The border/national security nexus: Detecting Middle Eastern & North African ‘terrorists’ at the UK border in the 1970s-80s

In May 1980, two terrorist incidents involving Iran and Iranians led to a major overhaul of the UK’s border control system for counter-terrorism purposes, ordered by Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington. The below post is how the UK border control system was increasingly used to identify and monitor potential ‘terrorists’ from the Middle East and North Africa from the early 1970s to the early 1980s. It is based on an article that is currently under review, so any comments are welcome (as usual). 

The Iranian Embassy Siege on May 1980, which caused Lord Carrington to enquire about tighter border controls to prevent further terrorist acts in the UK.

The Iranian Embassy Siege on May 1980, which caused Lord Carrington to enquire about tighter border controls to prevent further terrorist acts in the UK.

The intersection between national security/counter-terrorism efforts and the agenda of the immigration/border control system is not just a recent phenomenon, with the national-border security nexus having a well-established historical precedent. In the 1970s and early 1980s, when the threat of international terrorism was at its peak, the immigration/border control system was viewed as a frontline defence against terrorist activities occurring in the UK. The immigration control system was used to prevent ‘potential terrorists’ from entering the country, as well as detecting and monitoring people from certain national/ethnic groups who were thought to be ‘potential terrorists’. Similar to the situation in the contemporary era, the external terrorist threat was believed to come from the Middle East and North Africa. It is the purpose of this paper to show how this anxiety over Middle Eastern/Arab terrorism informed border control practices that profiled certain national/ethnic groups.

In the course of trying to achieve the UK’s counter-terrorism objectives, the actions of the border control system placed blanket restrictions on certain nationals in order to prevent a minute number of potential ‘threats’ entering the country. From a counter-terrorist and border control perspective, it seemed that the procedure was to treat all Middle Eastern and North African nationals seeking to visit the UK as potential terrorists until considered otherwise.

Visa restrictions on Iraqis and Libyans

For the control of non-European migration, the interview at the potential migrant’s place of origin was a fundamental part of the border control process and one of the most significant tasks under taken by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office within the border control system. Not all visitors to the UK had to obtain visas or entry clearances before travelling and fewer of these visitors had to go through the process for a formal interview with FCO staff to obtain said visa or entry clearance, but the FCO and Home Office both felt that it was necessary to conduct widespread interviews with potential visitors from the Middle East and North Africa on the grounds that this was a necessary counter-terrorist measure.

The first time that security checks at the visa application stage were placed upon Middle Eastern or North African national groups for counter-terrorist purposes was in 1972 after the attempted assassination of the former Iraqi Prime Minister, General Abdul Razzaq Al-Naif. After this assassination attempt, a decision was agreed upon by the FCO that ‘all Iraqi visa applications accompanied by photographs should be referred to London for security checking’, with the purpose being ‘to identify and refuse visas to known members of the Iraqi intelligence service who have sought and still seek to enter the United Kingdom’.[1]

By the end of the 1970s, the number of national groups that were subjected to mandatory security checks and interviewing had grown. Similar to the action taken against Iraqi nationals after the attempted assassination of Al-Naif in 1972, in the aftermath of the assassination of Mohammed M. Ramadan, a Libyan Gadaffi oppositionist and BBC employee, in April 1980, the UK government implemented security checks, including substantial interviews, for all Libyan nationals applying to enter the UK. A report prepared by the British Embassy in Tripoli stated that the new process, implemented in July 1980, required ‘full documentation for, and thorough interviews of, almost all Libyan applicants for visas’, with the main exception being wives and children.[2]

