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Who Do We Think We Are?

Beyond the headlines … with Colin Yeo

30 Sep 2022

Michaela Benson [MB]: Welcome to Who do we think we are? Beyond the headlines, the podcast which dissects the major global news stories about contemporary migration. I’m Michaela Benson.

Ala Sirriyeh [AS]: And I’m Ala Sirriyeh. In our day jobs, we’re sociologists at Lancaster University, and we work on migration. We’ve also got our own family migration stories that inspired our research in this area. Join us over the course of the series to hear more about our frustrations with the way that migration is so often reported in mainstream media, and how going beyond the headlines can create the space for thinking differently about migration today.

MB: Today we’re joined by Colin Yeo who’s a barrister at Garden Court chambers and the editor of the fantastic free movement blog that we’ve referred to in previous episodes. And he’s also the author of Welcome to Britain. So we’re really delighted that he’s here with us today. Welcome, Colin.

Colin Yeo [CY]: Hello, thank you very much for having me on.

MB: So Ala, do you want to tell us what our headline is for today?

AS: Yeah, we’re going to be focusing on the new Home Secretary Suella Braverman and our headline is from the Observer newspaper from the 10th of September, and the headline says, ‘Revealed: Suella Braverman sets home office, no boats crossing the Channel target’. So this article is just a short summary of some of the things that Suella Braverman has said on on being appointed as home secretary. And particularly in reference to the channel crossings, she has said that she aims to reduce the number of people crossing the Channel to zero. That’s probably the main point from this article that I think in relation to immigration, there’s also things about her advising people to watch trashy TV to relax and support their mental health. But that’s probably, the boat crossings is probably what we’ll focus on today. So what I’d like to ask you, Colin is in looking at that headline, what sort of springs to mind? And what kind of reflections Do you have really about our new home secretary?

CY: Well, the first thing that crossed my mind when I saw that and read the article was that she hasn’t said that the target is to remove loads of people to Rwanda, or indeed anybody to Rwanda, it’s to stop small boat crossings. And I wrote a piece for free movement about this, spent a while sort of thinking about it. And one of the problems that I think Priti Patel had as Home Secretary, I looked at her record, and it’s just a unmitigated record of total failure, essentially, on small boat crossings and everything else. And she’s she’s obviously become obsessed with removing people to Rwanda. But even if they are able to go ahead and remove some people to Rwanda, even if they were to expand it to other countries, potentially as well, I don’t think anybody really thinks that’s actually going to stop people from crossing the Channel in small boats. It’s not it’s not, it is just not going to work on its own terms. So if she’s serious about stopping small boat crossings, you know, Rwanda is is not necessarily the way to do that. And perhaps, and this is this is maybe insanely optimistic, but perhaps she is open to exploring other options.

MB: I think that’s really a really helpful opening reflection there on what’s not in the article and what’s not there. But I suppose a question that springs to my mind here is, what do we actually know about what her agenda is? You know, obviously, we’re very, very familiar with her politics, because she’s been quite a prominent political figure for quite some time, first as Attorney General, and as a very prominent Brexiteer. So from your point of view, what exactly is her agenda do you think around immigration? And what might this mean for the home office?

CY: The short answer is I just don’t know. She certainly comes across as being a radical. And I think she comes across, perhaps as being a bit more serious as a politician than Priti Patel, who’s just constantly in campaign mode. And that’s not to say that that Braverman has, you know, she said some pretty absurd stuff. She’s clearly very, very political. She, she, she loves kind of bashing the libs and all that kind of stuff. But she has a bit of a record as Attorney General. I don’t think anybody says that she’s failed to run her department that she’s, you know, she’s got a record of failure as Attorney General. What you can say is that she’s politicised the office which has been deliberate on her part. So it’s not incompetence, that’s competence on her part. I don’t agree with what she’s done, but she’s done it. And then and then one of the things that came out most recently, towards the end of her time as Attorney General was this infamous advice she gave to the government legal department that they should stop being quite so risk averse in their advice to ministers, and they should be more solutions oriented. And again, I kind of got real problems with that advice. And I think I disagree with it. But you can’t say that it’s not a serious attempt to change things and my kind of fear with Braverman, which could prove unfounded, maybe she’ll be just as incompetent as Priti Patel was. But my fear is that she’s radical, and not necessarily incompetent, which could be a real problem for migrants, families and society as a whole. If you’ve got somebody who’s actually capable of following through on these kind of really radical ideas, then that could be really problematic. And, and to sort of finish on this for now, that’s what we saw Theresa May. Some people say that she has been rehabilitated from her time as home sectary, I don’t I don’t think that’s the case at all, I would say she was really very good at her job. And that was really problematic. You know, she, she wanted to fundamentally change the system of immigration control with the hostile environment policies and so on. And she did it. And it caused huge problems. She was competent. And that was a real problem.

