Deny, normalise and obfuscate: The Home Office in the 1980s and the abuse of South Asian women

Palgrave cover

The ‘missing’ files of the Home Office relating to an alleged child-sex ring given by Conservative MP Geoffrey Dickens to Home Secretary Leon Brittan is not that surprising. We know that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office kept silent about a hundreds of thousands of files that were thought to be ‘missing’ or ‘destroyed’ during the decolonisation process that most probably document a number of abuses by British personnel in Africa, Asia, Latin/Central America and the Middle East between the 1930s and the 1970s. Our own research into the abuses suffered by South Asian women at the hands of the British immigration control system shows that the Home Office (along with the FCO) was unwilling to admit to the abuses that occurred during the 1970s and at every turn, Home Office staff tried to obfuscate any independent investigation into these known abuses. We have only started to fathom the extent of the abuses suffered from the archival records released 30 years later. Without the archival record, many of the transgressions of the state would go unnoticed by the mainstream and historians are valuable in making the past wrongdoings of governments known.

As we have written in the introduction of our forthcoming bookRace, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control: Subject to Examination:

The main methodological approach adopted for the research underpinning this book was archival research based on recently opened Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) files held at the National Archives in London (released to the public between 2004 and 2012). This approach allowed us to capture the internal voice of authority – the one that we know it exists but often cannot be reached – representing the secretive side of the state that excludes us unless there is a leak of information (as recent cases linked to Wikileaks and Edward Snowden would suggest). Thus, we must wait an inordinate number of years to access such information, should any trace of it remain. In the case of the virginity testing controversy, we had to wait 30 years to access this side of the story, for more details of what occurred to be released. This practice must also be understood within a wider context of a series of human rights abuses conducted by British state institutions in the 1970s and 1980s (with the relevant files being released in the same timeframe), such as the actions of the British forces in Northern Ireland, the death of Blair Peach at the hands of a police officer in 1979, the policing of the Brixton riots and the response to the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. We see in black and white the recurrence of the typical cycle of government evasion of accountability, which usually starts with denial, and is followed by the adoption of a minimisation approach and ‘othering’ strategies. The crude reality of what is known and not shared publicly conveys a sense of uneasiness, and of unbalanced power between those who govern and those who are governed, which can be readdressed by the opening of the archival record.

And further into the book:

This [book] has outlined how the British Government, under both Callaghan’s Labour and Thatcher’s Conservatives, responded to the revelation of the virginity testing practice by The Guardian in early 1979. The initial reaction of the government, led by Home Secretary Rees, was to question whether the tests on South Asian women had taken place in the manner alleged and to claim that any such test was part of a ‘routine’ medical examination to which most migrants were subjected. However, these claims were contested as details emerged that the practice was much more common than first thought, with numerous cases alleged to have occurred in British High Commissions across the Indian subcontinent. The strategy of the Home Office and the FCO was thus to deny publicly the number of examinations conducted (even though internal correspondence reveals that by March 1979 the Prime Minister’s Office knew of at least 80 cases), and to hope that public criticism would be stemmed by the announcement of an investigation into the process of medical examinations of immigrants by Sir Henry Yellowlees.

Soon after the practice of virginity testing was revealed in the mainstream press, the CRE announced that the Home Secretary should allow an independent investigation to pursue allegations of racist (and sexist) discrimination within the immigration control system. However, the Home Office was keen to resist this and challenged the questions raised by the CRE, claiming that discrimination was necessary to ensure the effective control of immigration, as well as launching legal action against the CRE, disputing whether it had the necessary powers to investigate another government institution…

The same strategies of denial, justification and obfuscation were adopted by the Home Office and the FCO when similar questions were asked about the use of x-rays within the immigration control system, with criticisms that x-rays were being performed upon minors not for medical reasons, but to verify their entry clearance applications. The Yellowlees investigation was used by the incoming Conservative government to deflect enquiries about the administrative and non-medical use of x-rays. Although the Yellowlees Report, released to MPs in April 1980, sanctioned the use of x-rays for age assessment purposes, the documents we have uncovered show that the Home Office and the FCO, internally, were in doubt over the usefulness of x-rays and quietly abandoned using them in all overseas posts except the High Commission in Bangladesh. Eventually Yellowlees, for reasons unknown, reassessed his position, and in 1982, Willie Whitelaw announced in the House of Commons that x-rays would no longer be used to determine the age of potential migrants. Since this 1982 embargo, there have occasionally been calls to reintroduce x-rays to verify the claims of potential migrants (and more recently, asylum seekers). 