The reasoning behind these strict instructions was summarised in an FCO telegram, which argued that ‘[f]urther serious incidents here [the United Kingdom] involving Libyans would be intolerable breaches of law and order, damage Anglo-Libyan relations and endanger both the British community in Libya and our commercial interests’, and therefore, ‘[t]ighter precautions against entry of potential terrorists’ were ‘essential’.[3] The FCO emphasised that tighter precautions could ‘only be achieved by personal interview in each case… by a UK-based officer to enable him to be satisfied beyond any doubt as to the genuineness and purpose of the visit.’[4] It was hoped that this process would ‘help to deter, or failing that, to identify and weed out… potential terrorists’ and ‘complicate Libya’s task if… she is determined to try to send terrorists to the UK’, as well as ‘help to reduce the total number of Libyan applicants for visas’.[5]

Broadening the process

In mid-1980, Lord Carrington requested, upon the urging of the Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw, that the FCO explore measures using the border control system to prevent Middle Eastern and North African terrorism in the UK and the possibility of expanding the widespread interviewing and security checks to a greater number of countries known to be involved in terrorist activities. The catalyst for this request was the siege at the Iranian Embassy by dissident Iranians (who entered the UK on false Iraqi passports) and explosion at the Queens Garden Hotel in Bayswater (near the Iranian Embassy) which killed one Iranian, both occurring in May 1980. The request by the Foreign Secretary asked the following questions:

in what ways can we tighten up on the issue of visas; how can better checks be made; what categories of people should be most closely examined? Can controls at the ports in Great Britain be effectively tightened to improve screening?… What of conducive leave to enter and deportation?[6]

Although some reservations about effectiveness were raised by FCO staff, it was impressed upon those working in the British Embassies that the visa application process was the frontline in the fight against Middle Eastern and North African terrorism. In a draft document, it stated that this process was ‘one line in the defence against undesirables [with an emphasis on Middle Eastern terrorists] entering the UK and pseudo-visitors whose real intention is to settle in Britain’ and while it was recognised that it was not ‘an entirely water-tight system’, it was ‘nevertheless… a deterrent’.[7]

The FCO believed that the interviews at the embassies acted as a deterrent and ‘make it more difficult for terrorists to switch identities’ and maintained that ‘[w]ithout an interview system posts cannot… make the best use of the intelligence available nor can they provide feedback and early warning of doubtful cases the security services need.’[8] Another advantage of the visa system and the interview process, a secret report expressed, was that it allowed time for checks to be made, ‘for refusal to be made in doubtful cases with less aggravation and protests than when the visitor has already travelled’ and ‘for detailed interviews to be conducted wherever appropriate without the pressure of time which arises at a port where the choice is admission or detention.’[9]

In order for this interview process to be effective, the FCO required embassy staff to be hyper-vigilant in their efforts to detect and ‘weed out’ potential terrorists and as with detecting ‘bogus’ migrants, visa-issuing officers were to be sceptical of all applicants and required a significant level of proof to be consider an applicant to be ‘genuine’. A background paper highlighted the fact that ‘[t]errorist organisations make use of false travel documentation, either forged passports or genuine passports in false names and nationality’ and noted that it was ‘only occasionally that operational terrorists travel in their own name.’[10] The FCO argued that the interviews were a necessity, stating that the interviews were:

an essential part of the process of establishing an applicant’s bona fides and of attempting to identify members or supporters of terrorists organisations by questions concerning the applicant’s reasons for visiting the UK and about their background.[11]

Although nearly all applicants of certain Middle Eastern and North African nationalities were to be interviewed by visa officers, with corresponding security checks, some applicants were to be more closely interrogated. Those to be more closely interrogated were to be selected on the basis of whether they fit the ‘terrorist profile’ drawn up by the security services. Like other ‘offender’ profiles circulated by the immigration control system, this profile of the potential terrorist was broadly defined and was likely to cause many innocent people to be scrutinised and interrogated on the grounds that they fit this very generalised profile. A note circulated within the FCO stated the ‘chances of recognising efficient terrorists when they apply for a visa are evidently limited’, but asked all visa officers to ‘study carefully’ the profile that had been created and use it in their interrogation of visa applicants.[12] The profile of the potential Middle Eastern and North African terrorist, in its entirety, was outlined as follows:

