Hostile environment

The Government is turning bankers into border guards

Posted by Gracie Bradley on 25 Sep 2017

It’s up to all of us to stand up to the hostile environment.

Successive governments, determined to appear tough on immigration whatever the human cost, have introduced border controls into our schools, hospitals, workplaces, and even our homes.

So last week’s story that banks will begin quarterly immigration checks on every single account holder in search of undocumented migrants is nothing new. Like so many other discriminatory powers, these rules are part of 2016’s poisonous Immigration Act.

As ministers trumpet the new post-Brexit immigration system to come, the Government’s defence of its hostile environment policies is brazen.

“Everyone in society can play their part in tackling illegal migration.” There you have – in one fell statement – the Home Office’s grim vision for our country. We are all border guards now.

70 million immigration checks

The rules coming into force next month build on policies already in place. Banks have been banned from opening accounts for undocumented migrants since 2014. They are required to carry out ‘status checks’ on customers and refuse to open accounts if they don’t have permission to be here.

But from January, banks will carry out quarterly immigration checks on every single person who holds a current account. If they identify someone on a Home Office list of undocumented people, they must send personal information, including balances and payment details, to immigration control.

The Home Office may then apply for a court order freezing the customer’s assets or demand the account is closed down.

There are no safety nets to ensure the Home Office’s list or the data provided by banks is accurate. Mistakes can mean people are wrongfully targeted.

An investigation in 2016 by the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration found that in a sample of 169 people who had been refused a bank account, 10 per cent had been refused wrongly. This included a Jamaican national who had entered the UK as a visitor in 2002 and was subsequently granted leave to remain. That person was incorrectly refused a bank account over a decade after they first arrived in the UK.

Home Office guidance on the 2014 rules states that if a person submits evidence to prove they shouldn’t be refused an account, records should only be updated “in exceptional circumstances” – and “the default position should be to refuse”.

This is seriously sinister. The Government is putting people on a potentially inaccurate list, and using that list to pry into their bank accounts and seize their property.

A distaste for bureaucracy (remember the Cutting Red Tape initiative?), and staunch support for property rights are supposedly a cornerstone of ‘small c’ conservative values. So these authoritarian measures are cause for grave concern even on the Government’s own terms.

The human cost

And the potential human cost – people left unable to pay rent, buy food or cover travel costs because of bureaucratic errors – is staggering.

The Government’s agenda to make the UK a hostile environment for migrants creates the perfect conditions for exploitation and destitution. Yet each policy was approved with barely a whimper from MPs – where the Government bothered to consult them.

Public servants and private individuals are being forced to check the nationality and immigration status of their patients, pupils, and employees – and landlords and employers even face fines and criminal sanctions if they fail to do so.

Those being tasked with enforcing these rules often aren’t exactly supportive. “We are not happy about the sector being used for law enforcement,” a source from the banking sector told City AM last week.

What’s more, a slew of shadowy data-sharing arrangements have been introduced – with no public knowledge, parliamentary debate or informed individual consent – that see sensitive personal information shared with immigration enforcement.

Now, when an undocumented migrant sends their child to school or registers with a GP, there’s a risk the Home Office will track them down.

The hostile environment affects people well beyond this particular group – making suspects of black, Asian and minority ethnic people, settled migrant communities and virtually anyone who looks or sounds “foreign”.

Even the Home Office has admitted this latest measure could “impact on the appetite of firms to offer banking services to legal migrants”.

Everyone has a part to play

Liberty has been fighting these policies since they were proposed – but they passed anyway.

So now it’s up to the public to stand up.

On 30 September, Docs Not Cops will march against the borders the government is building in our NHS. On 5 October, parents will boycott measures in the school census that help the Home Office compile a list of foreign children.

Every day, journalists and campaigners are working to uncover the secret inter-departmental data-sharing agreements that hand private details to immigration control. And groups like NELMA, JCWI and Liberty are challenging invasive border control powers through the courts.

If “everyone has a part to play” in this dystopian nation of border guards, it’s up to each of us to refuse and resist. Together we must show the Government that their vision of the country isn’t ours.

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