Lessons from our research for the UK Home Office

Some historical research may be difficult to connect to current debates, but in the case of our research on the UK in the 1960s, recent events have made this easy: Many of the people caught up in the “Windrush” scandal first arrived in the UK during this period. State expectations about proof of identity and internal checks have shifted substantially since then, evolving into today’s “hostile environment.” So, I welcomed the invitation to share some of our research, under the title “The Home Office’s Approach to Managing Migration in the 1960s,” at the Home Office itself, through History and Policy’s presentation programme there.

I went to the Home Office not knowing what to expect but I found a very engaged audience who clearly saw the resonance of policymaking deliberations in the 1960s to today’s issues. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a large part of the presentation focused on description. People wanted to know how the immigration system in the 1960s operated completely at the ports, with nearly no internal enforcement to speak of, and on the basis of little documentation and proof of identity. As I have argued elsewhere, this carries clear implications for the kinds of documents these people can reasonably be expected to have 50 years later.

Beyond simple description, however, I also highlighted a few broader points,

First, I pointed out that the relative lack of documentation and bureaucracy in the Commonwealth immigration system in the 1960s was not an accident or oversight, but rather, quite deliberate. Discussions of previous UK immigration regimes – which often appear strikingly lenient compared to today’s – often carry a tone that portrays them in a quaint or even naïve light. It is easy to lose track here of what our archival research shows: that officials designed a light-touch system for Commonwealth immigrants for purposeful and interlinked reasons that we must bear in mind today.

The Home Office considered this population permanently settled, was concerned about their integration, and thought intensive internal checks would hinder this. They wanted to encourage family reunification of already-settled migrants, and thought that bureaucratising the system with pre-entry checks and document requirements would lead to draconian denials at the ports. They wanted to preserve a meaningful advantage to Commonwealth citizenship, and refraining from visa requirements was key to this. They knew what a more intensive system would look like: they had these kinds of individualised checks in place in the separate system for “aliens” (non-Commonwealth foreigners). But they believed that these checks would be resource-intensive and counterproductive for Commonwealth immigrants. The document-light system of the 1960s was no accident; it was always supposed to be that way.

One slide from the Home Office presentation.

Second, Commonwealth immigrants arrived first – the concept that a Commonwealth immigrant could be “illegal” was invented later. The system set up by the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 capped the number of new primary labour migrants, but did not make it an offence to subvert immigration controls. The Act was not intended to police individual transgressions of the rules.

As Christina and I have written, only in 1968 did entering outside a port become an offence, and even then, the Home Office regarded the change as symbolic. Court rulings did not expand the definition of “illegal entry” to include other forms of evading controls until the 1970s. The upshot is that immigrants before this time arrived under a regime where their right to stay was very secure: they were not scrutinised by internal checks, and the idea that Commonwealth citizens could even be “illegal” was not part of the control system. It is natural that this administrative posture would encourage a more relaxed attitude toward proof of status than we might expect under a different system – similar, perhaps, to EU citizens who arrived in the UK before the spectre of Brexit was raised.

Finally, I sought to highlight the contrast between the policy goals of policing individual transgressions of immigration rules, and controlling immigration numbers. Today, these are rarely distinguished. We are accustomed to the continually unmet “net migration target,” and the Home Office’s attempts to meet this through an ongoing tightening of the immigration rules. These do not (except in certain work migration categories) create caps, but rather, establish levels of qualification for individuals to immigrate to the UK.

The Home Office of the 1960s regarded these two types of immigration governance as very different, and at odds with each other. Officials saw that a design focused on individual qualification did not necessarily restrict numbers, which is one reason they resisted governing Commonwealth migration in this fashion. With respect to Commonwealth immigration, the Home Office’s chief goal was to reduce inflows, so they created a cap on new work vouchers, and saw catching possible “evaders” as marginal. Over the course of the 1960s, the Home Office found that the basic architecture of the 1962 Act did, in fact, give them the tools to reduce immigration – but also that their pursuit of this policy goal often did not match how immigration was politicized. In the 2010s, the Home Office has found reducing inflows through individualised scrutiny to be an unsolvable puzzle – while migration debates are, evidently, less about degree than kind.

The “Windrush” scandal has given renewed importance to the voices of officials, long buried in the archives, who in their own time urged caution in attempting to police immigrants. This also holds a valuable lesson in the context of Brexit. The experiences of the 1960s remind us that we must think of immigration systems in the long run: an EU citizen child today may well live for nearly a century under British immigration regimes, which should not change in ways that are incompatible with these people’s initial entry to the UK under free movement rules. If nothing else, I hope my presentation may have a positive impact on how people within the Home Office approach these issues in the future.

— Mike

Insights from our Brussels event

Last Friday we held a round-table event in Brussels, organised together with the International Centre for Migration Policy and Development (ICMPD). The event, entitled ‘State Monitoring of Irregular Migrants in the EU’ brought together officials from NGOs, the European Commission, European Parliament, and a number of local government officials from EU countries, to discuss challenges for EU countries in managing irregular migration.

One of the focuses of the discussion was on what we term ‘nodes of interaction’: the points at which public authorities identify or ‘see’ irregular migrants resident on their territory. Traditionally, the main node of interaction has been at ports of entry, where border guards, customs officers or police check the identity documents of non-nationals entering the territory of a country. But most EU countries have complemented such entry control techniques with forms of internal checks and controls.

Germany, for instance, has long had a registration system for all non-nationals residing in the country. Immigrants need to register with local authorities in order to obtain a work and residence permit. The police carry out regular spot checks, ensuring that this system of registration is fairly effectively enforced. The data is also entered in a central foreigners registry, which can be cross-checked by various different agencies and organizations.

This form of front-loaded, immediate registration can be contrasted with nodes of interaction that occur when immigrants access particular services, making employers responsible for checking documentation to ascertain whether immigrants have a right to work. Many countries have also rolled out other forms of ‘outsourcing’, requiring non-state organizations to control access to welfare, education, health, housing, and banking.