Of either sex, between 18 and 35 (often looking older than the age claimed, if this is in the lower half of that age bracket). Travelling most frequently in pairs but occasionally singly or in a small group, sometimes using travel documents from the same batch. Fit appearance (even if applying for a visa for medical treatment), often giving an impression of mental toughness; not easily discomposed, even in circumstances which might make others irritated or impatient. Unlikely to be official visitors: more likely to apply as students or businessmen (or for medical treatment) but may (a) display vagueness over courses proposed, appointments with firms etc, and (b) appear to lack elementary knowledge of a professed speciality. Some terrorists have in the past sought to avoid interview eg by making visa applications through agents or by post – this tendency may grow. Posts should be cautious in presuming that particular categories can be exempt from interview and careful scrutiny of each application will in any case be needed to determine whether there are factors which suggest that an interview should nevertheless be insisted upon in any individual case.[13]

Detecting terrorists at the ports of entry

The other point in the border control system where Immigration Officers were able to ‘detect’ and prevent the entry of potential terrorist were at the ports of entry into the UK. In the 1970s, the major ports of entry into the UK were Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester airports, as well as the ferry ports on the South and Western coasts where boats from mainland Europe and Ireland respectively docked. Immigration Officers (as well as Special Branch officers) were expected to use the terrorist profile created by the security services to detect potential terrorists from the Middle East and North Africa and scrutinise their reasons for entry from the UK. Interviews at the port of entry were seen as another line of defence after the visa interviews at embassies, but at these entry ports, Immigration Officers were under much more pressure to quickly assess whether a visitor was ‘genuine’ and thus more likely to rely on stereotypes and racial profiling than embassy visa officers. The FCO encouraged that decisions regarding interrogating and refusing entry to potential terrorists ‘be taken at the visa stage’, but did recognised that ‘nationals from sensitive countries are questioned at port and on occasions refused admission.’[14]

One of the ideas that the FCO, Home Office and the security services considered in trying to identify ‘bogus’ visitors from the Middle East and North Africa (possibly including potential terrorists) was to require that nationals visiting from these regions to hand over a specially designated landing card with additional photograph, which could be compared with the information and photograph provided when the visitor applied for the visa originally. This idea of a landing card with additional photo to be kept by the Immigration Officer on arrival into the UK was referred to in several FCO documents with several people being enthusiastic or supportive of a photograph being kept for reference by the authorities. A report from late 1980 outlined that there were three main benefits of this. Firstly, it was argued that this would ‘make it more difficult for passports to be used by someone other than the applicant’. Secondly, it was proposed that it would be beneficial for the security service and the police to have a photograph of the person ‘who actually entered the UK’ and that ‘a failure to match would in itself be grounds for investigating the individual’. Thirdly, it was noted that the photograph could be used by the authorities to ‘identify and investigate an individual, for instance, after a terrorist incident.’[15] In the end, it was decided that an additional form and photograph were to be required from certain applicants. A FCO circulated note from December 1980 explained:

This will make it marginally more difficult for a visa’ed passport to be used by someone other than the applicant to enter the UK. But the main purpose is to give those concerned here a photograph of the person who actually enters the UK (the form and photo will be collected at the port of entry). This can subsequently be checked against the photograph attached to the normal visa application and would be used to help trace an individual in the UK after a terrorist incident.[16]

The same circular outlined that this was an additional requirement for visa applicants from Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Jordan (except holders of Diplomatic Passports), Lebanon, Libya, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, the Yemeni Arab Republic, Syria and ‘Palestinians travelling on a stateless person’s document issued by any third country.’[17] The circular also warned embassy staff that they ‘should not be drawn by enquiries as to the purpose of the new form’ and ‘say simply it is a requirement imposed by the British immigration authorities.’[18]