AS: I wonder, as you mentioned, the hostile environment there. I wonder if you might be able to give us a sort of a brief explainer of what we mean by the hostile environment as well. Cos I think that’s really important in tracing legacy to where we are.

CY: Yeah, it’s like all words, I suppose you can, it can mean multiple things to different people. And for a lot of people, the hostile environment is just being horrible to migrants, basically. I tend to when I use those words, I’ve got something slightly more specific that I mean, it’s kind of it’s an aspect of that, but it’s really the shift from a system of external border controls to one of internal immigration controls where you co-opt—there’s no really good word for describing this, so do you privatise immigration controls? Do you deputise immigration controls? Do you delegate?—though, I’m not quite sure what the terminology is, I think American academics talk about deputisation. But anyway, you kind of effectively force third parties, private companies, or private individuals to carry out day to day immigration checks on people. And that’s what I mean by the hostile environment. It’s this, this this change. And it’s not that it does have precedents in British, in British law. So going back to carrier controls, carrier sanctions in the late 80s, where you’ve got private carrier companies like ferry companies, airlines, having to carry out immigration controls, you’ve got that kind of control being imposed on employers to an extent by New Labour in the kind of mid 2000s. But it was massively expanded, and enforcement was hugely ramped up under, under Theresa May. And as I say, it caused huge problems.

MB: I think that’s really helpful in terms of outlining the kind of the expansion of the policies and the regulations around this. And I just wondered if we could dwell on this for a little bit longer, because I think that a lot of people who have British citizenship might not be fully aware of the fact that, you know, for example, if I as an external examiner, I go to another university, to look at somebody’s PhD, they asked me to show them my passport. And that’s kind of so mundane and everyday, and obviously, as a scholar who works on migration, I do know what that’s about. But lots of other people might not be quite so aware that every time you’re asked to identify yourself, that actually it’s about checking your legal status.

CY: Yeah, it’s, it’s quite a pernicious system of controls. I have kind of conflicted feelings about this. Because the British tend to be really negative about ID cards, for example. And there’s an element I think of British exceptionalism to that, you know, lots of countries have ID cards, they’re not fascist dictatorships. They’re perfectly normal countries, and it works fine. But that kind of system where you don’t have a kind of universal system of checks. Where it’s kind of only some people or some people are more likely to be checked because of their funny foreign names or the colour of their skin or something, that’s really quite pernicious, because it’s not about checking identity. It’s about checking your immigration status. And I think a lot of you know, I’m white, middle class, middle aged, I’m self employed, I don’t have to rent. I don’t have to move jobs. I don’t … I’m already married. So I’m not gonna go through the sort of pallava of registrar’s conducting checks and so on. i’m kind of immune from these checks effectively. It doesn’t it doesn’t impinge on my day to day life and for a lot of policymakers, they they also are white middle class, middle aged men and so on and, and that they don’t see the problem with it. But if you’re not, then these checks can be quite invasive. And they can also be sort of existential, you’re being asked to prove your right to be here in a way that some other people aren’t. And I think that that’s, that’s really socially divisive and really problematic.

MB: Before we return to Suella Braverman, I just wanted to ask, because you did mention a kind of British exceptionalism there. And I just wondered if you had any reflections on the extent to which this kind of what has been termed the hostile environment in the UK sits within a broader kind of border regime. So even, you know, even just across the channel?

