reports of illegal immigrant involvement in crime is any litmus test then these people would be spending all their time mugging and pillaging.

This situation leads to some unfortunate and entrenched negative perception. The MORI polling organisation notes that findings from one survey of adults in Great Britain, conducted on behalf of the Migration Observatory at Oxford University, suggest that, when thinking about immigrants, the public are most likely to think of asylum seekers (62%) and least likely to think of students (29%). Approximately three quarters of British people now favour reducing immigration.

From a privacy perspective this vicious cycle ends up affecting all of us in the form of tighter internal controls and increasingly invasive identity checks. If you ever had any doubt about the level of paranoia in the UK about illegal immigrants you should take a trip on Eurostar. It’s quite an instructive experience.

Traveling from London to Brussels – just by way of comparison – is a breeze. Just show your passport after security and then you can settle back and have a snooze in your outrageously overpriced seat. At the other end you can just wander off the train and go about your business. Not so coming the other way to London.

First there are two passport controls on the Belgium side. At the UK booth you must also present your ticket, which is then stamped with great ceremony after your passport has been scanned and all details electronically verified.

It doesn’t end there. On the train itself there are one – sometimes two – ticket and passport checks. Apparently being locked into a hermetically sealed bullet proof metal tube still doesn’t eliminate all risk of a virus-sized Romanian gypsy mother slithering through the cracks. And at the other end in London an entire trainload of 1,000 people is forced to line up and do it all over again. And there are dogs. Did I mention the dogs?

Well, Eurostar always wanted to pretend it was an airline, and now it has what it wanted. Be careful what you wish for.

My colleague made the novel observation as we went through this drama today that on the off chance anyone actually did sneak into the UK through this gauntlet that they would surely be exactly the sort of person we’d want here – ingenious and tenacious.

if anyone made it unlawfully to St Pancras Station they should be given a job in the Home Office.

I would go a step further and offer the suggestion that if anyone made it unlawfully to St Pancras Station they should be given a job in the Home Office. Perhaps they could replace the jobsworths who are helping perpetuate these myths in order to protect their own salaries.

Let’s look at the financial outlay of this operation. In these times of austerity any major operation such as this should be put under the microscope.

It’s almost impossible these days to get a breakdown of specific costs of border security to the public purse, as all figures are “composite”, “amalgamated” or could only be produced at “disproportionate cost”. However in my thirty or so trips to Brussels in the past couple of years I’ve never seen anyone detained. Nor have any of my colleagues. So in the absence of any specific figure I’ll take a guess that this absurdly complex border procedure is costing the UK taxpayer several million pounds a year in return for the satisfaction of a temporary immunity from a few barbs from the Daily Mail.

I’d like to suggest that this insanity will end at some point, but I’m afraid all the signs are that the UK – as with so many other countries – is destined to incubate a pressure cooker of suspicion into the indefinite future. The few voices of reason are characterised as anti-British, and that’s a dangerous path for any nation.