Many scholars have recognised that Muslims entering the UK, as well as the Muslim communities inside country, have been regarded as a ‘suspect community’ over the last decade. This has a much longer history, particularly through the screening and interrogation of Muslim visitors to the UK from the Middle East and North Africa. After small-scale terrorist incidents in the UK (such as assassinations) occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, the UK government, advised by the security service and implemented by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office, chose to place restrictions on all visitors from certain Middle Eastern and North African countries. Although there was little evidence of this process having an effect on catching suspected terrorists trying to enter the UK, blanket restrictions that placed all visitors from places such as Iraq, Iran and Libya under suspicion were utilised as a frontline defence against Middle Eastern terrorism occurring in Britain. These compulsory and wide-ranging security checks were first implemented against Iraqis in 1972, then against Libyans and Iranians in 1980, and as the perceived threat of ‘international terrorism’ grew in the early 1980s, were extended to nationals of most countries in the Middle East and North Africa. By the mid-1980s, the intersection between national and border security seemed almost complete, with many of these border security measures still in place in some way today.

Lord Carrington, Margaret Thatcher and Sir Geoffrey Howe in 1981

Lord Carrington, Margaret Thatcher and Sir Geoffrey Howe in 1981

[1] J.H. Mallett, ‘Visas for Iraqi Business Visitors’, 3 July, 1974, FCO 8/3245, NA.

[2] British Embassy Tripoli, ‘UK Visas for Libyans’, p. 1, 29 September, 1980, FCO 93/2356, NA.

[3] Telegram from FCO to British Embassy Tripoli, no. 131, 1 July, 1980, FCO 93/2356, NA.

[4] Telegram from FCO to British Embassy Tripoli, no. 131, 1 July, 1980.

[5] British Embassy Tripoli, ‘UK Visas for Libyans’, p. 2.

[6] ‘Near East/North African Terrorism in Great Britain’, 4 July, 1980, FCO 50/685, NA.

[7] ‘Entry Clearance Policy: Requirements and Resources for the Issue of Visas and Entry Certificates – Comments to First Draft’, n.d., p. 1, FCO 50/685, NA.

[8] Letter from A. E. Stoddart to Sir J. Graham, 12 August, 1980, FCO 50/685, NA.

[9] ‘Near East, North African Terrorism in Great Britain: Possibilities for Preventive Action’, n.d., p. 3, FCO 50/685, NA.

[10] ‘Background’, n.d., FCO 50/685, NA.

[11] ‘Background’, n.d., FCO 50/685, NA.

[12]FCO Circular, ‘Entry Control: Anti-Terrorist Measures’, 29 December, 1980, FCO 50/686, NA.

[13] ‘Terrorist “Profile”’, FCO 50/686, NA.

[14] Near East/North African Terrorism in Great Britain [final version]’, p. 5.

[15] ‘Background’, n.d., FCO 50/685, NA.

[16] FCO Circular, ‘Entry Control’.

[17] FCO Circular, ‘Entry Control’.

[18] FCO Circular, ‘Entry Control’.

New article on Australian Border Force for Salvage mag

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This is just a quick post to let people know that the new left-wing magazine from the UK, Salvage (established by ex-SWPers China Miéville and Richard Seymour, amongst others) has just published an online article by me on the failure of Operation Fortitude and the Australian Border Force controversy. You can find the article here.

This follows on from a tweet of mine about the failed Operation making it into a report from the Sydney Morning Herald that day. You can see my *hilarious* tweet here.

The Communist Party and the 1981 riots

Over the weekend of April 10-12 1981 (34 years ago this last weekend), black and white youth rioted on the streets of Brixton and these riots, along with the riots that spread across the country’s inner cities in July of the same year, became a symbol of the unrest caused by Thatcherism, as well as the long and uneasy relationship between Britain’s black communities and the police. The following post is based on a draft chapter from my forthcoming book on the Communist Party of Great Britain and anti-racism, but is still being tinkered with at the moment – so any feedback is welcome!