CY: Yeah, that’s, it’s really difficult for me to answer that, because it … I know a lot about British immigration law. And I don’t know so much about kind of, you know, French, German, even you, I’ve done a bit of reading on kind of the system in the US. But again, I wouldn’t hold myself out as knowing a lot about it. You know, I think the big difference between the hostile environment and systems of national ID cards. And before we go any further, the danger is that, you know, Id systems, ID cards aren’t race neutral, you know, they are abused by the police, and they are problematic. But I think it’s more problematic having a system of kind of partial ID cards, like the hostile environment where it’s some people who are more likely to be asked, and only in certain situations. So one of the things that I think a lot of people struggle to get their heads around is that employers aren’t under any legal obligation to check somebody’s passport, they don’t have to establish somebody’s immigration status. But they’d be crazy not to, because they will get fined if it turns out that their employee doesn’t have immigration status, unless they’ve carried out the checks. So this is kind of a lawyer speaking so that they’re not legally obliged to do it. But they kind of have to if they know what they are doing. But if you’re a small employer, and somebody comes to you to apply for a job, and they are white, and have a local accent, and a local name, it is very low risk for you not to ask them for the proof of their immigration status. Because you will think, Well, I’m pretty sure this guy is lawfully here, you know, all the signals are that he’s lawfully here. Whereas somebody who doesn’t meet that description, whose skin is a different colour, who has a foreign sounding name, well, there is a risk that they don’t have status. And so you’ve got to ask them if get if you know about these fines, and so on. And it’s really discriminatory in that way. It’s really socially divisive. And I just think a lot of the politicians, and they didn’t, they didn’t care about this stuff, and they don’t understand it. And I think that is different to a system of universal ID, where, for example, employer has to check somebody’s ID card as part of the process of employment. And it’s about ID it’s not about race or immigration status.

MB: Remember, this kind of brings me back to the conversation I had with one of your colleagues, John Vassiliou. And when we were talking about the Hong Kong BN(O) visa, and he reminded people that are passport is not an identification document. It’s a document that gives you a right to travel. And I think that’s really, really important because it’s basically a document that’s being used to do something that it was never intended to do. And of course, not all, not all people who have citizenship have passports either. So that that is also something to bear in mind in terms of the kind of inequalities and and what issues that might open up.

AS: I think this is also making me think of examples that I’ve heard about as well, about who’s been asked to share their documents and who hasn’t. And former colleague of ours actually Gwyneth Lonergan, who works on experiences of migrant women in maternity services was remarking that actually, you know, who gets asked to show their documents at that point? It’s very interesting. So as she was saying, so, as a white Canadian woman that, you know, she wasn’t asked to show her, you know, proof of her immigration status. But that was not the experiences of many of the people that she interviewed, I think that really comes across, and you think about it at some points of people’s lives when they’re in well, in terms of maternity, for it’s in very, quite tense situations, I would say and being asked to do that it’s sort of an extra layer of stress at that point. Yeah.

CY: And one of the, one of the problems again, with the system that we’ve got is that it’s kind of, it’s built into it, that it encourages people to be overzealous. And so I’ve come across this with universities where I’ve, I’ve, I’ve been commissioned for self employed bits of work. I’m … because I’m not an employment lawyer. I’m not 100% sure of what I’m saying here. But I am pretty sure that universities do not actually, there’s no requirement that they have to check my immigration status to pay me for doing a report or something like that, or pay my expenses or whatever, but they do. And they’re really kind of religious about it as well. And that’s kind of I think that’s over enforcement. It’s kind of overzealous over enforcement, because institutions get penalised quite heavily if they fail to comply with this stuff. They don’t get rewarded if they get it exactly right or anything like that. And it gets kind of this one way incentive system where, though if they’re risk averse, then they tend to go too far. And you see that with doctors surgeries and so on, where people who are entitled to primary care, they’re being turned away by receptionists who misunderstand the law, because it’s really complicated and think that actually they’ve got to ask for these documents. In fact, they don’t

MB: I think that’s a really important point around, that kind of goes back to the initial argument that you were making around the hostile environment and the kind of the privatisation but also the kind of the extension of who is positioned as border guards essentially, and what knowledge base they’re able to draw on. Because quite often, you know, those, those receptionists in the GP surgery, for example, have to deal with a whole host of different things. And they’re not specialists, as you say, which makes this very, very prone to people being extra extra cautious, so that they just do their jobs.

