ID cards: implications for Black, Minority Ethnic, migrant and refugee communities
May 26, 2005 — Comment
Written by Arun Kundnani
The Identity Cards Bill, introduced on 25 May 2005, is aimed at enabling the policing of a harder boundary of entitlement between British citizens and foreigners. The result will be the creation of a new under-class of those who are ‘sans plastique’.
The government’s ID cards programme is being justified by the perceived need to target illegal immigration, illegal working, ‘health tourists’, identity theft and terrorism. The last of these purported justifications for ID cards – the threat of terrorism – already looks fatally flawed, with the common-sense admission by David Blunkett, last year, that compulsory ID cards would do little to foil terrorist attacks. And, it seems unlikely that public support for ID cards will be found on the basis of a fear of identity theft, a crime that few people have experience of.
It is thus to the first three of these issues – illegal immigration, illegal working and ‘health tourism’ – that the government is turning for justification. The government argues that ID cards will address public fears of foreign ‘scroungers’, porous borders and Britain’s vulnerability to abuse by asylum seekers. At the general election in May, immigration was the only issue on which New Labour seemed to be vulnerable to the Conservatives. And central to this was the question of what to do about ‘failed asylum seekers’ who remained in Britain; in his interview with Tony Blair, Jeremy Paxman asked twenty times how many ‘failed asylum seekers’ were in Britain.
ID cards are the government’s answer to this problem, ostensibly making it easier to prevent ‘failed asylum seekers’ and other ‘overstayers’ from working or receiving healthcare and satisfying the apparent public demand for a hardening of boundaries between those who are entitled to be here, to work and to access public services and those who are not. The current lack of ID cards in Britain is thus presented by the government as yet another ‘pull factor’, supposedly encouraging foreigners to abuse the British welfare state.
While criticism of the ID card scheme so far has focused on the cost and the viability of the technology, less attention has been given to the consequences of increased surveillance on particular sections of British society. In order to achieve its intended outcomes, the introduction of ID cards will have to be accompanied by unprecedented levels of electronic checks – at airports, workplaces, social security offices, hospitals – and police operations against those suspected of being sans plastique (without ID cards) will need to be stepped up. ID cards will not initially be compulsory for the majority of the British public. But migrants, refugees and other foreign nationals will have to pay for biometric identification and register their details on the new national identity database, if they have been in Britain for longer than three months. This will immediately create a two-tier society in which many foreign nationals who may have lived in Britain for decades will suddenly find that they can be fined £2,500 if they do not have an ID card or equivalent. It is these groups of people that will effectively be the testing ground for the entire ID card scheme.
At present, employers can be prosecuted if they employ somebody who is not entitled to work. But, in reality, this sanction is hardly ever used, as employers can offer the defence that they had been duped by forged documents. Those working illegally, on the other hand, doing essential jobs in the building, catering, hospitality and agricultural industries, are vulnerable to immigration raids, deportation or imprisonment. The government argues that the introduction of ID cards will make it easier to tackle illegal working by providing a more efficient and reliable way for employers to test if someone is entitled to work. It is likely that pressure on employers to police illegal working will increase. Employers could thus become more active in checking the immigration status of workers, especially those whose skin colour or accent marks them out as ‘suspicious’.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that some employers already take advantage of those working without permission by threatening them with a call to the Home Office if they complain about working conditions. Such abuses of power may increase. It is also likely that immigration and police officers will conduct more raids on workplaces as part of a general clampdown. And it is not only those who are sans plastique who could get caught in such raids. Under the proposed ID card scheme, you will have a duty to ensure that information about yourself is accurate and complete, with a £1,000 fine if you fail to do this. If your immigration status changes and you acquire the right to work, you will have to notify the authorities yourself. If they make a mistake and the database is not updated properly, not only will you risk being wrongly arrested for illegal working, but you may be fined for having a card with out of date information.
