Analysis | Operation Skybreaker: When the State Co-opts the ‘Community’

Sita Balani examines Operation Skybreaker, a pilot scheme launched by the Home Office in July 2014 across five of London’s most racially diverse boroughs. She argues the scheme is a worrying harbinger of future government policies and epitomises the Home Office's growing tendency to deploy notions of community, charity and consent in their attacks on undocumented migrants.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, December 5, 2014 13:37 - 0 Comments

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In July 2014, the Home Office launched operation Skybraker, a five-month pilot scheme ostensibly aimed at tackling illegal immigration, across some of London’s most diverse boroughs. Large-scale operations targeting migrants are nothing new, of course. Indeed, across all of the five boroughs in question (Greenwich, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Brent and Ealing), the presence of Immigration Enforcement officers is becoming a regular occurrence. Operation Skybreaker, however, was launched hot on the heels of the controversial 2014 Immigration Act that came into force in May. This highly pernicious piece of legislation aims to forge a ‘hostile environment’ for irregular migrants, and through Skybreaker we can begin to understand precisely how they intend to create such hostility.

Prior to launching the operation, the Home Office put out a contract to tender, which appeared to be aimed at acquiring multiple partners across various sectors. Couched in the managerial business-speak of the public sector in 21st-century Britain, this document sets out its ‘transformation programme’ for which it seeks ‘strategic relationships with other government departments, voluntary and community sector organisations (VCSO), the business sector and other public sector delivery agencies.’

As we can see from this aim alone, the Home Office are making ‘stakeholders’ (to use their mystifying lexicon) out of groups and institutions that are by no means obvious or inevitable supporters of the Home Office’s racist agenda. Rather, these groups are being strategically drawn into the fold, and offered a seat at the table in exchange for their cooperation with the Home Office. This strategy is familiar from various other policy areas, particularly noticeable in policing and ‘anti terrorism’ initiatives such as Prevent, well known for courting mosques and Muslim community groups.

Partnership work has been part of immigration policy for a long time, but has escalated under the Tories. From housing (‘beds in sheds’) to higher education (trying to turn international students into a bogeyman, the way New Labour did to asylum seekers), the Tories are trying to integrate immigration enforcement into the fabric of everyday life.

Instead of one-off raids or street checks – though these remain prominent and powerful weapons in their arsenal of social control – Skybreaker confirms that the Home Office intends instead to make doctors, bank staff, educators, and religious leaders proxy immigration officials. This disturbing development of the border regime is being executed in the politically promiscuous language of community, charity and consent.

Community

Community is a tricky thing. It’s a word and an idea that many of us in progressive movements feel very attached to, but we are not its sole owners – and the competition has a more powerful propaganda machine at its disposal. As many have noted, similarly to and alongside ‘local,’ community is often deployed as a polite synonym for marginalised groups. The artist Grayson Perry (bear with me) sums it up: ‘Community seems to be a euphemism for the vulnerable lower orders. Community is “other”. Communities usually seem to be embattled, separate from society.’

The Home Office claim that their ‘community engagement strategy will enhance public confidence in the immigration system and increase compliance and voluntary departures; this will happen in parallel to the creation of a hostile environment for those here illegally.’ Despite the State’s attempts to portray these as separate (‘parallel’) policies, ‘community engagement’ is key to the creation of a hostile environment.

Given the UK’s anti-immigration fervour, one might ask why the Home Office place such emphasis on engaging with the communities that harbour precisely the people for whom they intend to create a ‘hostile environment.’ The answer seems to be two-fold. Firstly, exploiting pre-existing community structures gives Immigration Enforcement unparalleled access, saving them time and money. Secondly, ‘community engagement’ is an easy way to circumvent equality legislation and the accusation of racism. Last year’s Go Home van scandal was rightly challenged in the courts, however this success must be qualified. The claimants argued that the government ‘had broken equalities law by not considering the impact of the van or consulting with anyone first’. It stands to reason, then, that community consultation could function as an easy smokescreen: remember, the Home Office are not obliged to listen to the consultation, nor to consult groups that are genuinely representative; but merely need to carry out the exercise.

Charity

So who are these community groups that the Home Office is courting with such ardour? It stands to reason that they are not, in fact, groups of irregular migrants, who would presumably take the position that all of the forms of immigration enforcement are, ultimately, an attack on their community. Instead, NGOs are consulted, many of which are charities. Those that do not have charitable status, which tends to include grassroots and campaigning organisations, are encouraged to become charities, especially in order to access dwindling funds from big trusts. Charities are, of course, a broad church encompassing organisations large and small, progressive and reactionary. For many, charities operate under a halo; they can do no wrong. Critiques of the NGOisation of politics are levelled on the left, particularly by women of colour (Arundhati Roy’s critique of philanthropy; INCITE’s The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, to name just two) who draw attention to how charities act as the oil that greases neoliberalism’s cogs, playing a similar role to missionaries in preparing the ground for the expansion of colonial capitalism.

