A triple ring of security around Britain

The Home Secretary yesterday set out her plans for a “triple ring of security around Britain”. This “triple ring” entails the funding of new Special Branch police to patrol UK borders; tougher checks at borders and ID cards for foreign nationals.

As the Troubles come to an end with their attendant measures of State control to watch over the people of Northern Ireland, we seem to be heading into a new era where the population is placed under permanent State suspicion and surveillance.

How can being more watched and controlled by the State make us any more safe? I don’t think it can.

Last week, it was reported that Meg Hillier MP, gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee that we should see ID cards as “passports in-country”. The Orwellian resonance of this MP’s title as Minister for ID cards already creates a sense of unease: Who voted to create this office? What next, a Ministry for Identity? This sense of unease only grows when you consider that the government seems to have forgotten all the lessons of history. Or is it ignoring them to meet its own authoritarian ends?

As our government intends first to apply the ID card system to migrants and foreign nationals, we should recall historical instances where ID documentation have been used for the State to control private lives by discrimination, segregation and exclusion. Recall the deportation of the Jews which was made possible by their identification and a gradual curtailment of their rights to move around and go about their business. Recall the South African passbooks, a despised symbol of apartheid. These passbooks — or ‘dompas’ — bore the bearer’s fingerprints, photograph and identification information. It was obligatory for black South Africans over sixteen to carry the pass book, and failure to do so was cause for arrest and imprisonment.

Two anecdotes from my own caseload of immigrants reveal the real impact of a controlling regime based on paper identification. An asylum-seeker in Northern Ireland whom I worked with was recently unable to travel to an urgent medical appointment with the Medical Foundation for Survivors of Torture because the airlines would not accept the forms of ID that he possessed for the flight from Belfast to London. Another young woman who had been granted leave in the UK was detained at Belfast Airport and interrogated for several hours about her right to be here, what she was doing, where she was going etc. She had been fingerprinted at the airport and the Home Office centralized database had not been updated to reflect her grant of leave; she came up on the system as ‘illegal’. Officers were loathe to believe the young woman’s word, or my word as her lawyer, instead of the computer record.

Comments by the Home Secretary that the ID cards will not be compulsory should be no comfort to civil liberties campaigners. If the alternative is an all-too-real fear of arbitrary detention, denial of travel rights and other infringements of our liberties, the population will have little choice but to sign up for the ID cards.

We do have the choice to ask questions of ourselves and those who govern us. We need to ask in the strongest possible way: where is the safety in a government which holds the power of fear and threat over its own people? Where is the humanity in an ID-based system of rights, which, as in the case of my two refugee friends above, ignores a person’s humanity and individual reasoning in favour of cynical paranoia and the certainty of a flickering number on a computer scheme?

I will be speaking at Queen’s University on 10 April (postponed from 6 March) about those forced to flee to Northern Ireland, looking at their experiences in the context of the erosion of the right to seek asylum and the curtailment of civil liberties in the UK. Please contact the Centre for Global Education in Belfast for more information on its ‘Global Issues Seminar Series 2008’ for more information and come along.