As argued in a previous blog, this form of outsourcing implies that states may only pick up on the presence of irregular migration further on in their stay, or at a later stage of their lifecourse – for example, when they need to access healthcare, or education for their children. This can be problematic, as people may have built up a strong connection to the host country by this stage, so return becomes challenging on humanitarian, and practical, grounds. Such outsourcing can also discourage people from accessing services that are crucial to their welfare.

Another main theme of discussion was the notion of protecting certain core rights of irregular migrants – even if their stay is not being regularised. On this argument, unauthorised migrants would have protected access to, for example, healthcare, education, housing, and have certain contractual rights upheld, regardless of their legal status. This idea was captured by the political theorist Joseph Carens when he argued for a ‘firewall’ protecting the fundamental rights of irregular migrants.

Many states accept the operation of this form of firewall in practice. For example, in Germany, attempts to require schools to report irregular migrant children to public authorities were abandoned after strong lobbying and political resistance. Most countries also allow immigrants to access essential and emergency healthcare. But beyond this explicit recognition of core rights, most countries tend to tolerate a more lenient approach in practice. Here the issue is not one of states formally recognising such rights, but a symptom of the fragmentation of legal systems (see an earlier discussion of this by Christina).

However, despite this being common practice in many social systems, most EU states are reluctant to formally subscribe to a ‘firewall’ approach: they are concerned about the political message it would send, both to voters who are keen to see rigorous control, and to migrants themselves. There remains a belief that immigrants are drawn to countries where immigration control practices are more lenient.

This brings us to a third point: the notion of a ‘pull factor’. It has long been assumed in EU discussions that regularisation programmes which legalise the status of irregular migrants encourage further irregular migration. Potential immigrants, so the argument runs, seek to enter countries where they are confident that their stay can eventually be regularised. Experts round the table largely agreed that there was little or no evidence of such a pull effect. Regularisation programmes typically impose robust conditions on applicants, linked to their length of stay/employment. So it is far from the case that immigrants can enter and have their status swiftly adjusted.

That said, it was also acknowledged that information about prospects for irregular stay, work and regularisation often flow through informal migrant networks. Indeed, there are interesting variations in patterns of information flows across different national/regional groups, with some typically relying on internet data on formal regulatory frameworks in countries of destination, and others relying on informal contacts. Given this, it may well be difficult to generalise about how reliably or accurately information about control practices in host countries are transmitted, and thus how far they influence mobility decisions.

These are all important insights, which we will reflect on as we further sift and analyse our data. Please watch this space for further information on our publications, which will be forthcoming over the coming months.

— Christina and Elisabeth

Emile’s end of project thoughts

Emile, the resident historian on the project, replies to Christina’s end-of-project thoughts with some reflections of his own.

We pay a good deal of lip-service to the notion of ‘interdisciplinarity’ these days. But the reality is that most interdisciplinary projects involve scholars who essentially share similar approaches to a particular subject. It is rare for a research project to bring together people who genuinely want to cross disciplinary boundaries without necessarily already knowing how to.

This point was brought home to me from the moment I joined the SIMs project in the application phase. I was clearly the odd one out. I was a historian. Neither Christina, nor the three postdocs we subsequently appointed to the project, had the same disciplinary or intellectual background as me.

I had always considered myself theoretically inclined, and most of my historian peers already thought of me as a social scientist because of the very contemporary history that I do, but this didn’t actually mean I knew what it was to work with a group of social scientists.

In the event, I could not have wished for a better introduction.

Not only was the whole team a model of collegiality and friendliness, but there was a genuine desire on the part of the (numerically more significant) group of social scientists to learn about the ‘historical method’ and ‘archival data’. If interdisciplinarity has a tendency to expose the sharp edges of a discipline, this was a decidedly soft landing.

The problem was that I had not properly considered what ‘historical method’ was, or indeed how one might ‘code’ archival ‘data’. Yes, these are things that all trainee historians are asked to think about – and things I have taught to undergraduates many times. But here I had to put them into practice in front of a more mature – and more demanding – audience.

The first lesson of this project, then, was that I did not really know how complicated my subject was until I had to explain and justify it to others. As historians, we are so used to prioritising the finished product – the argument, the material, the sources – that we forget how much the process matters.

This became particularly obvious to me when I had to teach our eager postdocs how to ‘use’ an archive. I was tempted to say, ‘well, just go there and see what you find’, a typical historian’s answer. But Christina had me down for two training ‘sessions’ and was expecting me to find 6 hours worth of stuff to say about archives.

Fortunately, the 6 hours went by in a flash. I found myself deconstructing the genealogy of archives, the catalogue, the organisation of the material, the ‘mind’ of the archive. A whole range of unexpected insights, gathered over years of quiet historical sleuthing, poured out. By the end, I realised that I had not just ‘done’ history for the past few years; I’d built a whole unspoken method.

This realisation extended deeper into the project as well. I spent quite a lot of time looking on in admiration as my fellow team members developed ‘puzzles’ for their next journal article, and arguing over the exact theoretical positioning of their arguments. I was lucky to be around such bright people.

At the same time, I took increasing pleasure in playing the role of the historian by demanding more ‘sources’, more ‘evidence’, and a more speculative approach to building arguments.

I knew from experience that the huge amount of archival material amassed during the first year of the project would take years to digest properly. I also thought – and still think – that the narrative of events remains too unclear for us to make any grand theoretical claims. It will take us a lot of time to disentangle the various explanations, logics and justifications that led to the emergence of a whole new category of political action, ‘illegal immigration’.

The French case captures many of these complexities. It is clear that a range of political and economic factors pushed the French government to develop certain categories of ‘illegal’ migration in the 1970s, but the balance of these factors is not easy to work out. Should we emphasise the legacy of a violent and fraught decolonising moment, overlaid with racism and a fear of ‘agitators’? Or should we focus on the growing belief in policy circles that the French labour market was ‘saturated’ with foreigners who could not be tracked and traced properly? Might we even pay more attention to campaigns by pro-migrant organisations who, while denouncing the supposed ‘illegality’ of some non-French citizens, inadvertently made visible forms of illegality that the state would have preferred to keep hidden?