The second area where ID cards will have a huge impact is in access to public services. In hospitals and social security offices across Britain, electronic readers will connect scanned-in cards to the national identity database, to establish whether the bearer is entitled to access support or medical care. In this sense, the ID card will really be an ‘exclusion card’ that divides the population between those who are entitled to access services and those who are not, entrenching an immigrant under-class of those who are sans plastique.
In a context in which there is growing pressure on the NHS to refuse treatment to overseas visitors and other foreigners, even if it puts them and wider society at severe medical risk, ID cards could provide a means to enforce new boundaries of access. The principle of universal access to the NHS has been progressively undermined since at least the 1980s. Last year, new regulations were introduced which excluded many groups, including failed asylum seekers, from ‘non-emergency’ treatment. ID cards could provide a means of policing such measures. In order for that to happen, though, doctors and nurses would have to check ID cards for immigration status before registering new patients. This would lead not only to exclusion of certain groups of foreigners but also disproportionate suspicion falling on Black and Minority Ethnic communities, who would be more likely to be asked to prove their eligibility.
Because the carrying of ID cards will not be compulsory to start with, the police will not initially have any new powers to demand their production in spot checks. But a process of compulsion by stealth may arise, whereby officers become increasingly suspicious of those who do not voluntarily produce a card, particularly if their skin colour or accent makes them seem more likely to be an ‘overstayer’. This could lead to the risk of confrontations with those who are sans plastique. And it will be all the more likely to occur if government pressure to step up the number of deportations of ‘failed asylum seekers’ seeps into policing practice and stop and search operations are directed at rounding up those whose permission to be in the country has lapsed. These kinds of operations have already been tried out at stations in London over the last year.
The experience of other European countries suggests the dangers that may lie ahead. In France, during the mid-1990s, the government introduced a new law which led to a massive increase in police asking people for their identity papers. In some areas, young people of Algerian or Moroccan descent complained that they were asked to produce their papers several times a week. When they refused or could not produce them, they faced immediate arrest and detention. In Belgium, Black and Minority Ethnic people had similar experiences. The case of Bicha Monkokole Kasembele, for example, became a cause celebre after she was stopped at a station in Brussels by the police. A Belgian citizen of African origin, she was told to produce her ID card, which she did. But the police decided that she must be an ‘illegal’ carrying a fake document. She was arrested and taken to a detention centre where she was held for three days and served with a deportation order to a country she had never before seen. It was only at the last minute that lawyers were able to intervene.
Profiling and databases
Unlike other European countries which have ID card schemes, the proposals in Britain include a national identity database, which takes Britain further down the road to a society of total electronic surveillance. Effectively, the ID card itself will be a ‘pointer’ to entries on this database, which will include biometric information (such as fingerprints, photographs and iris scans), current and previous residential addresses, nationality, place of birth and immigration status.
The British security services will have access to this database and, as a result, will have the opportunity to use it as the basis for new kinds of ‘profiling’ of suspected terrorists. In Germany, a law was introduced after September 11 which placed a duty on public and private institutions to hand over to police authorities computer data on individuals whose personal profile corresponded to specific criteria that the police believed to be associated with terrorists. For example, if you were a Muslim studying engineering and the police decided that this meant you fitted the profile of a terrorist, then the university would be forced to hand over all its data about you.
The result of this kind of policing is that the German state compiled a vast database of six million personal records, of which 20,000 were singled out as potential terrorists, even though there was no evidence against the individuals at all. This huge accumulation of data culminated, in December 2003, in the largest police operation in post-war Germany, in which 1,170 Muslim homes and businesses were searched in a single day.
While the proposed identity card scheme in Britain does not empower the collection of similar levels of information about individuals, the future of policing in Britain is moving in a similar direction, as the state amasses ever greater quantities of data on the population without adequate checks on its use. The ability of police officers and other authorities to have instant access to information about immigration status, nationality and residence will only deepen the climate of fear currently experienced by many migrants, foreign nationals and Black and Minority Ethnic communities.
No2ID campaign group opposed to ID cards
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.