After a deeply unsettling week on the streets of Walthamstow in north-east London, Hannah Lindo’s verdict on the government’s inpromptu clampdown on illegal immigrants was as unequivocal as it was damning.
“They [the UK Border Agency] are being selective in who they target; it’s not acceptable,” said the 26-year-old special needs teacher. “They are targeting the minorities on skin colour. Even if you believe there is a problem with illegal immigration, it’s completely unacceptable. It’s too much.”
Almost every shopper or traveller arriving at Walthamstow’s tube station on Saturday seemed to agree. The sudden arrival, 48 hours earlier, of immigration officers who proceeded to question travellers about whether they had the right to be in the UK, arresting 12, has left a legacy of resentment and distrust.
Not everyone disapproved of the operations, which were carried out in targeted areas of Britain’s cities last week. Andrew Jamieson, 31, said: “I think the government has to make a stand, put the frighteners on. There are too many people coming over. I’m looking for work at the minute and illegal immigrants are making it harder.”
But most locals believe that Walthamstow, one of Britain’s most racially diverse districts, was selected purely on the grounds that it has a high population of immigrants, a decision they say is inherently discriminatory.
“They are targeting the area because there are many Asians and blacks here,” said Jameel Ahmed, who arrived from Pakistan 43 years ago and, aged 66, is now a retired librarian. “These measures are against people like us. They are picking on us especially. This is an area that has always been rich in Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi communities, along with Africans, so you can see why they chose it.”
Those arrested on Thursday came from Pakistan, India, Nigeria and Ghana and are being considered for removal from the UK. Migrants’ rights groups continue to accuse the Home Office of transforming the UK – particularly its most multicultural neighbourhoods – into a “hostile environment”.
One witness to the UKBA checkpoint erected at the transport hub on Thursday claims she saw only black and Asian people being questioned.
“It’s incredible to think that could happen in this day and age: I am black and I am British. Did they not teach them that there are black people born here?” said a woman who did not want to reveal her name because she commuted daily from the station to central London. Labour home affairs spokesman Stella Creasy has already written to the Home Office to complain specifically about the activities of border officials at Walthamstow tube station.
Even those who claim there are too many illegal immigrants in the area said the government’s approach to the issue had unnerved them.
“There are way too many illegal immigrants, but they could take a different approach, maybe question everyone to make it fair. Judging by skin colour is racist,” said Arminas Zibas, a 25-year-old security guard from Lithuania.
Undergraduate Derek Blake, 23, said: “They shouldn’t be doing that there,” pointing to the bustling entrance of the Walthamstow Central station. “It’s outrageous and offensive to people like me.”
Although the immigration minister, Mark Harper, has insisted that “racial profiling” was not used and that no one was stopped unless the enforcing officers had reasonable suspicion that they were in the UK illegally, evidence has emerged that bona fide intelligence leads were not chased up.
Last week’s developments surprised a number of Labour MPs, who said they had repeatedly tried to get the UKBA interested in “clear-cut cases” of illegal immigrants living in their constituencies, only to be ignored.
John Spellar, the Labour MP for Warley and Westminster, said he and his constituents had phoned, written and beseeched the authorities to act in the past to no avail.
The sudden crackdown at railway stations, involving seemingly random spot checks, has led some to conclude that the Tories’ election strategist, Lynton Crosby, who made immigration a central issue in Australian politics, was behind the so-called “intelligence-led” crackdown in London, Manchester and elsewhere.
“Rather than indulge in what has all the hallmarks of a Lynton Crosby dog-whistle operation, they should act on the local intelligence which they already have in abundance,” Spellar said.
According to Dr Martin Ruhs, a government adviser on migration, the goal is to look tough in tackling a problem that, in truth, is not as severe as the general public believes it to be.
“Broadly speaking, Britain does not have the sort of problem the US has. Illegal immigration in Britain is the major concern of the public.
“There is a disconnect between what the public perceive to be the size of the problem and what it is in practice,” Ruhs told the Observer.
The most recent estimate of the number of illegal migrants and their UK-born children suggests a range of 524,000 to 947,000 at the end of 2007. But the numbers are old and contested. The authorities actually don’t know who they are chasing or how many illegal immigrants there are.
A Home Office statement regarding the Walthamstow checkpoint said: “We make no apology for enforcing our immigration laws and our officers carry out hundreds of operations like this every year around London. Where we find people who are in the UK illegally, we will seek to remove them.”
Source- The Guardian