Guest post by Candice Morgan-Glendinning and Dr Melanie Griffiths. Candice is a Research Associate on the Deportability and the Family project, and a Doctorate of Social Science candidate in the School of Policy Studies, at the University of Bristol. Candice is on Twitter @MorganDeanne1. Melanie is an ESRC Future Research Leaders Fellow on the Deportability and the Family project at the University of Bristol. Melanie has written on time, masculinity, identification, uncertainty, and ‘truth’ in relation to immigration detention and the asylum system. Follow Melanie on Twitter @MBEGriffiths. This post is adapted from a blog first published on Unlocking Detention. This is the final post of Border Criminologies’ themed week on 'Young Arrivers in Immigration Detention' organised by Dan Godshaw

‘They never told me when you come to England that you can’t have a girlfriend and you can’t have a baby. They never told me, no one told me. Even if they had told me, come on, it is life.’

(Undocumented father)

Photo: Bailey Cheng on Flickr, under Creative Commons

These are the words of a man who arrived in the UK nearly two decades ago, fleeing his country as a lone fourteen-year-old. They are also the words of a father of an eight-year-old British child; the words of a man who has also spent nearly five years in immigration detention. A man who has spent more than half his life in the UK, transformed from expectant father to a foreign national prisoner whose residence in the UK is fiercely contested.  The stress and uncertainty of his immigration detention as well as threatened deportation has broken up his relationship and is preventing him from being the active father he wants to be. Although finally out of detention, he’s still trapped, far from his family and penniless, living under the limbo of a Deportation Order.

Each year thousands of people are forcibly removed from the UK, including many who arrived as children and teenagers, as the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG) report Don’t Dump me in a Foreign Landillustrates. Their family lives and social bonds in Britain are threatened by deportation for immigration and/or criminal offences. Due to a series of policy changes over the last decade, deportation in ‘the public interest’ can flow from low-level criminality, or mere allegations of criminal ‘character’ or ‘lifestyle’. Is such treatment proportionate for those who have spent formative years in the UK?  Does Britain, the country of their long-term residence, bear any responsiblility for their offending and rehabilitation?

From protected child to Foreign National Offender

There are certain legal protections afforded to unaccompanied minors subject to immigration controls in the UK. They are, exempt from immigration detention and deportation. Before turning 18, these ‘young arrivers’ may enjoy periods of relative stability; living in communities, attending school, forming networks and relationships.

Such young men may well also have disadvantaged starts in life. For instance, many grow up in care or experience marginalisation and discrimination, whether from racism and deprivation, or xenophobia from the increasingly ‘hostile’ view towards immigrants in the UK. Such factors, coupled with rules that prevent them from working, increase their risk of criminalisation. Despite this, many of the ‘young arrivers’ who participated in our research felt British and settled. Most were unaware that their actual or perceived criminal behaviour could be used to bring their foreignness to the fore and justify their deportation.

For many, the route to deportability begins with the criminal justice system. Young people subject to immigration controls often occupy the same community and social spaces as their British Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) peers. The recent David Lammy report highlights the over-representation of BAME youth within all aspects of the criminal justice system, although he does not acknowledge the additional vulnerabilities arising from a precarious immigration status. Changes made to deportation policy in recent years severely reduce the scope of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to respect for  family and private life) for foreign nationals with criminal records. There are increasingly severe immigration consequences for criminal offending, now with ‘automatic’ deportation for those sentenced to 12 months imprisonment, whether as a single sentence, or accrued over multiple short sentences.

These trends are further developed by Operation Nexus, a police-Home Office interagency arrangement first piloted in 2012. Nexus reinvigorates ‘intelligence-led’ deportation, including on the basis of police contact and ‘non-convictions’ such as stop-and-searches (even if nothing is found), charges that are withdrawn or made in error, and being present at crime scenes, even as a victim or witness.