There are similar empirical questions to be answered about the other cases. Why did the German state develop such extraordinary databases to monitor citizens and non-citizens? Why did the British state so consistently – and, until the 1990s, so successfully – practice forms of ‘strategic ignorance’ in relation to illegal migration?

These questions raise further methodological challenges. The most obvious of these is how to integrate the archival material we collected and the interviews conducted by our postdoc team. In various articles and books I’ve written in the past, I have tried to juggle these two different kinds of source, either by playing one against the other, or using oral testimonies to fill in the gaps left by the archive. We will no doubt have to do something similar here, although it is not exactly clear how.

The final point I want to make while wearing my historian’s cap is just how much this project has reinforced my sense that so-called cross-national comparisons are perilous. We were extremely fortunate for this project to have a team composed, not simply of specialists in our three case studies, but also of project members who grew up in Germany, France and the UK.

Saying goodbye: our final team gathering, after the writing retreat. From left to right: Sara, Elisabeth, Christina, Mike and Emile

This was not simply a case of well-meaning diversity. It was essential to the project. Anyone who thinks that ‘European’ – or ‘Western European’ – states can be easily compared and conflated needs to spend a few days reading the material we have collected. Our archives and respondents spoke different languages, approached their problems entirely differently, and operated within radically different administrative structures.

To take one of many examples, the British archival material is full of marginal notes and friendly banter between civil servants, whereas the German material is resolutely formal and hierarchical in its presentation. It is not nearly as easy to dissect the inner motivations of bureaucrats in the German case – the material simply isn’t there (or, more likely, we haven’t found it yet…)

Still, for all the worries about how we might be able to bring together disparate material and distinct histories, my overwhelming impression after two years on this project is one of success. We ran up against plenty of obstacles, many of which will surely return to haunt us as we try to present our findings in written form. But we’ve made a real attempt to bridge multiple disciplinary divides, and we’ve got some extraordinary material.

I can’t wait to see what comes out of the melting-pot.

— Emile

Christina’s end of project thoughts

As we reach the end of our Seeing Illegal Immigrants project, Christina reflects on a rewarding 24 months, and offers her thoughts on coordinating comparative research.

And so the project is nearing its end. Our research group is preparing to disband and our dedicated postdocs will go their separate ways. Elisabeth will move to Goettingen, where she is taking up a Post-doctoral fellowship at the Max Planck Institute. Sara will go to Paris, where she begins a research role in a newly-established research centre. And Mike decamps to Lincoln, where he took up a permanent lectureship in the Spring. These are really excellent career moves for each of the post-doctoral research fellows.

After the writing retreat. From left to right: Sara, Mike, Elisabeth and Christina

The project included a number of firsts for me. I’d done plenty of work comparing Germany and the UK, but the inclusion of France as a third country study added a fresh new perspective. Even more importantly, it was the first time I’d worked closely with a historian and included a historical dimension, which involved working with archives. Both the historical and French aspects were made possible by the collaboration with Emile, and it’s been hugely rewarding working with him.

This was also the most compressed project I’ve led, lasting just 2 years – which was especially challenging given the broad corpus of data we needed to collect. We barely got a chance to pause for breath, and we are only just beginning to make sense of the data and develop ideas for publications. Thankfully, although the team is moving on, we are all committed to co-operating through a range of papers and a planned book.

So while it’s fresh in my mind, I thought I’d list a few things I’ve learned from the research process.

1. Good cross-national comparison requires really careful coordination. Many of us will have had experience of more loosely coordinated cross-European comparisons, where different national teams take charge of each case study. These project structures may produce excellent data for each country – but they rarely produce truly comparable data and analysis. We sought to avoid this by having a closely integrated group of post-doctoral fellows, co-located for most of the project, and coordinating regularly while away on field work. So we were able to develop a common understanding of the key concepts, theories and variables being employed – which guided which data to collect, and how to code it. That all worked pretty well.

2. It was challenging to ‘outsource’ archival data collection, however. Unlike with other forms of data typically deployed by political scientists – interviews, document analysis, quants data on political behaviour – it can be extremely laborious to wade through. So while delegating data collection to team members may save labour initially (and indeed may be necessary if the PI faces travel constraints), it’s far from straightforward to access and make use of thousands of pages of bureaucratic communications once they’ve been collected. Thus far, I have been able to read a fair bit of the UK archival material, but have found it more daunting to approach the French and German material. This makes systematic coding really crucial. Co-authorship is also important, allowing the colleagues who collected the data to team up with the project leaders to jointly analyse the data. We will get there, and it’s certainly worth the effort, but it has not been straightforward.

3. Having said that, I am a true convert to archival data. I’ve found it fascinating to trace the evolution (if we can call it that) of policies on irregular migration from the 1960s onwards. I’m convinced this historical perspective is a really important lens through which to understand public policy – not just for the obvious historical institutionalist reasons (in which past decisions shape and constrain current ones). But also because it is interesting to understand how particular social problems were initially identified and constructed – which provides very interesting insights into theories of problem construction. And there’s nothing like archival data to get insight into the detailed deliberations of officials and ministers. So this rich historical data can really contribute to theory-building.

4. It’s important to be flexible with the research design – but consistent across the cases. We found that we simply didn’t have the capacity to cover the period from the early 1990s to the present day, as set out in the proposal. So we decided to focus on a ‘critical juncture’ in immigration control, occurring roughly from the late 1980s until the early 2000s. We decided on this collectively, through a scoping of each country case to see which the most interesting period was to zoom in on. We will treat more recent developments as a sort of epilogue to our analysis. I am really glad we decided this, as we have gained a really rich understanding of the two periods we focus on indepth. This wouldn’t have been possible if we’d stretched ourselves too thin.

5. We always knew it would be a challenge to compare archival data (for the 1960s/70s) with interview data for the more recent period. Interviews necessarily involve a degree of post-facto sense-making, and many of our interviewees were talking about events long passed. So the data simply cannot reproduce government thinking as meticulously as the written records. But tapping the recollections of retired officials turned out to yield very rich material – interviewees could be more frank, and had had time to process and contextualise their experiences. Of course, it would be difficult to compare this data with the archival material in a rigorous comparative research design – but we have more than enough material to reconstruct the content and nature of deliberations over the two periods, and to compare across the national cases.