CY: And the idea of street level bureaucrats, I can’t remember whose concept that is, maybe maybe you’ll be able to enlighten me again, but I’ve done a little bit of reading on it. And again, you kind of recruiting this whole army of sudden street level bureaucrats who are effectively enforcing border controls in day to day life, but haven’t got a clue what they’re doing, actually, because the law is complicated here.

AS: I wonder if that also means that that sort of the way in which policies have been designed, it actually becomes quite a dynamic policy. So in action, it becomes quite different to the intentions because people are then going to be enforcing it in different ways. So it actually becomes, in many ways, quite a different policy from what it sets out to do and different in different aspects of life, but also different parts of the country, I would imagine.

CY: It’s hard. That’s a really interesting, difficult issue of what politicians kind of intend and what the outcomes are. And I don’t know, I don’t think politicians probably intended for the policy to be racist and to be applied in racist ways. I don’t think that’s how they’d have conceived of it themselves. But they were, you know, again, drawing on kind of legal language, they were at least negligent or reckless, you know, there’s massive disregard to the risks that that was going to happen. And when you actually look at the kind of the design of the policy not, not that a lot of this was really all that designed, there are no white papers, or no consultations on a lot of this stuff, it’s a sort of massively radical change to immigration system with almost no kind of an exterior consultation at all. But yeah, the kind of design of it, obviously creates those risks. If you do the reading. And there’s there’s a really good piece by May Bulman who was formerly of the Independent, who did a sort of good long read on the hostile environment policy and even white, middle aged, middle-class, Conservative cabinet ministers, like Eric Pickles, recognise that there was a risk of, of this being discriminatory and racist with the sort of right to rent and so on. But they just disregarded that went ahead anyway.

MB: I think that I just raised my eyebrows because I actually I was about to say something about when you look at the way in which some of these changes in the realm of immigration law are discussed in parliament, what you see is that there were often dissenting voices who were trying to say, well, actually, do you realise that this will be racist, or this will be that but but so I was quite surprised to hear you say that actually, those debates weren’t happening. And those white papers weren’t there for discussion.

CY: Yeah, and this is this sort of comes back to Braverman. Because a lot of the changes in the hostile environment, they weren’t through primary legislation. Theresa May was a very serious home secretary and she pulled all of the policy levers, you know, a lot of changes to the immigration rules, lots of new secondary legislation and regulations and so on, allocation of resources within the home office, towards enforcement and kind of high level, high profile visits and social media campaigns, and then things like that. And eventually, we saw legislation as well, the Immigration Act, 2014 and 2016. But that was quite late on frankly, their policy was already up and running by then. And one of the strange sorts of things about, I think anyway, with with Priti Patel’s legacy is that the Nationality and Borders Act, which everybody gets very exercised about, a lot of it’s just filler material when it comes down to it. So people don’t realise but you know, that there was all this stuff in the Act about third country offshoring or whatever you call it, kind of externalisation and Rwanda, essentially. But they didn’t wait for that, that legislation to come into force before they started the Rwanda removals or attempted removals, they relied on old legislation from 2004. So why make all the fuss about the new Act? You know, why even bother to put it through Parliament if you already had legislation on the books that you could use to do that? And you look through sort of section after section you think, you just don’t need a law that says that. You don’t need that to be in an Act of Parliament, you could just change the immigration rules and have the same it would have the same effect. But Priti Patel clearly wanted legislation. She wanted an Immigration Act that she could call her own. I don’t know what we’re gonna see with Braverman. You see I think the home office has run out of immigration law to pass basically, or primary legislation. They’ve got all the tools they need to be as horrible as they like, and you know, all they have to do is change the immigration rules and change regulations. And so I just don’t see that they need any primary legislation, but we’ll probably see it anyway. And again, it will probably be full of filler where it doesn’t really do anything or change anything.

AS: It’s really interesting thinking about, I think you mentioned before as well, the kind of politics of migration and, and how certain policies are presented and sort of what what is talked about very loudly in that, in that sense, and it’s making me think also of work, our colleague, Professor Hannah Jones, and all the other colleagues on the Go Home project, and that very much performativity of, of migration policy. And yeah, that contrast between sort of what we shout about and get all het-up about in our in our debates, and what’s that what’s actually going through as legislation being enacted in policy is is really interesting conversation to be had, because I imagine, as you have you said already that we we talk a lot about these seemingly very radical and very scary policies like the Rwanda removals. But what’s actually sort of yeah, what’s actually being put into action, it’s, you know, might appear much more mundane, but have, in the long run, because of the ability for that to succeed, actually have a lot more effects on people’s lives.

