Policing Migrants: Biotechnology as Border Agents

This article was initially published in the NPMP Magazine Issue 2. You can read all the articles and the full magazine here. To order your physical copy please email npolicemonitor@gmail.com.

by Laura Loyola-Hernández (Stop the Scandal) 

Over the past couple of weeks, an unprecedented number of protests have erupted in the UK in support of Black Lives Matter following the murder of George Floyd in the Unites States. On June 27th, on the one year anniversary of Shukri Abdi’s death, a Black Muslim refugee girl, a protest was organised in her name. Hundreds of people chanting “No Justice, No Peace” and “Justice for Shukri” inundated the streets. Shukri’s tragic death signals wider issues around systemic failures by schools, the police and the UK government’s treatment of migrants, in particular Black people with precarious immigration status.

The hostile environment, a set of government policies first implemented by then Home Secretary Theresa May, has been in place since 2012 to make life so difficult in the UK that migrants would want to voluntarily leave the country. Banks, schools, landlords, doctors, nurses and universities all became border agents. The hostile environment has leaned heavily on the use of technology as a surveillance mechanism and the police as an active operating arm of it. A pilot program to use a biometric fingerprint scanning device and app connected to the Home Office immigration database by police was launched in West Yorkshire in February 2018 (now used nationwide): anyone suspected of committing a crime and lying about their identity can be stopped in the street, have their fingerprint scanned by police on the spot, and have their details searched in both the Police and Immigration databases. Given that anyone with an immigrant status (someone on a visa, with Indefinite Leave to Remain, asylum seekers, refugees or precarious migrant status) will have their fingerprints stored in the Home Office immigration database, a potential traffic stop could end with someone being detained by Immigration Enforcement, maybe unlawfully due to an unreliable Home Office database.  From our #STOPtheSCANdal campaign’s Freedom of Information request, we know that Black and Brown communities are disproportionately targeted by these searches. Liberty has warned that these technologies can deter survivors of domestic abuse in coming forward as their immigration data can be shared with the Home Office. This is particularly concerning given the astronomical increase in the number of domestic abuse cases since the COVID-19 lockdown. This is not the only consequence that COVID-19 has had on migrant communities in the UK.

The police use of Motorola’s PRONTO software (Police Reporting and Notebook Organiser, PRONTO), which includes the biometric fingerprint app, has been updated with COVID-19 penalty functions introduced among the new emergency police powers granted by the Coronavirus Bill in March. This new development will compound the unequal impact of the pandemic with the discrimination and lack of accountability embedded in policing technologies. Big Brother Watch’s research, which examined fines given in England under the Coronavirus Bill, found that Asian people received at least 13% of penalty fines even though they represent 7.8% of the national population, and Black people were issued 5% of fines despite being 3.5% of England’s population. 

The impact of COVID-19 has already been devastating on Black, Brown and migrant communities. The COVID-19 report released by Public Health England in June demonstrates that, in comparison to white people, ‘BME’ people (to use the report’s terminology) are more likely to die from the virus. Black people specifically are 4 times more likely to do so than the average for all ethnic groups. This percentage increases for people born outside of England. The report found that, in comparison to the all group average), people from Central and West Africa are 4.5 times more likely to die of COVID-19 while in this country. A joint report by migrant organisations and campaigns found that the hostile environment is having a devastating impact on migrants’ access to healthcare during the COVID-19 crisis. The report concluded that 57% of respondents were actively avoiding seeking medical advice because of fear of being charged, their data being shared with the Home Office, and other immigration enforcement issues. Those with precarious migrant status, often in frontline jobs, have No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) which means they are unable to access universal credit. Migrants are being forced to work despite having COVID-19 symptoms out of fear of becoming destitute or being threatened at work. During a pandemic we are only as safe as the most vulnerable in our society. Nobody should be forced to put their life at risk during a pandemic out of fear of immigration enforcement, and the police should not be working to make it harder for migrants to stay safe. These fears will only increase under the use of Schedule 21 of the Coronavirus Act, where police and immigration officers are now given the power to stop and hold anyone suspected of having the virus for 3 to 48 hours.

Many who took to the streets on June 27th in the name of Shukri Abdi put their own immigration status in jeopardy by breaking lockdown rules. It is important to remember migrants do not have the same rights when stopped by police. But until there is no more need to protest social inequalities in the streets we will continue to scream and give voice for those that can no longer chant:

No Justice, No Peace.    Justice for Shukri.   Abolish Hostile Environment.   Defund the Police.

This article was initially published in the NPMP Magazine Issue 2. You can read all the articles and the full magazine here. To order your physical copy please email npolicemonitor@gmail.com.