6. We have also had to be flexible about our publication plans. As we analyse data, we develop different ideas about how we can contribute to different literatures – and what sorts of comparisons will be fruitful. I initially had an idea of doing a 3-way comparison of how the social ‘problem’ of irregular migration first emerged – but then got bogged down in the UK case and discovered there was a paper in that alone. By contrast, a UK/German comparison of ‘political ignorance’ works brilliantly as a way of illustrating ideas on ignorance I’ve been developing for a long time. Elisabeth, Mike and Sara have found interesting parallels in how the three states prioritised access to welfare as a site for controlling irregular migration, and so are now working on a paper on that. There is plenty more scope for different comparisons and single country papers. We have encouraged the team to be entrepreneurial in how they identify and develop different formats of comparative or single-case analyses. Though of course, our planned book will offer us a more accommodating format for a thorough comparison of the three cases. Our guiding principle throughout, it should go without saying, has been that authorship arrangements need to mirror the respective contributions to analysis and drafting.

7. Clearly, ongoing dialogue among the team members was absolutely crucial. We had an intense phase of discussion at the beginning, to make sure our understanding of the research questions, concepts, theories and design was well aligned. Once the researchers were in the archival ‘field’, they posted weekly reports, and we had frequent group Skype chats. We continued our regular meetings to agree on data coding, planning the interviews, and developing publication plans, over the second year of the project. And the project culminated in a writing retreat, where we had concentrated time to work on outputs and to discuss our findings and insights. Elisabeth, Mike and Sara also had their own ongoing discussion, co-located in the same office and continually sharing ideas and advice – from comparing key concepts across the cases, to sorting out glitches with NVivo. Luckily we all got on very well – and have firm plans to keep the conversation going. We will be meeting next July in Paris for a follow-up writing retreat, at which point we should be finalising outputs from the project.

Until then, all that remains to be said is… a bientot, bis bald, and see you soon!

— Christina

Project team present findings at the IPPR in London

At an event last week in London hosted with IPPR, Christina and Mike had an opportunity to present some of the project findings, and discuss them with a group of MPs, as well as experts from business and law firms, NGOs, local government, think tanks and academia. Much of the discussion explored trends in UK migration control, and in this blog Christina reflects on insights from the project and the discussion.

Over the past three decades, the UK government has gradually shifted from a reliance on external borders to internal control. This has taken the form of ‘outsourcing’ control to a range of service providers and social systems, who effectively become gatekeepers, monitoring migrants and/or limiting their access to key services. This started in the 1980s and 1990s with carrier sanctions and employer sanctions, followed by the introduction of ‘sponsor status’ for employers and higher education institutions in the 2000s. It has culminated in the so-called ‘hostile environment’ introduced by the Home Office in the 2010s, which now implicates health, education, banking and private housing suppliers in controlling irregular migration.

In one sense, the shift from external to internal control aligns the UK with its continental neighbours, who have long relied on checks on immigrants within their territory. However, internal checks in the UK are not based on the type of ‘police and patrol’ methods that characterise most continental European countries. There is no requirement for residents to register with local authorities, to notify authorities of their whereabouts, or to carry ID with them. Police have a limited role in control, and do not carry out the sorts of spot checks seen in many other European countries. Instead, checks are outsourced to the range of social services that immigrants access: transport carriers, who enable entry into the UK; employers, who act as the gatekeepers to labour market participation; but also, more controversially, education and health providers, banks and landlords.

In many ways, this is an astute move for a government keen to limit irregular work and stay. Immigrants who are staying for a prolonged period of time, and especially those with family, rely on such services to sustain a viable life in the UK. It is difficult, arguably impossible, to lead a decent life without being admitted into these social systems.

However, the UK approach of relying on social systems and service providers carries risks. It implies that control only kicks in once migrants access relevant services: once they require health care, or education, or more stable accommodation, or a longer-term job. This may not apply when they first arrive, but may well become a requirement they are settled, or once they have children. This is in contrast to the continental model, which front-loads immigration control by requiring immediate registration and spot checks.

In this sense, outsourcing control to service providers disrupts the long-standing UK approach of combining restrictive entry with a tolerant approach to immigrants once they are here. On the new approach, immigrants may enter more readily, but may be caught out by internal checks several years or even decades into their stay.

There is a further risk that imposing barriers to accessing services will encourage people to slip beneath the radar. If people have strong reasons to stay in the UK, then they may simply circumvent regular structures and services (whether housing, health, education, employment), and rely on informal structures or go without any support at all. But falling back on informal, irregular systems will expose immigrants to more abuse and exploitation, making them more vulnerable to ruthless landlords, or exploitative employers. It will also deprive them of core rights to education and health. And in the long-term, the upshot will be that they are more vulnerable and less integrated into UK society.

Both factors mean that we may well see more Windrush-type cases, where immigrants with unclear status or without the relevant documentation either avoid, or are caught out by, immigration control only at the point that they begin to access much-needed services. This may well become a serious problem in the case of EEA nationals after Brexit, many of whom may not be able to supply the required documentation to achieve settled status, or may not be willing or able to put in an application (see also Mike’s blog on lessons from the Windrush scandal).

So what is the answer? How might the UK government go about managing irregular stay without jeopardising the welfare and integration prospects of long-term residents?

The UK government has toyed with the idea of rolling out universal ID cards since the 1990s, but has faced strong opposition on logistical and civil rights grounds. Neither is it clear that such a system would solve the problem. In the absence of a more systematic approach to registration and checks – such as the one operating in Germany – simply being required to show an ID card at the point of accessing services would not address the challenges above. It would also imply a huge investment in terms of infrastructure, and would jar with the a long-standing political culture of minimal (at least formal) state control of residents.