CY: Legislation provides a really useful kind of focal point for these discussions. And it, it helps, it helps both sides, if I could characterise it like that. So Priti Patel, she wants the fight in Parliament, she wants all the fuss to be made in the media, she wants the Libs to, you know, to object to it, and to shout about it. And campaign groups and charities want that opportunity, they want to consolidate their base, they want the donations, and they want to run the campaign to show who they are and to kind of try and build their their coalition. So it kind of suits both sides to have these great big kind of theatrical events where you can kind of misrepresent the other side, frankly, and it turns into a big event in the sort of political calendar.

MB: I’m really pleased that you drew attention to that kind of the fact that the legislation was there before because sometimes when I look at things, and I look at the kind of campaigning that’s going on for and against a particular apparent change, that may not be much of a change, like but I’m sure that last time I checked, because I did that work 10 years ago, that there was already provision for this. So why why are people talking about it now? And that’s always been the thing that’s kind of puzzled me a little bit. But I suppose before we close, did you have any kind of closing thoughts on what the future is for us, I suppose, as people who are quite staunchly opposed to the hostile environment and its policies, and what it might mean, under Suella Braverman’s leadership.

CY: No. I increasingly feel like we’ve just collectively done a really bad job over the last sort of 20 years and longer, perhaps in campaigning on these kinds of issues. Because look at the state we’re in now. And I don’t know what the best way to kind of fight these kinds of policies and this kind of politics is. But the way we’ve been doing it so far, certainly hasn’t worked. And I don’t really have any have any answers. I suppose the best I could do is say, you know, we need multiple sort of voices advocating different things at the same time, without there being friendly fire. Because I think, you know, as a sector we can, we can kind of jump on each other if we disagree with the line that’s been taken, and that’s actually not helpful for the kind of public debate and for persuading people that what they’re doing, what the government is doing is wrong.

MB: Thank you very much, Colin. It’s rather sobering. But yes, thank you.

CY: Alright, well, thanks very much for having me on. MB: You’ve been listening to who do we think we are beyond the headlines, a podcast series produced and presented by Ala Sirriyeh, and Michaela Benson. Thanks to Emma Houlton at brilliant audio for production and post production support, and to George Kalivis for our fantastic cover art and social media assets. We’d also like to thank Niamh Welby, who provides much needed support behind the scenes to get these episodes together. If you like what you’ve heard, follow and rate us on your preferred podcast platform. You can check out our show notes for further resources, transcripts, and links to all our socials. You can also find us at who do we think we That’s all for now, but we’ll be back with another headline next month.

With a new UK cabinet comes a new Home Secretary, Suella Braverman MP former Attorney General. While there has been a lot of focus on her politics, what does this mean for the Home Office and in particular its approach to immigration? Hosts Ala Sirriyeh and Michaela Benson are joined by Colin Yeo, Barrister at Garden Court Chambers and editor of the Free Movement blog, to talk about all this and consider how it sits in the decade-long context of the Hostile Environment. While our headline focusses on her pledge to bring the numbers of people crossing the Channel in small boats to zero, what is going on behind the scenes? Is this more of the same or a new era? And what’s to come?

In this episode we cover …

  • The Hostile Environment
  • The Home Office from Theresa May, Priti Patel and Suella Braverman
  • ID cards, passports and immigration controls


‘They've got all the tools they need to be as horrible as they like, and you know, All they have to do is change the immigration rules and change regulations. And so I just don't see that they need any primary legislation, but we'll probably see it anyway.’

—Colin Yeo, on the UK’s immigration legislation

Where can you find out more about the topics in today’s episode?

Follow Colin on Twitter

Read Welcome to Britain and What kind of Home Secreatry will Suella Braverman be?

Our headline

May Bulman’s long read on the Hostile Environment

Gwyneth Lonergan’s research on migrant women and maternity care

Mapping Immigration Controversy Project

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Active listening questions

  1. What inequalities does the lack of ID cards create in Britain
  2. How would you define the hostile environment?
  3. Has this changed how you view your own border control experience, how/how not?

View all active listening questions