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ne to two days of every week, a police station in Patchway on the outskirts of Bristol, designates one of its small, windowless offices into a space used by the Home Office, for the ordained purposes of “immigration control”. The police station itself is a large concrete slab of a building, its contemporary glass façade giving it a sleek, corporate feel. At first glance, the police station stands out amidst its rather depressed surroundings; shabby and seemingly unvisited shop fronts line either side of the busy dual-carriage way, and the sound of car traffic driving at 60 mph fills the air. Yet I soon learn that only a stone’s throw from here is a Rolls-Royce manufacturers, its Patchway site responsible for manufacturing military gas turbines for use by the US Navy and UK’s Ministry of Defence. This is a somewhat strange discovery, given its surroundings denote a kind of dilapidated no man’s land. Yet Patchway in some ways resembles this juxtaposition, a rundown suburb where some of the UK government’s more questionable practices remain concealed and obfuscated.
The policy framework set out in the UK Home Office’s Instructions states that “a person who is liable to detainment under the power of Immigration Acts may, as an alternative be granted temporary release on restrictions” (emphasis added). One of these restrictions states that individuals are required to report at regular intervals to an immigration office or police station, as the “primary default alternative to detention”. It is reported that approximately 60,000 people regularly report with the Home Office across the UK with an estimated compliance rate of 95%. The general principle of reporting is that anyone without “the legal right to be in the UK”, including those seeking asylum are required to regularly present themselves to the Home Office. In practice, this involves turning up in person to a designated Home Office building or police station, where the Home Office official clicks a button to confirm attendance, and most of the time, the individual can then leave. Depending on the individual and how likely that person is to “abscond” according to the Home Office, they can be required to report from anything between two to three times every single week, to every six months.
I recently spent twelve months as a volunteer with an activist group called Bristol Signing Support (BSS). Our role, functioning through a rota system, involves attending this particular Home Office reporting center in Patchway when individuals are scheduled to report; we provide support by offering a friendly chat with people as they queue, and assist with any forms they may be required to fill out. As well, one of the many troubling aspects of these reporting centers, is that these are also sites where individuals face potential detainment, which can subsequently lead to their eventual removal or deportation. In the event of a detainment, if the individual has registered with BSS, volunteers will inform the individual’s solicitor and a friend or family member, as well as try to find out which removal center the individual is being taken. It goes without saying that these regular visits to report are the cause of much anxiety for individuals who are subjected to this policy. During my time as a volunteer with BSS, I would witness on average around two detainments every month, which, due to the nature of charter flights, often occurred according to nationality.
Whilst geographers have examined and scrutinized many of the more overtly violent spaces associated with immigration and asylum (for instance, immigration detention centers), these reporting sites, which can appear as relatively benign and even outwardly purely bureaucratic, can in fact be understood as operating at the threshold between these more overt sites of incarceration and violence. A “threshold”, or “liminal space” which can mean not only in between but, as Victor Turner’s seminal work on rites of passage showed, precarious and “ambiguous” (Turner, 1967: 97), captures the way that reporting repeatedly draw individuals into a space of heightened precarity. Judith Butler defines precarity as a differential exposure to “injury, violence and death” (2009: ii). In recognizing precarity through these terms, reporting practices can be understood as part of a violent continuum, making individuals increasingly vulnerable to destitution, detainment and removal.
Firstly, the fact that the reporting center in Patchway is itself geographically relatively remote, heightens individual’s vulnerability, both in how it enforces those with very little financial means either to use public transport, a £6 round-trip bus fare or to walk. The financial cost of travelling to and from Patchway is a lot to bear for most people on a low income, but for those living in destitution this cost is a huge burden. This means that some walk the distance, approximately 1 hour 45 minutes each way from central Bristol. An asylum seeker from Eritrea shared that he had even walked the journey through heavy snow one winter, afraid of missing his appointment. It is also physically awkward to access, located on the outskirts of Bristol at the side of a dual carriage-way. If you arrive by bus, you must make a run for it across a very busy road when there’s a gap in the traffic. In short, the Patchway reporting center is laborious to get to, either by walking or via public transport.