If control measures are not the answer, there are other approaches that could help address the problem. First, the UK could do more to reduce the incentives of both employers and immigrants to resort to irregular employment. In particular, the UK needs to think seriously about how to meet demand for lower-skilled labour after Brexit, when the supply of EEA nationals to lower-skilled jobs is likely to be restricted. If immigrants are permitted to meet demand for such labour through regular routes, with access to appropriate residence rights, then there will be less incentive for unauthorised work or stay.

Second, and linked to this, UK public authorities need to be more robust about regulating labour in the sectors most vulnerable to informal work – such as domestic work, hospitality, construction, and areas of manufacturing and agriculture. Germany and Sweden are examples of countries with more robust checks and controls, which reduce the incentives of both employers and workers to use informal channels. And since work is the area most likely to be immediately accessed by immigrants, it lessens the risk of gatekeepers identifying irregular migrants once they have been residing for a prolonged period of time. It also avoids deterring immigrants from services that they should be actively encouraged to access while they are in the UK, such as health and education.

Third, the UK should consider options for regularising longer-term residents. If outsourcing immigration control implies delaying immigrant control until migrants are already settled, then the government needs to be more accommodating in allowing amnesties for longer-term residents. Regularisation of status need not be high profile, if there is concern about creating a ‘pull factor’ for would-be beneficiaries. Instead, the Home Office could develop more systematic guidance for granting amnesties on a case-by-case basis, dependent on length of stay, family status, degree of integration, and so on.

No country has a perfect system for controlling irregular immigration. Each government has to work within the constraints of its existing infrastructure, resources, humanitarian obligations and political culture. The UK has traditionally relied on external controls, but has increasingly acknowledged it needs to focus management on internal measures. But it has become patently clear that the ‘hostile environment’ is not the solution. Nor is a continental style ‘police and control’ system. Instead, the UK government should focus on addressing the problem at its source, through reducing incentives for irregular employment; channel more resources to support the key gatekeeping function of employers, rather than other social services which immigrants should be encouraged to access; and creating a more accommodating approach to regularisation for those migrants who are identified only once they are already settled.

— Christina

After the Windrush scandal: are other groups a target?

Reblogged from History & Policy

The current “Windrush” scandal — where the Home Office has accused a number of long-settled individuals of being “illegal immigrants” — has thrown into relief the many consequences of the government’s “hostile environment” (pdf) policies. Taking a longer historical view, however, illuminates another stark warning: the possible repercussions when governments undertake major shifts in immigration enforcement without sufficiently considering expectations that were in place when previous immigrant groups arrived. This is an essential warning to heed as the government attempts to deal with the post-Brexit status of millions of EU immigrants.

To see just how profoundly expectations about internal control have changed in the UK, it is worth looking further back than the beginnings of today’s “hostile environment.” Our recent article in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies uses archival evidence to examine how the Home Office approached immigrant documentation in the late 1960s — when many of the immigrants decades later suspected as “illegal” first arrived.

As we chart in our article, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 had attempted to govern aggregate flows of immigration. It provided very few tools to punish individual transgressions of the rules. However, the Home Office soon began to move in that direction, mostly for symbolic reasons — aligning policy to fit popular perceptions of effective immigration control. Few in the Home Office thought a more punitive and individualised approach would aid their goal of reducing immigration.

Accordingly, expectations about individual documentation were completely different, on the part of both immigrants and immigration officials. This had major implications when the Home Office demanded proof that immigrants from this era had settled in Britain before 1973.

For instance, in our article we examine the 1969 requirement that Commonwealth dependants arriving for settlement acquire “entry certificates” before embarking. Today it may be difficult to believe, but before 1969, almost no documentation was strictly required for these children to enter and settle in the UK. A passport would be produced, but many children were on their parents’, so any stamp confirming settlement rights in the UK might have been included in a passport that belonged to someone else, likely now to be long discarded.

The Home Office’s goal in the late 1960s was to reduce immigration numbers, but they did not believe that simply requiring more paperwork would do this. In fact, this change was delayed for years in part because officials believed that it would be untenable to exclude people who appeared at the ports with obviously legitimate claims, but who did not have the right paperwork. Nevertheless, the Home Office came under political pressure to enact the change. But the Home Office issued no further paperwork to these immigrants systematically upon arrival, either before or after 1969. Demanding such paperwork a half-century later was bound to produce Kafkaesque situations.

One reason it was possible for immigrants to have such little paperwork is that the UK did not operate any system of internal checks at this time. In the 1960s, the UK’s system for Commonwealth immigration was conceptualised as based entirely at the port. While Commonwealth children were often subjected to invasive scrutiny at the ports of entry, Commonwealth citizens (unlike aliens) were not required to register with the police, and they were rarely admitted with conditions.

Policymakers believed internal monitoring would be difficult to set up, resource-intensive, and unlikely to produce results. Of course, today’s “hostile environment” includes a wide variety of checks, based on the apparent presumption that all legal immigrants are well documented. But we must remember that this is a recent development. In the 1960s, Home Office policymakers questioned the value of internal checks that would need to be premised on expectations of individual documentation which they knew not all individuals legally settled in the UK would meet.

In subsequent years, many of the individuals recently challenged to prove their status failed to obtain paperwork to confirm a status to which they had been considered entitled under law. The difficulties they have faced under shifting policies highlight possible issues for other groups.

While the current scandal has focused on “Windrush” immigrants from the Caribbean, the same issues seem primed to ensnare other Commonwealth immigrants who arrived under the same system and with the same documentary expectations. In contrast to Caribbean immigrants who arrived in the UK from islands that were not yet independent, immigrants from the Subcontinent are likely to have been more aware of their status as immigrants. But child immigrants from the Subcontinent often arrived with even less documentation than those from the Caribbean, as prior to 1969 the issuance of entry certificates there was much less common. It is likely that recent enforcement efforts are affecting long-settled Commonwealth immigrants from well beyond the Caribbean.

Looking forward, the current controversy also raises significant concerns about the status of EU immigrants in the UK. Their situation is broadly analogous: like pre-1962 Commonwealth immigrants, they arrived under a free movement regime, and with relatively light expectations around individual documentation and registration.