Guardian front page

And in the book’s conclusion:

As we have shown throughout this book, from the 1960s to the 1980s the British authorities saw (and still see) the strict implementation of immigration controls as necessary for ‘good race relations’, and discriminatory practices – with the burden of proof placed upon the applicant – as necessary for the effective implementation of these controls. The suspicion of foreigners that existed within the system and pressure to scrutinise those who fit the profile of a potentially ‘bogus’ migrant led to the occurrence of various physical (and mental) abuses. This is the context within which the practice of virginity testing operated.

The practice of virginity testing and other forms of intrusive examination conducted upon migrant women from the Indian subcontinent in the 1970s were informed by a mentality of postcolonial dominance. The targeting of this group of women was certainly dictated by the British colonial experience – or misconception – that the female role in South Asian society is submissive. Further, the post-imperial British Government held a conviction, remaining from the colonial era, that people from the Indian subcontinent were untrustworthy. Yet, having admitted many Indian men into Britain for economic development purposes in the 1950s and 1960s, the government had to recognise the need to reunite families as a pressing point of public policy, while at the same time attempting to preserve the whiteness of British society.

The border became a space where virginity testing and other abusive treatments were justified to serve socio-economic and political aims. The increasingly restrictive conditions produced by British immigration control policy saw the authorities seek to apply a formula to create and maintain its idea of the ideal mixed society, whereby the Commonwealth migrant would be accepted on the terms of the host society. In the case of the South Asian women who came to Britain in the 1970s, they were to fulfil the purpose of joining their male family members and creating homogeneous family units in Britain’s South Asian communities, thus replicating the ideals of white British society. To ensure that these women would fulfil this role, and because South Asian migrants were thought to be prone to fabrication (especially women), the body became the signifier of ‘the truth’ for British immigration officials. The combination of all of these elements formed the basis for the conditions under which [many] South Asian women had to endure intrusive tests between 1968 and 1979. This practice was highly discriminatory, with a very select demographic group being the victims; it was an abuse of power and a violation of human rights.

The victims who were subjected to such practices remain mostly nameless and faceless, will never receive adequate compensation and, most importantly for the purpose of a proper healing process, have yet to receive an apology from either the past or current British governments. On this point, when the story broke again in May 2011 in The Guardian, and was widely reported worldwide, the Conservative government did not consider it to be a good opportunity to redress past wrongdoings:

[a] UK Border Agency spokesman said: ‘These practices occurred 30 years ago and were clearly wrong.This government’s immigration policies reflect the UK’s legal responsibilities and respect immigrants’ human rights.’[i]

In a multi-ethnic, globalised Britain, one would assume that this matter would be taken more seriously. Redressing past wrongdoing is the foundation of restorative justice, an underpinning principle embraced by the UN to attest to the importance of acknowledging abuse and the infringement of human rights. Meaningful reparation of wrongdoings does contribute to the healing of victims, and any action in this direction ought to be encouraged…[ii] 

The task of discerning ‘undesirable’ migrants at the border was prioritised over all other economic, social and humanitarian concerns. Did ever the Immigration Officers, who used their discretionary power to argue that more intrusive examinations were needed, consider the implications of their actions? Have they ever looked back? We accept that they followed orders. We also accept that immigration officials may have agreed, up to a point, to perform their duties in a most comprehensive manner because of the government’s broader vision and their background. In other areas of the world, brutalities directed at certain ethnic groups to achieve a better position for the dominant state would be framed in completely different terms. The harmful actions of the British state and its branches and personnel cannot be dismissed in this way… 

As we have written, the archival record is key to uncovering the past abuses by the British state and as this blog post argues, the need for historians to assist in bringing the archival record to the public’s knowledge is increasingly greater. The recent past should not be arbitrarily off-limits. And if the government is reluctant to open its records, historians should learn from journalists and endeavour to make FOI laws work for us.

———————————————————————–

[i] A. Travis, ‘Ministers Face Calls for Apology as Extent of 1970s “Virginity Tests” Revealed’, The Guardian 9 May 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/may/08/home-office-virginity-tests-1970s (accessed 9 January 2014).

[ii] Much of Miriam Aukerman’s analysis would apply to this context as well. See M. Aukerman (2002) ‘Extraordinary Evil, Ordinary Crime: A Framework for Understanding Transitional Justice’, Harvard Human Rights Journal, 15, pp. 39-97.

 

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