One very young man, around 18 years-old, who grew up in the UK but is originally from Iraq was recently released from prison. He told me he was not permitted to work, yet still had to pay for his own bus fare to report: “It’s like they want me to commit another crime”, he shared. Despite the fact that individuals are not physically incarcerated, reporting enforces incredibly circumscribed lives for individuals who very often are restricted from employment, and yet are also tied to these sites of reporting, demonstrating the “carceral continuum” (Moran, 2013) that exists beyond the walls of the prison or detention center.
Secondly, is how reporting draws individuals into a space of “oppressive visibility” - a term used by Xavier Marquez, and rooted in Foucauldian theories of the panopticon - describing those sites and spaces in which visibility is the primary instrument of control and regulation, which creates vertical rather than horizontal relations of power (Marquez, 2012: 22). In this sense, individuals who enter into this reporting space, in the way that they are made visible to the Home Office, are exposed to increasing levels of control and regulation, due to their entering into a space operating through these techniques and the ever-present threat of physical force which underlies it.
Without exercising any degree of physical force over individuals, these techniques of coercion expose them to the precarity of destitution— in the form of enforcing individuals to pay for travel to and from the reporting center, often for years on end — but also the precarity of being made visible, which can make individuals more at risk of removal. The fact that individuals are rendered visible to the Home Office by ostensibly entering into that space voluntarily (i.e. not by force), reinstates the self-regulatory power of oppressive visibility itself, by rendering physical force unnecessary. To give a sense of the temporal impact of this practice, like detention, reporting is framed within UK government discourse as a temporary measure, when in fact many have been reporting for years on end, demonstrating the extent of this coercive, regulatory power that reporting holds over individuals. A recent addition to this surreptitious coercion is the function of text messages. From January 2018, individuals began receiving texts from the Home Office, informing them that they must not miss their reporting appointments, otherwise they may face a penalty in the form of losing their housing and financial support. By conditioning people’s rights to support and housing upon their regular appearance at the reporting center, not only exposes them to these surveillance techniques, it also apprehends their ability to “hide’” or to go under the radar. As Hannah Arendt argues, in the same way that one must have the right to appear, what she celebrates as “spaces of appearance”, one must also have the right to non-appearance, or invisibility (Arendt 1958; Köhn 2016). The reporting system ensures this is apprehended.
Thirdly, this heightened exposure to precarity continues and is performed through the construction of the reporting space itself. Below is a (rather crude) map of the reporting space at Patchway: the numbers relate to the different spaces that individuals are orientated through when they enter: 1 is the door through which they enter the reporting space; 2 is where individuals must wait (featuring a 360 degree camera and microphone device); 3 is the small office they enter to report; 4 signifies where individuals are led if they face further questioning by Border Enforcement; and 5 which is where individuals are led to the cells awaiting removal to an immigration detention center, where they face possible deportation. Most of what takes place on a typical visit to the reporting center is in areas 2 and 3. However for those facing interrogation and detainment procedures, the levels of surveillance get ramped up, and the ability to resist becomes increasingly suppressed, in the form of automatically locking doors, and Border Enforcement guards wearing heavy flak jackets and carrying batons. These various signifiers of violence which occur within these spaces correlate to the increasing levels of precarity individuals encounter.
So, what are the long-term effects of reporting practices on individuals? Mohammed is an asylum seeker in his late fifties, and has been reporting for just over four years. He has experienced long periods in immigration detention where he has also faced numerous deportation attempts. He has also undergone bouts of homelessness and suffers from deteriorating mental health. Describing his visits to Patchway he reflects:
“That morning you leave your house, you don’t know whether you are coming back or not. And it’s very far, you don’t have transport, you don’t have nothing. It’s very, very difficult.”
Being ineligible for state support, Mohammed relies on a local charity for food and accommodation. His demeanor is resigned as he shares that he doesn’t know how much longer he can go on.
Mohammed’s experiences are emblematic of the parallels between destitution and the implementation of reporting practices, in being persistently orientated and exposed towards increasing levels of precarity. I heard numerous stories similar to Mohammed’s during my time as a volunteer with BSS, revealing the detrimental impact that reporting procedures can have on individuals over time. Their experiences speak of a relentless continuum through which they are made progressively more vulnerable, and become gradually steered towards detainment and eventual removal, taking its toll most on those least able to endure it.