Despite repeated promises that current EU immigrants’ status will be sorted out sympathetically, the aggressive demands the Home Office has recently made of long-settled people raise major concerns about whether it has the institutional culture to follow through on such promises in the long term. Sadly, therefore, the current scandal is also a warning. It highlights what happens when the Home Office enacts new policies with no apparent regard to its own institutional history.

— Mike and Christina

Seeing Commonwealth immigrant children of the 1960s: then and now

A cascade of media coverage has highlighted cases of “Windrush children” immigrants who settled legally in Britain as children before 1973, but in recent years have been challenged by the Home Office to prove their immigration status in the UK. Amelia Gentleman at the Guardian initially brought attention to several perverse cases, and with the government drawing intense criticism in parliament from David Lammy and others, the home secretary has now been forced to apologise.

A common observation is that these people have been caught out by the “Hostile Environment” strategy the Home Office has increasingly adopted since Theresa May became home secretary in 2010. But to see just how profoundly expectations about internal control have changed, it is worth looking further back.

In our project’s first article, published online last week, we focus on UK policy toward irregular immigration in the 1960s – the time at which many of these individuals, decades later suspected as “illegal immigrants,” first arrived.

The big-picture observation Christina and I make in our article is that the Home Office at this time adopted policies toward irregular migration that were “symbolic,” responding to political pressure to accord with public accounts of what kind of immigration control would be sensible. Few in the Home Office thought that more punitive and individualised approaches would actually aid their policy goals.

The reasoning of today’s Home Office has dramatically changed, so there is much to be gained by looking back at the archival evidence we used in our article to see how policies were developed in the 1960s. Here are three key points that can help us understand the current plight of the “Windrush children.”

  1. Children of Commonwealth migrants could legally settle in the UK with little to no documentation before 1969

One of the main episodes we examine was the requirement that Commonwealth dependants arriving for settlement acquire “entry certificates” before embarking, a policy which was introduced in 1969. Before 1969, almost no documentation was strictly necessary for these children to immigrate to the UK. A passport would be produced, but many children were on their parents’, so any stamp conferring settlement rights in the UK might have been included in a passport that belonged to someone else, likely now to be long discarded.

Even when this measure was adopted, it was symbolic. The Home Office’s goal in the late 1960s was to reduce immigration numbers, but they did not believe that simply requiring more paperwork would do this. Nevertheless, they came under political pressure to enact the change. So the requirement that these children have entry documents was half-hearted, and the Home Office issued no further paperwork to them systematically upon arrival, either before or after 1969. Demanding such paperwork a half-century later was bound to produce Kafkaesque situations like the ones we’ve seen.

  1. The 1960s Home Office believed internal checks to be a largely ineffective way of controlling immigration

One reason it was possible for immigrants to have such little paperwork is that the UK did not operate any system of internal checks at this time. In the 1960s, the UK’s system for Commonwealth immigration was conceptualised as based entirely at the port. Unlike aliens, Commonwealth citizens were not required to register with the police and were rarely admitted with conditions.

Policymakers believed internal monitoring would be difficult to set up, resource-intensive, and unlikely to produce results. In our article, we quote the permanent secretary of the Home Office in 1965 as responding to proposals to begin relatively modest forms of internal monitoring by saying: “they are likely to be least effective with the kind of people we would most wish to keep out.” Given that they would likely be ineffective, measures to introduce more robust systems of ID and eligibility checks were not introduced at this time.

Of course, today’s “Hostile Environment” includes a wide variety of such checks, based on the apparent presumption that all legal immigrants are well documented. But we need to remember this is a recent development. The Home Office has not always been focused on internal monitoring. On the contrary, in the 1960s, most officials believed it would be ineffective, and would possibly ensnare those who were not the intended targets.

  1. “Illegal” Commonwealth immigration did not exist until 1968

Between 1962 and 1968, Commonwealth immigrants could not immigrate “illegally” to the UK – they could be turned away at the port and sent home if they were deemed not to qualify, but this ability to inspect them lasted only 24 hours. If they had entered clandestinely (or were let in despite not genuinely being eligible), after a day, they were de facto able to stay.

Our article explores how even when the Home Office changed this, they did so only for symbolic reasons. Officials did not think that the change would really help control immigration, but they created “illegality” basically because they were under political pressure over a legal regime they knew “look[ed] ridiculous.”

This underscores how characterising any Commonwealth immigrants who arrived before 1968 as possibly being “illegal” is itself a nonsense. Consider this: today, the Home Office is demanding that “Windrush children” prove they settled in the UK before 1973. But many of these people cannot show they arrived before this time, because beyond a stamp possibly in someone else’s passport, the Home Office did not in fact issue any such proof at the time. In subsequent years, many of these indviduals failed to obtain paperwork to confirm a status to which they had been considered entitled under law.

The “Hostile Environment” represents a significant advance in the UK’s internal monitoring regime even compared to 30 years ago (the topic of our current fieldwork), and in many regards represents the precise opposite of the policy reasoning of the Home Office when these “Windrush children” arrived. In the 1960s, while children were often subjected to invasive scrutiny at the ports of entry, the system was not focused on the individual transgression of immigration rules, and the rights of Commonwealth dependants were intended to prevail if they appeared to the officer at the port to have a legitimate claim to settle, paperwork notwithstanding.

Accordingly, expectations about individual documentation were completely different, both on the part of immigrants and immigration officials. The Home Office in the 1960s knew the issues with conducting internal checks given that Commonwealth migrants could be legally settled in the UK with little documentation at all. Indeed, officials in the late 1960s were actually worried about excluding Commonwealth citizens who had a legal right to settle in the UK on the grounds that they did not have the right paperwork.

Today, these concerns seem particularly painful in the context of the terrible cases highlighted by journalists and MPs. Unfortunately, this recent controversy highlights what happens when the Home Office enacts new policies with no apparent regard to its own institutional history.

— Mike

After border control: the internalisation of immigration enforcement

Last Wednesday, the UK Government published its long-awaited Position Paper on Northern Ireland and Ireland, setting out how it hoped to maintain a border-free zone with Ireland once it has left the EU.

