Guest post by Ben Bowling, Deputy Dean and Professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice of the Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London. Ben’s research examines practical, political, and legal problems in policing and the connections between local and global police power. This post is the fourth installment of the Border Criminologies Themed Week on Internal Border Policing organised by Leanne Weber.

The UK Immigration Act 2014 reached its first birthday on 14 May 2015, although it seems unlikely that there will be many people celebrating―least of all the prospective tenants stripped of their ‘right to rent’ or the landlords subject to a £3,000 civil penalty if they fail to check the immigration status of tenants they suspect to be in the country illegally.

The idea that people who provide goods and services to migrants should become immigration officers on behalf of the state goes back nearly thirty years in the UK. Penalties were introduced in 1987 for airlines and others who transported unlawful migrants to Britain, followed by sanctions against employers in 1997. The 2014 Act extended the obligation to undertake immigration surveillance to health service providers, marriage registrars, the driving licencing authority, banks, and building societies.

On 1 December 2014, the government launched a pilot of landlord immigration checks in the city of Birmingham and the West Midlands towns of Walsall, Sandwell, Dudley, and Wolverhampton. A Code of Practice on ‘illegal immigration and private rented accommodation’ was issued in October 2014 and this explains that only people who can show that they are present lawfully in the UK in accordance with immigration laws will have a ‘right to rent.’

Landlords, to avoid a civil penalty, are required to conduct a document check on any adult who isn’t a British, EEA, or Swiss national. If a follow-up check reveals that an occupier has no right to rent, landlords ‘need not evict them but should make a report to the Home office.’ Failure to comply will lead to a penalty of £3,000. The pilot scheme is due to run to the summer of 2015 and we should have the results some time in the autumn. The goals of the scheme are explicit in their intention to make it more difficult for illegally resident individuals to gain access to accommodation and to deter ‘illegal residents’ from staying in the country.

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To their credit, enlightened officials, aware of the potential discriminatory effects of the new policy, have commissioned research using a ‘mystery shopper’ methodology to discover whether the ‘right to rent’ scheme leads to increased levels of unlawful discrimination in the housing market. Two equally qualified people, differing only in appearance or accent, will seek information about an advertised housing unit and visit estate agents. Comparing the experiences of the pairs in locations in and out of the pilot area, will help understand whether unlawful discrimination is taking place. This will be evaluated in the context of whether or not the policy is having the desired effect of making it difficult for ‘illegal immigrants’ to find rented accommodation.

Since the implementation is already mandated by legislation, however, we can expect a full roll out across the country regardless of the results of the pilot. Like so many other policies of this kind, whatever its impact on individuals and communities, this pilot is doomed to succeed. Moreover, the Conservative Party manifesto explicitly commits the government to implementing the scheme and promises to strengthen immigration enforcement. The manifesto states a commitment to a ‘deport first appeal later’ policy for foreign national offenders, the implementation of a new removals strategy, and a crack down on illegal working.

The images of migration conjured up during the UK election campaign did little to ease the anxiety that an aggressive anti-immigration policy will continue. To be sure, there was an outpouring of compassion at the horrific and tragic news of thousands of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean and the failure of EU border policy and the collapse of its humanitarian mission in maritime search and rescue. There seems to have been no desire among politicians to temper the hostility towards those seeking shelter, work, and healthcare closer to home. The pessimist would say that we should expect this antagonism to be ratcheted up during the course of the next parliament as the Conservatives come under pressure from anti-immigrant backbenchers and the millions of people who voted UKIP at least partly because of the moral panic about the ‘poisonous issue’ of migration.

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Exactly how internal border controls will develop over the next five years is unclear, but the direction of travel is distinctly towards increased layers of surveillance by officials from all branches of government with roots creeping rhizomatically into the wider community as ordinary citizens are enlisted as immigration officers by proxy. There’s great anxiety about the move towards deeper and more extensive immigration surveillance among organisations representing migrants, refugees, and the settled communities of colour upon whom suspicion will fall.

Crimmigration―the fusion of immigration and criminalisation―seems an apposite word to describe the way in which human mobility is being responded to by governments in many parts of the overdeveloped world. Migrants themselves are being criminalised in their pursuit of somewhere to live and work and to obtain basic goods and services. The full weight of officialdom is set to be deployed to respond to a community that seems increasingly to reflect Margaret Thatcher’s pernicious fear of ‘the enemy within.’ Most disturbingly, by imposing penalties for non-compliance, government policies are now recruiting employers, landlords, and other private citizens as spies and informers on suspect communities.

Themed Week on Internal Border Policing:

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Bowling, B. (2015) Denying Migrants the ‘Right to Rent’: Enlisting Landlords in Immigration Surveillance. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/landlords-immigration-surveillance/ (Accessed [date]).