Nexus-related appeals are heard in the Immigration and Asylum Tribunal and are not within the scope for legal aid. Appellants often have no legal representation. And yet they are made highly vulnerable by the low standard of proof of the Tribunal, which allows the use of hearsay, anonymous allegation and circumstantial evidence. Allegations of gang membership and drug offences, for example, were prevalent in the Nexus-related hearings observed during the research. These accusations were frequently unevidenced, a particularly concerning observation given that drug and gang related activity is commonly used to signify racialised young men. For more information on Operation Nexus and the policy implications (e.g. see this Policy Briefing). 

Barriers to maintaining family life

Once labeled a ‘foreign criminal’, even those who grew up in the UK are liable to immigration enforcement measures. Experiences such as immigration detention significantly impact people’s mental health and feelings of belonging, with research participants describing themselves rejected as ‘nothing men’, ‘ghost men’ and ‘useless’. Detention and deportability led to people feeling outside of British society, and yet permanently bonded to the country through citizen children and partners.  

‘First love, first child. I feel like I’ve got nobody except her. She’s my life, my love, she’s everyone to me.’

(Undocumented partner and father)

Tinsley House IRC's visitors' room (Picture: Michael Collins, Right to Remain)
Ties to family in the UK provide practical and emotional support. However, immigration detention, particularly its indefinite nature, puts considerable – sometimes terminal – strain on relationships. Indeed, the immigration and detention systems erect multiple hurdles to continued family life, including through practical, financial and emotional barriers against visiting detained loved ones, as described in another policy briefing, Detention of Fathers in the Immigration System.

Some participants described immigration detention as a governmental tool, intended to destabilise their lives, break their spirits and encourage immigration or criminal offending. Removed from their family and support networks, relationships were irreversibly damaged and people’s resolve and mental health often deteriorated. Increasingly, separation from one’s family also has legal consequences, weakening claims to have ‘genuine and subsisting’ relationships with partners or children, thus undermining Article 8 based applications. This is so even when such separation is involuntary, through detention or removal.

‘Your family does not need you’ 

Immigration policy now explicitly places less weight on the family lives of foreign nationals if they have irregular immigration status or criminal records (see blog post: Invisible Fathers of Immigration Detention in the UK). There are also suggestions of gender, racial and class biases affecting the value placed on non-citizen family figures. In some cases people’s relationships simply were not recognised by the authorities, in others they were acknowledged but dismissed as unimportant. Fathers, boyfriends and husbands in immigration detention found it particularly difficult to have their private lives valued, with some accused of opportunistically having children in an attempt to undermine border controls.

Decision-makers commonly dispute the strength of men’s family roles. Many participants in our study were told by the Home Office that paternal relationships could continue after deportation, with communication technology sufficiently replacing the physical contact of fathers (the ‘Skype hug’). But as a British wife of a deported husband explained:

‘Yes, we’ve got WhatsApp and Facetime, but it’s not the same as that person being there.’

(Partner of a deported man, with whom she has two children)

Similarly, decision-makers may argue that the whole family – including British citizens – can relocate to the country of deportation, including countries that the Foreign Office warns against visiting. Such suggestions undermine self-determination and overlook considerations such as extended family and networks in the UK.      

Nothing men

Our research illustrates how men who self-identified as British, attended school, formed social networks and had British partners and children suddenly had this questioned due to the precarious or irregular nature of their immigration status. Despite experiencing the same challenges as their urban BAME peers, rather than being supported and provided with rehabilitation options they were labelled ‘foreign criminals’ and deportable. Their motives for establishing family and social bonds were questioned, family life labelled not ‘genuine and subsisting’, and their presence in the UK not in the public interest. Immigration detention played an active role in separating ‘deportable males’ from their support networks, breaking parental and emotional bonds, and often damaging the psychological and emotional health of individuals and their families. The immigration system is active in easing the process of exile from the country and family with little consideration given to the impact of separation on the family unit, or the role of external influences and challenges faced by these young men when they were establishing lives in Britain.  

Note: This post is informed by an ESRC-funded project running at the University of Bristol. The research examines the intersection of family life and immigration policy for families consisting of British or EEA nationals and men with precarious or irregular immigration status. Further project information, including a report and policy briefings can be found here.   

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Morgan-Glendinning, C and Griffiths, M. (2018) From British Playgrounds to Immigration Removal Centres. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/01/british (Accessed [date]).