In a recent article about George Osborne’s attack on what he perceived as an ‘anti-business’ attitude in the charity sector, Nick Bryer, head of UK Campaigns and Policy at Oxfam, confirmed this premise: ‘[Business] is vital to tackling poverty around the world, which is why we help poor people set up their own businesses and access markets,” he said. “We don’t recognise the divide [Osborne] draws between the concerns of businesses and charities.’

We can apply a similar principle to the roles charities take on in the immigration regime. One of the most high profile examples is the involvement of Barnardos in running services at Cedars detention centre, which has been central to justifying the continued imprisonment of migrant children. 2014 has seen an intensification of the use of charities in other parts of immigration policy, with Refugee Action receiving a government grant of over £300,000 in August alone for their help with Home Office ‘Enforcement & Removals’.

There is an irony here: some of the information I am drawing on comes via a charity – RAMFEL (The Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London), who published extensive information and analysis of Skybreaker on their blog, after the Home Office invited them to a meeting to discuss this new initiative. While charities such as RAMFEL are openly critical of government policy, they are increasingly in the minority. Further, their criticism is yet to prevent the Home Office actively courting their cooperation, and this cooperation is also one of the channels through which grassroots groups resisting immigration controls can access information.

Consent

The first part of Operation Skybreaker centres on information gathering. A large part of the operation involves obtaining consent from businesses to enter their premises and take a look at the books. In a report from earlier this year, the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration John Vine found that in nearly two thirds of cases (59%) immigration enforcement officers entering business premises lacked the legal authority to do so and in addition were regularly flouting their own internal guidance.

In other words, by getting people to sign consent form (which look like this), Immigration Enforcement can circumvent the legal need for a warrant, essentially removing any requirement to obtain prima facie evidence of illegal working prior to a raid. Further, the Home Office has a long history of encouraging collaboration from businesses, waiving fines for employing undocumented workers if employers are willing to inform on their workers. People consent for a variety of reasons – fear and intimidation, of course, though we also live in a culture of cooperation; just think of how frequently you merrily give away your name, date of birth and address online, all to buy a cinema ticket or a pair of shoes.

This process of obtaining consent is a precursor to business as usual: violent, highly visible immigration raids. Like charity and community, the use of consent serves to put pressure on those who might otherwise feel solidarity – or even just liberal sympathy – with undocumented migrants. This new form of immigration policy functions through dividing communities, offering some (charities, faith leaders, business owners) immunity or a little taste of power in exchange for their cooperation.

What now for community?

There are various grassroots efforts (Brent Anti Racism, Anti Raids Network to name just two) to push back against immigration raids, involving disseminating legal information; giving workshops; and intervening in and filming immigration raids. These successes, however, will be limited without simultaneously pushing back against the Home Office’s Orwellian repurposing of language, which attaches the warm, friendly connotation of ‘community’ to a racist agenda. To combat this, we need a more robust sense of what we mean when we say community, without simply romanticising the term – as it is this romantic view of community as an unequivocal good that the Home Office is banking on when they talk about ‘community engagement’.

Perhaps this process should begin with a question: who participates in ‘community engagement’ and what do they gain in the process? NGOs, charities, faith groups, businesses and community leaders take on this role, but they are sanctioned by the State not those they claim to speak for. They may once have acted as a buffer between undocumented migrants and the Home Office, but they are now, at best, a bottleneck, and at worst, an arm of the state. Many grassroots groups, set up in opposition to state racism, are increasingly under pressure to formalise their structures and, specifically, to obtain charitable status, which allows them to bid for funding from a wider range of sources. This, in turn, opens up community organisations to the vast sums of money that can be made as subcontractors for the government in various forms, including from the Home Office, completing the transformation from being opponents to state control to becoming its agents.

The pragmatic decision to become a registered charity is often framed as the only option bar folding entirely. And, sadly, there may be some truth to this: as Anandi Ramamurthy’s recent book Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements shows, various organisations which came out of the Asian Youth Movements and succumbed to the neutralisation-by-state-inclusion logic of multiculturalism have continued, albeit in a drastically transformed – and far less effective – capacity. Rather than calling for ‘community engagement’, we need to question why the idea of community – something many in leftist and progressive movements feel strongly in favour of – has been so easily co-opted by the state.

Sita Balani is an activist and academic living in London. Her PhD research at King’s College London explores neoliberalism and national identity in contemporary British fiction. She is involved in migrant and feminist activism and is also editing an anthology entitled 'Queers Talk Lesbian Notions'.

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