Section 2 of the paper deals with maintenance of the Common Travel Area – suggesting how the UK and Ireland might sustain free movement and rights of Irish and UK nationals post-Brexit. Many commentators have questioned how these provisions can be preserved, once the UK starts to impose restrictions on the free movement of EEA nationals. But the paper helpfully clarifies a few misconceptions that have caused much confusion over the past month.

Border control checkpoint at a UK airport

The key point is that any immigration restrictions on EEA nationals are likely to be enforced post-entry. In other words, immigration control won’t take place at the border, but once people are in the UK. Indeed, it is likely that EEA nationals will continue to be able to enter the UK (as visitors) after Brexit. What will change is not their ability to travel to the UK, but their right to reside and work in the country. Once the UK leaves the Single Market, it is assumed that EEA nationals will no longer enjoy an automatic entitlement to live and work in the UK. And these new restrictions will be enforced through checks and controls on access to employment, benefits and services.

The UK is rightly confident in its ability to enforce immigration rules through such internal checks. Over the past few decades the government has been rolling out its capacity to control non-nationals resident in the UK. Key to this approach is to enlist organizations in other sectors – whether employers, social services, higher education, health, private housing, or banks – to enforce restrictions on the access of irregular immigrants to key social and economic services.

Most notably, employers and higher education organizations have been given the role of ‘sponsors’ who are delegated the responsibility of monitoring employees and students from outside the EU. These policies are intended to create a ‘hostile environment’ for irregular migrants, making it impossible for them to carve out a viable life in the UK. This approach recognises that border control cannot effectively stop irregular migration, a large portion of which involves overstay of visas.

Of course, it is always possible that EEA nationals may successfully evade these controls. But they will have limited incentives to do so – given the risks and difficulties associated with trying to access employment, housing, banking or healthcare without authorisation. Indeed, the types of mobility most associated with irregular stay and work involve those employed in lower-skilled, lower-paid and less regulated sectors – such as informal work in domestic services or some areas of agriculture, construction, hospitality and catering, where employers may have less incentive to check documentation and employ workers on the books.

Recall, too, that those most likely to be drawn into such irregular work and stay are those with limited life prospects in their country of origin – those without attractive or viable alternatives. So irregular status in the UK is unlikely to be an appealing long-term prospect for nationals from relatively stable and prosperous EEA countries.

What may be more of a headache for the UK government is potential cross-border flows of non-EEA nationals, especially those with the features described above – escaping difficult conditions at home, and employed in lower-skilled and less regulated sectors. Here, there may be some potential for cross-border movements resulting in irregular stay and work. But here, as the paper points out, UK and Irish policy is broadly aligned. Neither country is part of the Schengen Zone – and they have developed close cooperation on visa and entry policies for third country nationals. The principal risk here is if Ireland were to join Schengen – a prospect that seems highly unlikely, given both Ireland and the EU’s support for sustaining the CTA.

So the paper doesn’t offer much that is new or surprising on immigration control. But the paper’s explicit clarification of these points about border and internal immigration control does offer food for thought.

First, it weakens one of the arguments marshalled against Scotland (or other parts of the UK) adopting a differentiated approach to immigration. One of the main arguments against such a devolved approach is that it risks onward movement from Scotland to the rest of the UK – Scotland would become a ‘back door’ for immigrants. But this position paper acknowledges that this is not a problem in relation to Ireland, even in the event of the UK leaving the Single Market – that much immigration control effectively takes place post-entry, and that it is possible to align visa policy for third-country nationals. So that knocks out one of the main arguments for refusing Scotland more autonomy over its immigration policy (see the recent paper I co-authored on this with Sarah Kyambi and Saskia Smellie).

Second, it implies that future UK immigration policy may rely more on such internal controls. The subtle message of the paper seems to be: trust us, we have further plans in this area. The area of internal immigration controls has evolved rapidly over the past years. But successive governments have also been frustrated at resistance from some sectors, who are reluctant to play a role in enforcement (teachers and doctors have been notably reticent about complying). Remember, too, the demise of Labour’s universal ID card plan – a scheme which may well be revived to deal with new migration control challenges. It wouldn’t be surprising if such proposals find their way back onto the agenda. In short, we are likely to see a further push for these forms of post-entry control.

As a final thought, if the UK is developing internal enforcement in this way, it begs the question as to whether such controls could address concerns about EEA immigration – those very concerns that prompted many to support Brexit. One of the reasons the UK has implemented free movement provisions in a less robust way than some of its continental neighbours is its lack of state capacity to monitor the whereabouts of non-nationals.

The UK lacks the type of registration system and ID cards that most EU countries have had for decades. The UK is also hampered in this by its welfare system. EU countries with contributory welfare systems are better equipped to exclude new (EU) immigrants from welfare benefits. In the event of the UK deciding it needs to accept free movement provisions to retain access to the Single Market, the UK government is likely to need to rethink these provisions.

So whether in or out of the Single Market, we should watch this space. The exigencies of immigration control are likely to have a profound effect on how the state monitors, and allocates resources to, its population.


NB. This post has been reposted with very minor modifications from: https://christinaboswell.wordpress.com/2017/08/20/after-border-control-how-internal-controls-are-becoming-the-most-potent-tool-in-immigration-enforcement/

The SIMs team at the Council for European Studies Conference in Glasgow

The Council for European Studies (CES) held its 24th international conference at the University of Glasgow on 12-14 July 2017. Half-way through the SIMs project, this presented a great chance to bring together expert scholars and to present findings from the archival fieldwork to a wider audience following the highly successful SIMs workshop earlier that week.

I organised a panel entitled ‘Seeing ‘Illegal’ Immigrants: State Monitoring Practices in Europe and Beyond’. It was chaired by our PI, Christina Boswell, and it fell within the CES immigration research network. The panel combined five papers presenting a mix of theoretical and empirical analyses of irregular migration, with a focus on state institutions and migrants’ agency, offering different country case studies of historical and contemporary nature.

