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A triple ring of security around Britain

TheHome Secretary yesterdayset out her plans for a “triple ring of security aroundBritain”.   This “triple ring” entails the funding of new SpecialBranch police to patrol UK borders; tougher checks at borders and ID cards forforeign nationals.

Asthe Troubles come to an end with their attendant measures of State control towatch over the people of Northern Ireland, we seem to be heading into a new erawhere the population is placed under permanent State suspicion andsurveillance.

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

Lastweek, itwas reported that Meg Hillier MP, gave evidence to the Home AffairsCommittee that we should see ID cards as “passports in-country”.  TheOrwellian resonance of this MP’s title as Minister for ID cards already createsa sense of unease:  Who voted to create this office?  What next, aMinistry for Identity?   This sense of unease only grows when youconsider that the government seems to have forgotten all the lessons ofhistory.  Or is it ignoring them to meet its own authoritarian ends?

Asour government intends first to apply the ID card system to migrants andforeign nationals, we should recall historical instances where ID documentationhave been used for the State to control private lives by discrimination,segregation and exclusion.  Recall the deportation of the Jews which wasmade possible by their  identification and a gradual curtailment of theirrights to move around and go about their business.  Recall the SouthAfrican passbooks, a despised symbol of apartheid.  These passbooks – or‘dompas’ – bore the bearer’s fingerprints, photograph and identificationinformation.  It was obligatory for black South Africans over sixteen tocarry the pass book, and failure to do so was cause for arrest andimprisonment.

Twoanecdotes from my own caseload of immigrants reveal the real impact of acontrolling regime based on paper identification.  An asylum-seeker inNorthern Ireland whom I worked with was recently unable to travel to an urgentmedical appointment with the Medical Foundation for Survivors of Torturebecause the airlines would not accept the forms of ID that he possessed for theflight from Belfast to London.  Another young woman who had been grantedleave in the UK was detained at Belfast Airport and interrogated for severalhours about her right to be here, what she was doing, where she was goingetc.  She had been fingerprinted at the airport and the Home Officecentralized database had not been updated to reflect her grant of leave; shecame up on the system as ‘illegal’.  Officers were loathe to believe theyoung woman’s word, or my word as her lawyer, instead of the computer record.

Commentsby the Home Secretary that the ID cards will not be compulsory should be nocomfort to civil liberties campaigners.  If the alternative is anall-too-real fear of arbitrary detention, denial of travel rights and otherinfringements of our liberties, the population will have little choice but tosign up for the ID cards.

Wedo 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 agovernment which holds the power of fear and threat over its ownpeople?   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’shumanity and individual reasoning in favour of cynical paranoia and thecertainty of a flickering number on a computer scheme?

Iwill 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 inthe context of the erosion of the right to seek asylum and the curtailment ofcivil liberties in the UK.  Please contact the Centre for Global Education inBelfast for more information on its 'Global Issues Seminar Series 2008' formore information and come along.

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