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Between the events of Southall on 23 April 1979 and July 1981, there had been increasing riots in inner city areas across Britain, where black and white youth had reacted against the police and in some places, such as Southall, fascist agitation. Although there has been major emphasis in studies of the Thatcherite Government from 1979 to 1990 on Thatcher’s abhorrence of the trade unions and the focus of her Government on destroying an organised labour movement, the riots that occurred across Britain in 1981 have been largely overlooked. While the anti-union legislation and the Miners’ Strike are important elements of the dominance of Thatcher’s neo-liberalism during the 1980s that involved high levels of confrontation between the state and the labour movement, the first major confrontation between the repressive institutions of the state and the ‘subversive’ sections of British society was not with the trade unions, but with Britain’s black population, particularly black youth in the inner cities.

The first major riot was in Bristol on 2 April 1980, followed by a much larger outbreak in Brixton between 10-12 April, 1981 before culminating in riots across Britain in July 1981. These riots can be seen as the reaction to the lack of a political voice by Britain’s black communities and to the racism of the police directed primarily at black youth, as well as against the Conservative Government. The riots were symptomatic of the wider disillusionment, shared by both black and white youth, with the Conservative Government’s repressive police tactics and monetarist economic policies, which contributed to high unemployment. The problem of police racism, at the centre of these riots, was, as Stuart Hall wrote, ‘where blacks and others encounter a drift and a thrust towards making the whole of society more policed’.[1] By the early 1980s, the police strategy in the urban inner cities was making a strong and visible presence of police power under the auspices of maintaining ‘law and order’ and taking a strong stance against street crime. As the Communist Party declared in May 1980, ‘the hawks are in control in the Metropolitan police force’.[2]

The first major confrontation was on 2 April, 1980 in the St Paul’s District of Bristol, when approximately fifty policemen raided a café that was patronised primarily by Afro-Caribbeans, which caused a confrontation between 2,000 mainly black citizens and over 100 policemen.[3] The confrontation was significant because of its scale and intensity, including burning and looting of private property and the racial aspect of the incident.[4] The clash was, Dilip Hiro wrote, a reaction to the confrontational tactics of the police against the black community.[5] The CPGB saw that the events in Bristol ‘were no “spontaneous riot” because there was nothing spontaneous about racial oppression – or its response’.[6] What Bristol demonstrated, Neville Carey predicted in Comment, was that ‘we are heading towards open warfare in deprived areas containing large numbers of unemployed youth’ as the police were being increasingly used to deal with troubles caused by the combination of racism and unemployment.[7] A petition with these immediate demands was circulated by the CPGB following the riot, but Carey admitted that the Communist Party was ‘doing far too little’ in working with the black communities, who mistrusted the opportunism and arrogance of the white left.[8] Carey warned that it would ‘take a great deal of mass pressure from the Left and progressive movements to stop this Law and Order government from encouraging the use of even greater force to deal with social discontent’.[9] But Bristol was only ‘the shape of things to come’.[10] As Harris Joshua and Tina Wallace wrote, ‘the same basic pattern of violence was to be repeated in almost every major city with a black population, precipitating a crisis of race unprecedented in the post-war era, and a crisis of law and order unprecedented since the 1930s’.[11]

On 10 April, 1981, a riot broke out in Brixton after the police stopped an injured youth on the street and the crowd reacted to the heavy police presence. Two events preceded the Brixton riots that contributed to eruption of action against the police. In January 1981, a fire on New Cross Road in Deptford led to the deaths of thirteen black youth. The fire was believed to have been started by a white racist, but the police investigation failed to arrest anyone connected to the fire, further angering the black community.[12] This resulted in large protests by the black communities, with little involvement from the white left and progressive movements, which was different from the political mobilisations of the late 1970s around Grunwick and the Anti-Nazi League. The mobilisation of thousands after the New Cross Fire ‘indicated the extent to which they had been frustrated… from expressing themselves politically’.[13] This mobilisation was against the disinterest and ineptitude of the initial police investigation and the mainstream press until the black protest had ‘drawn attention to the deaths and the official silence by marching through central London’.[14] Paul Gilroy wrote, ‘The tragic deaths set in motion a sequence of events which lead directly to the explosion in Brixton in April 1981, and provided a means to galvanize blacks from all over the country into overt and organized political mobilisation’.[15]

