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Fortress Blair - PM bets on biometric ring of steel to 'fix' immigration

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Analysis ID cards last week received one of their strongest endorsements yet from the Prime Minister, to the extent that the walls of the Bliarbunker could now be said to consist largely of e-Borders, ID cards and John Reid. Blair, under severe pressure from opposition leader David Cameron, appropriately enough described an e-Borders and ID card based Fortress Britain as the ultimate fix for illegal immigration.

And Blair actually went further than previous statements (and, indeed, the ID Cards Act he has just rammed through Parliament), saying "we need identity cards both for foreign nationals and for British nationals. If we want to track people coming in and out of our country and to know the identity of people who are here, then that is what we have to do." The Act currently specifies ID cards for citizens and for foreign nationals resident in the UK for over 30 days, but has no provision for other foreign nationals. The Government has also previously been at pains to deny claims that the ID scheme will operate as a tracking network, so Blair's use of "track" as a synonym for 'log' or 'identify' is unfortunate.

But shall we just take a brief tour of the battlements of Fortress Blair and survey the holes? The objective of e-Borders, which Blair claimed had now rolled out on 26 routes (which we think is a more impressive way of putting 'eight airports'), is to make it possible for the Government to know who is coming into the country, and who is going out. This, as you may be aware, is not necessarily the problem, but if people come in but, irritatingly, fail to go out again well, that's where ID cards come in in Fortress Britain, according to Blair. He didn't specify precisely how they would come in and what steps would be taken track down all of the people who didn't have ID cards, but there you have Tony Blair's Big Plan for fixing illegal immigration - log all movements in and out, and detect all illegal immigrants via their lack of ID cards. That, however, isn't exactly the problem either.

First, we'll look at the ring of steel. Even in that hypothetical future where e-Borders has been implemented across all points of entry, there will be many holes. EU citizens will be able to come in and work if they like, and travellers from numerous countries (notably, most white ones, and a broad selection of Commonwealth countries) don't require visas, so they can walk straight through. Note that once they have walked straight through you can't necessarily say with confidence that you know who came in - false or fraudulently obtained documentation can be had from some of these countries, and illegal immigrants can and do come in on these. Fairly large numbers of Chinese, for example, are known to have come in via regional airports as 'Malaysian tourists'.

The biometric visa system currently being rolled out in those countries where a UK visa is required is intended to provide a more solid rampart for e-Borders, but even here there are obvious holes. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) systems issuing the new visas are already having problems, and the system is dependent on the biometrics collected in the country of departure being available at the port of arrival in order for the individual's identity (or more properly, the one we effectively assigned them when we took the biometrics) to be matched up. But this is doable, so we'll be nice and assume that at some point in the future it will be done. So they get their short stay visa, fly to the UK and go missing.

Rats. So how did they get in anyway? Um, we gave them a visa - in fact, in many cases we were really, really keen to give them a visa. In addition to being extremely keen to (albeit not particularly constructively) get a lid on illegal immigration, we're absolutely mustard-keen for the UK to be a prime location for overseas students. Every year we grant hundreds of thousands of educational visas, salivate over the fees and preen ourselves over the wonderful hearts and minds job we're doing on the world's best and brightest. A thriving cottage industry of dodgy language schools exists, to the point where there are schools where you don't have to show up for classes, even schools that are frankly puzzled when students who didn't grasp the point ask them when the classes start. Classes? You want classes? Haven't you got a cleaning job to do?

The contradictions inherent in attempting to build an impenetrable fortress while at the same time operating a lucrative (at least the Government thinks its lucrative) toll road straight in are obvious.

You can see how in Tony's Fortress Britain future the number of missing aliens builds up anyway. e-Borders will certainly have an effect in that it'll give the Government a clearer idea of how big the pile that came in but didn't leave is, and it'll quite possibly be a very big number indeed. But it won't be quite the whole story, because in addition to the many ways through e-Borders, there will still be ways around it. One common route, followed by a journalist Sorious Samura earlier this year, runs from Morocco to Ceuta (Spain's African enclave), north through Spain, then France and across the Channel stowed away in lorries. Despite the increased amount of high-tech people-sniffing equipment being deployed by the UK on the Calais route, people still get through, and those who fail come back to try again and again.

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