Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/05/22/blair_biometric_migration_fix/

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

Round up the usual foreigners...

By John Lettice

Posted in Media, 22nd May 2006 08:25 GMT

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.

The reason they can try again and is, in the case of this route, apparent back at the first EU border, Ceuta-Morocco. Many of them are Africans who have endured a long and dangerous journey to Morocco, and while a few of them can be identified by Spanish immigration as having originated in countries they can be sent back to, many of them can't. So the Spanish maybe detain them for a while, then ship them across to mainland Spain in the hope they'll go away. Same story at the French border - try to stop them getting in, can't think what to do with them once they are in, hope they'll go away. And finally, the same goes for the UK, where they can join the pile of missing aliens e-Borders didn't stop. Reports last week from the Canary Islands cover similar ground - large numbers who can't be sent back overburden their initial landfall, and hence become a general EU problem.

This is the point where Mr Tony's ID card magic bullet comes in, so we should look at the situation in more detail. The Immigration and Nationality Directorate, it was revealed last week, does not currently pursue overstayers, because mysteriously, when they've tried they've generally found that they're not at their last recorded address. If they happen to trip over your aunty from Trinidad who forgot to go home they'll probably send her back, but mostly she's safe. And, irony of ironies, one sure-fire way illegal immigrants are currently snagged is if they're arrested for committing a crime. But then they don't get sent straight back, because they've got to go to prison first, and when they get out you, er, forget to send them back...

As we pointed out earlier, Mr Tony didn't get specific about how ID cards would be applied to this situation, but for the sake of argument we'll speculate a little then just pretend that It Is So. Equipped with massively extended resources and (in the case of at least one of the two organisations) a vastly increased sense of purpose and resolve, IND and police SWAT teams operate intensive ID checks, pass controls and area searches, netting large numbers of immigration offenders. Alternatively, the Government pipe-dream of ID cards becoming your 'don't leave home without it' passport to life, commonly used by individuals to validate transactions several times a day, becomes a reality, and the illegals are flagged up by the electronic national ID checking network instead.

Neither of these scenarios is particularly likely, but remember that we're just supposing, OK? Whatever, your auntie from Trinidad gets it, as part of the first wave of low-level offenders, while buying stamps at the Post Office. People with jobs that show up on the system, people not trying very hard to go missing and still using the name and papers they arrived with, all of these get caught in the early stages of the dragnet. Note that IND by its own admission goes for the easier cases where it stands a better chance of a result, and note also that in this respect, those co-operating with the system and attempting to regularise their position, rather than just going missing aren't necessarily doing themselves any favours.

The criminals, the fugitives who know you're looking for them, those who adopt false IDs, and those exist below the system's radar are all going to be a lot harder, but if the checks are intensive enough and go on long enough, then quite a lot of them can be scooped up. If, that is, the supply of new illegal immigrants can be shut off. But as we've seen, even with e-Borders fully deployed there is no obvious way that this can be achieved.

Which leaves Blair's plans to solve the immigration question through the application of IT with difficulties on several levels. The border defences themselves will be expensive to keep up, will put non-immigrant travellers through annoying hoops, but will do little to impede would-be immigrants coming in under false pretences and/or false documentation. They will give the UK a biometric database of a reasonable percentage of the future defaulters, but these can only rationally be tracked down in-country via fairly repressive controls which again will impact heavily on the rest of the population. These measures will produce a large (and, assuming the supply is not shut off, continually growing) group of candidates for deportation, and as these will likely abscond if released, they must be detained until...

Well yes, until when? And where? If their country of origin can be confirmed, and if a repatriation agreement exists with that country, then they can be deported. But they may not admit where they're from, the country in question may not accept that they're from there, or may just plain not be willing to accept them. Repatriation agreements, which the Blair regime has been pursuing assiduously, but not entirely successfully, work to some extent, but if the UK can't actually prove country of origin, why should the presumed country accept the deportation?

So even if Fortress Blair performs as specified (remember we've only been pretending it will), we're left with a growing pile of people we can't send back because nobody will accept them. So what do you do? Keep them in camps forever? Effectively, the problem is the same throughout Western Europe - borders can be, and are being, strengthened, but no matter how strong the perimeter defence, borders will remain permeable and those who get through will in many cases become an insoluble problem. But we shouldn't be too hard on Tony here; yes, he's placing an absurd amount of faith in technology which cannot supply a solution, but he's not alone there, just maybe a bit further out on a limb than the rest of Western Europe, all of which, to a greater or lesser extent, is in denial. ®