Vulnerable, British and black? Now that’s enough to have you face deportation


Show caption ‘One Mumsnet user wrote: ‘If I should be knocked on the head or suffer a seizure while outside and not carrying anything identifying, I might find myself in an immigration detention centre.’ Brook House Immigration Removal Centre. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy Opinion Vulnerable, British and black? Now that’s enough to have you face deportation Afua Hirsch When a lost non-verbal teenager ends up in an immigration centre, it’s clear citizenship has become a privilege, not a right Tue 3 May 2022 08.00 BST Share on Facebook

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Have you checked your ID privilege lately? Because in recent days I’ve observed with unprecedented clarity that it’s becoming a phenomenon in Britain. There are two types of citizen in this country: those who feel compelled to carry proof that their presence is legal. And those secure enough, entitled even, to barely give it a thought.

Until recently, I have always been in the second category. It’s cultural. ID cards are totally un-British – as I discovered when I first started writing about civil liberties for the Guardian 15 years ago. Government proposals to introduce them back then stirred a deep well of Magna Carta-philia and a libertarian distrust of positive law. British people don’t expect to have to prove their identity unless collecting a parcel or checking in for a flight.

Unless you are a visible minority, that is. For us, that entitlement is gradually being eroded. Being asked where we are from, “Go home” vans, the Windrush scandal. The escalation from rhetorical othering, to the actual, violent deportation of people perfectly entitled to be here, shook Britain’s black community to our core.

Last week, a new level of escalation. A 17-year-old boy from Kent ran away from a hospital. He is British, black and non-verbal, and was being treated for his mental health. Reportedly in a state of distress, having attempted to travel to Manchester and back with no money, phone, or – by the time he returned – even any shoes, he was arrested by British Transport Police for not having a train ticket.

So far this is a story about the carceral state, straight from the abolitionist textbooks. The Black Lives Matter movement familiarised everyone with what happens when a vulnerable black person is met not with support, solutions, or even basic compassion, but with the brutality of law enforcement and criminalisation. Tragically, we are familiar with their names in many cases because it ended in their death – Sean Rigg, Mzee Mohammed, Leon Briggs, Kingsley Burrell.

What British Transport Police did in this case, however, offers a sinister new twist. Claiming to have “interviewed” this non-verbal young person, its officers concluded that he was a Nigerian who had come to the country illegally. Since he allegedly failed to give satisfactory or reliable answers (did I mention that he was non-verbal?) the authorities began steps – according to paperwork he was later found carrying – for his “imminent” deportation.

The implications are alarming. “I now have to factor in the possibility,” wrote one Mumsnet user, “that if I should be knocked on the head or suffer a seizure, anything rendering me incapable of speech while outside and not carrying anything identifying, I might soon find myself locked up in an immigration detention centre.”

In a private group of which I’m a member, friends berated each other for not carrying ID already. “Ever since Windrush, I carry my British passport with me at all times,” said one black woman. “My white husband never carries anything. That’s the world we live in now.”

If this sounds like an overreaction, consider the context. This was also the week that the Nationality and Borders Act was passed by the House of Commons. Its Rwanda plans – shipping asylum seekers randomly to the central African country, which incidentally is already the most densely populated on the African continent – are probably illegal and almost certainly unworkable. As we already know with this government, all of this is immaterial because the prime minister and his government are comfortable with breaking the law and more interested in optics than outcomes.

The Rwanda story has also distracted the public from the reality that the new act will also affect British people. Especially those who either have, or are entitled to, dual nationality, affecting about 6 million black, Asian and Jewish Britons. Its clause 9 has to be read to be believed. The government can now strip us of our citizenship, and if it deems it “not reasonably practicable”, or “not in the public interest”, does not even need to give us notice that it’s doing so.

Nationality is a birthright, not a privilege. But now those of us designated less entitled to it by this legislation will all have to check ourselves on that too.

The experience of this non-verbal teenager in Kent strikes a chord because it confirms two things that many of us already suspected. The first is that new laws are being enacted in a climate of racial profiling. As the sister of this young man said: “If [the police] had met a white teenage minor who was barefoot and distressed, would their first instinct be to deport him? Of course not. But when they saw my brother they didn’t see a boy in pain, they saw his race.”

Similar observations were made by supporters of Child Q, a 15-year-old girl who was left traumatised after being strip searched by police officers in school while on her period. Widespread protests followed her mistreatment, and the children’s commissioner has recently reported that black children are overpoliced and adultified in settings where they should be being nurtured.

The second is that protections the government claims will prevent injustice will be undermined by incompetence. When it came to the Kent teenager, the Home Office got so much wrong: his name, his date of birth, his nationality, the state of his mental health (an assessment raised no mental health issues when in fact he was under a Mental Health Act section order) and his ability to be interviewed.

This is a toxic combination that creates two tiers of British citizens. The first tier – those who retain ID privilege. People who think, as British citizens, laws on immigration and asylum do not apply to them, people who do not think about having to prove their identity or immigration status, people who feel their presence in their own country is a right, not a privilege at all. Every single British person should be in this category.

But we are not. Now, any of us whose visible minority appearance could be interpreted by the above incompetent and racially profile-leaning authorities as not really British, belong in a different category. Our tendency to be racially or religiously othered is well – established. Now we know that this othering can be converted into actual attempts to deport us and strip us of our citizenship, and even do so without notice.

In the run-up to the new Rwanda asylum plans, the civil servants involved in implementing it wrestled with their personal consciences. In a reference to the Nuremberg Nazi trials, one wrote: “The words ‘I was only obeying orders’ are echoing down through history to me and making me queasy.”

And so they should. Because we have plenty of historic precedents for what happens when a country starts dividing its citizens into tiers based on their heritage. And none of them end well.

Afua Hirsch is a writer, broadcaster, and former barrister