The first paper “Decent Illegals – How Some Irregular Migrants Are Perceived Smoothly” by Giuseppe Sciortino and Martina Cvajner (both from Università di Trento, Italy) considered the complex stratification of illegality that is not captured by legal and political binaries. Drawing on a decade of research on irregular migrants in Italy, Sciortino and Cvajner argued that states are more likely to “see” young men in the public sphere than older female caregivers in domestic households, even if they happen to hold the same (il)legal status.

Dita Vogel (Universität Bremen, Germany) followed with a paper combining macro with micro-level approaches in which she argued that we need both perspectives to fully understand irregular migration. By supplementing Sciortino and Cvajner’s work on systems theory and Anna Triandafyllidou’s research on migrant agency with social-psychological models of individual agency, Vogel not only provided a bridge between all panel contributions. She also demonstrated her argument with a recent telephone survey of primary schools in Germany which found that even though education providers are no longer under structural constraints to report undocumented students, 62 out of 100 school teachers still thought it impossible to accept irregular children.

The third paper by Jennifer Elrick (McGill University, Canada) presented the outline of her new research project on “Specifying the Role of Immigration Bureaucracies in Immigration Control: A Historical Case Study of Canada, 1952-1976”. While Canada is typically seen as a migration friendly “settler country”, it operated an explicitly racial exclusionary immigration policy in the 1950s. By analysing archival files from the Citizenship and Immigration Department, Elrick aims to shed light on the role of high-level bureaucrats in paving the way for a more liberal immigration policy in Canada. She gave three examples of how Chinese fiancées, adopted children and non-European skilled workers came to be seen as “admissible” by senior officials several years before the statute books were changed by 1967.

I presented a paper on the origin and establishment of the German Central Foreigner Register (Ausländerzentralregister, AZR) that was set up in 1953 and has become a key migration monitoring technique today. Based on records from the Federal Interior Ministry stored at the Bundesarchiv Koblenz, I argued that the German Central Foreigner Register was created to enhance and standardise migration control in a federal state system following external pressures by the Allied Forces who expressed concern about inconsistent registration practices. However, due to a lack of cooperation and resources, the Register led to unintended consequences such as skewed migration statistics and cases of inadvertent legalisation.

Finally, Eda Gemi (European University of Tirana, Albania) presented a paper co-authored with Anna Triandafyllidou (European University Institute, Florence, Italy) focussing on migrants’ agency. Based on a recently completed research project on contemporary irregular migration to Southern Europe, the paper analysed the experiences, motivations and decisions by irregular migrants coming to Greece from Albania, Georgia, Ukraine, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Gemi and Triandafyllidou found that, while all interviewed irregular migrants stressed the role of kinship networks and smuggling agencies, the main obstacle to these migrants was unauthorized border crossing in the case of Pakistan and Afghanistan, compared to obtaining official or forged visa documents in the cases of Georgians, Ukrainians and (to a lesser extent) Albanians.

Each paper benefitted from the valuable questions and comments from the panel discussant, Andrew Geddes (University of Sheffield, UK) and from an engaging audience. The panel members and SIM researchers continued the lively discussion in the evening over haggis and other culinary delights.

Thank you to everyone for contributing to what was a fascinating and enjoyable panel!


PS. A sneak picture of the SIMs team and friends at the CES panel…

Milestones: our one-year workshop

All projects need milestones. With this in mind, we decided to mark the (almost) one-year anniversary of the SIMs project with a one-day interdisciplinary workshop on 11 July 2017.

In contrast with all of the previous workshops, which have involved discussions amongst members of the SIMs team, this event included a range of other experts, including members of our advisory board. In addition to the three SIMs postdocs and the two investigators, we welcomed Sarah Kyambi (Edinburgh), Cetta Mainwaring (Glasgow), Angéline Escafré-Dublet (Université Lyon II), Jennifer Elrick (McGill), Dita Vogel (Uni. Bremen) and James Hampshire (Sussex).

From right to left: Cetta Mainwaring, Elisabeth Badenhoop, Angéline Escafré-Dublet, Sara Casella-Colombeau, Mike Slaven, Christina Boswell, Jennifer Elrick, Dita Vogel and James Hampshire.

We organised the workshop in such a way that each of the postdocs was able to present some initial findings in the form of a pre-circulated paper and then receive comments from one or more external member. It proved to be an excellent model that was stimulating and engaging for all concerned.

As one might expect, many of the comments were related to the specific cases. For example, James and Angéline highlighted the importance of the imperial past in France and Britain. They reminded us that ideas of illegality in the 1960s and 70s were disproportionately determined by questions of race, ethnicity and origin. Because these played such an important role in state monitoring logics, they suggested that we consider the impact of these structures more deeply.

In the case of Germany, Dita emphasised the organisational structure of the German federal state in the 1960s, while Jennifer encouraged us to think more carefully about the degree of competition between national and regional (Länder) government. There was also some discussion about the extent to which the German case needs to understood in relation to the Nazi, Weimar and Bismarckian legacy.

As above, except with Emile Chabal in the picture rather than Christina Boswell

With such a rich range of approaches on show, several of our guests raised the possibility of cross-case comparisons – particularly in relation to the administrative mechanisms that were used to monitor illegality in the 1960s and 70s. This will probably need to be developed on a case-by-case basis since, as the postdocs have discovered, archival documents are complex sources that lend themselves more readily to close-grained thick description than broad-brush comparisons.

Sadly, there was not enough time for the two investigators to present their joint theoretical paper about the emergence of illegal immigration as a social problem in France and the UK. There was, however, a chance to talk about the core hypothesis, namely that in France the issue of illegal migration was formulated in relation to “clandestine” employment and access to the labour market, whereas in the UK it related to a more diffuse public concern about “numbers” of (especially New Commonwealth) immigrants.

No doubt there will be time later for the SIMs team to discuss this amongst themselves, but this workshop was an excellent way to draw a line under a year of enormously productive archival work. Congratulations to our postdocs for being so cheerful, productive and hard-working this year – we look forward to many more fascinating insights from them!


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