Operation Mayapple is the latest in a string of UKBA activities that unfairly single out communities and localities

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A professional UK Border Agency should show due regard to the impact of high profile operations and media work on communities and localities. Its recent use of social media to publicise Operation Mayapple is the latest in a series of operation that shows this is not the case.

Earlier this week the usually sedate Home Office twitter account sprung into a bit of a tweeting frenzy over UKBA’s most recent enforcement drive, Operation Mayapple. Other social media –youtube, flickr, storify- were also deployed to inform about the actions and results of the operation.

So what was all the fuzz about?

The Border Agency informs that, since May, 2000 ‘illegal immigrants’ have left the UK as a result of the operation which targeted overstayers and students in breach of their visa conditions. Two thirds of these left voluntarily (800 ‘of their own accord’, 400 after being contacted by UKBA and 58 using the Assisted Voluntary Return scheme), which means that 700 left as a result of raids on businesses and residences. The Border Agency does not state whether the operation has led to an increase in the numbers of people being removed or whether this is ‘business as usual’. Their latest administrative data shows that, up to the first quarter of 2012, the number of enforced removals has remained at a similar level since 2008.

There does seem to be something in this media push beyond informing the public about results. Twitter and flickr coverage was on raids on small shops in Brixton and Wandsworth and the images focused on dark-skinned people being walked away from small shops (a butchers in Brixton). The academic Nando Sigona mused about the choice of imagery in his blog:

To maximise impact and minimise troubles, the ‘illegal migrants’ were carefully cherry picked according to the following criteria: a) no women and no childrenbecause human rights activists could make a fuss; b) no citizens of rich and wealthy allies (i.e. US, Canada and Australia) because their embassies could raise a few eyebrows; c) no white people because they don’t fit the stereotype of the ‘illegal’ migrants, and, added benefit, the choice would please a section of the right-wing electoral body.

High profile enforcement operations and their coverage have a big impact not just on the lives of those picked up by immigration officers, but on the communities and places often singled out by the way in which enforcement is communicated. As a law enforcement agency UKBA should really be mindful that high profile operations and media work can tarnish communities and places.

A clear example of how damaging operations can be to communities and places was a major operation in 2007 in London’s Chinatown. On that occasion a large number of Border Agency officers closed off several streets in Chinatown and raided restaurants full of customers in the middle of the afternoon. The operation led to a protest organised by local shop owners and workers who were outraged by the high profile of the operation. After that raid Border Agency officials met with the Chinese community to try to agree more sensitive ways of carrying out enforcement operations (see p12 here).

About three years ago, the Border Agency commissioned a TV series called ‘UK Border Force’ to show to the public how it fights immigration crime. Fortunately, only two seasons of the show were filmed before it was dropped. Unfortunately for a group of traders in Newham their market featured prominently in one of the episodes. To make matters worse, the episodes of the programme have been aired on repeat since then. Local activists and traders feel that showing an operation in their market over and over on TV has tarnished their reputation and negatively affected their battle with the council over the future of the market which has been singled out for regeneration.

More recently, Border Officers and the Met Police raided the queue at a venue for a concert of an artist very popular among Latin Americans, picking out people from the queue and requesting them to show ID. Other Latin American restaurants and shops were raided in the weeks before the concert and on that same evening. Speaking to the traders they reported a sharp decrease in customer numbers as people preferred to stay away from places that were being constantly raided. As a result of this raid a group of activists started work to put together an information card on rights of individuals in the case of an immigration or police/immigration raid.

Brixton is the latest in a series of communities and localities singled out through these high-profile and visible operations. Not many lessons have been learnt, it seems, since the Chinatown fiasco that led to the protest.

In the past I have heard high ranking UKBA officials speak about how enforcement activity should be carried out with respect and due regard to its impact on community relations. It seems, however, that the imperative of targets and projecting a public image of a tough agency ruthlessly carrying out its job takes precedent over this side of things.

If one positive can be taken out of all this, it would be that attention-grabbing operations often generate a community response from migrant and non-migrant communities. In 2007 it was the Chinatown protest, in Newham it strengthened the resolve of activists to save their market and following the Latin American concert it was the bustcard initiative.

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JUAN CAMILO (mrn)

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