Another event that contributed to the Brixton riots was the strategy launched by the police in the week before the riot. Operation ‘Swamp 81’ was launched by the Lambeth police on 6 April, 1981. The purpose of ‘Swamp 81’ was to ‘flood identified areas on “L” District [Lambeth] to detect and arrest burglars and robbers’ with success, according to the police, depending on a ‘concentrated effort of “stops”, based on powers of surveillance and suspicion proceeded by persistent and astute questioning’.[16] In four days, the squads stopped 943 people and arrested 118, with only seventy-five charged, one with robbery.[17] The fact that so many police were deployed to street patrols in the immediate days preceding the riots contributed to the massive police response to the riots. Even after the first confrontations on 10 April, the operation continued with an extra ninety-six officers deployed to Brixton on 11 April. After the initial confrontation between police officers and a crowd of black youth on the evening of 10 April, 1981, rumours of police violence and several other incidents involving police and youths erupted into rioting across Brixton on 11 April and was finally quelled the following day. In the course of the events over that weekend, around 7,000 police officers were deployed to Brixton to restore order, although as John Benyon claimed, ‘during the worst night of violence on Saturday 11 April it seems that a few hundred people were involved’.[18] In the aftermath, 450 people, including many policemen, were injured, with 145 buildings and 207 vehicles damaged and the total damage bill amounting to £6.5 million.

After the Brixton riots, there was outrage from the Government, high-ranking police officials and the mainstream press, with Lord Scarman appointed to launch an inquiry into the events. But as Dilip Hiro wrote, ‘the root causes which led to the Brixton rioting persisted and Britain experienced a spate of violent disorders a few months later’.[19] Most major cities with black populations experienced rioting of some level, beginning on 3 July in Toxteth and Southall before spreading to Mosside and then to most other cities over the weekend of 10-12 July, 1981. ‘The incidents which ignited the disturbances varied enormously from place to place’ noted Chris Harman, with some incidents sparked by police harassment, others by racist attacks and fascist agitation or elsewhere, ‘the eruptions were “spontaneous” – youth on the streets just started looting and that was it’.[20] The official estimate of the total costs of damage caused during the July riots was £45 million, with £17 million caused to private property.[21] Around 4,000 people were arrested and ‘of the 3,704 for whom data was available, 766 were described as West Indian or African, 180 as Asian, 292 as “other” and 2,466 or 67% were white’, while around sixty six percent were under the age of twenty one and about half were unemployed.[22]

‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’: The Communist Party’s Reaction

The CPGB’s National Race Relations Committee (NRRC) had first begun preparing for a discussion conference, ‘Racism and the Police’ in October 1980, declaring that the ‘role of the police has become a central issue of anti-racist politics…loom[ing] large in any serious discussion of “institutionalised” racism and how to combat it’.[23] The NRRC invited representatives from black organisations, political parties, anti-racist, civil liberties and legal organisations, labour movement bodies and individuals to ‘assist the process of drawing up clear proposals for which the labour, democratic and anti-racist movements can campaign’.[24] The NRRC acknowledged that it would ‘not be a policy-making Conference’, but felt that the issue of police racism ‘urgently needs bringing down from the level of generalities to practical proposals’.[25] The conference was attended by around 160 delegates and put forward a ‘Charter of Demands’, published in Comment on 21 February, 1981 and then reproduced, along with the conference speeches, in a pamphlet Black and Blue, published in November 1981.[26]

The editors of the pamphlet, Dave Cook and Martin Rabstein, emphasised the wide range of groups involved in the conference, although many of the groups were represented by members of the Communist Party. Through this conference, the Communist Party believed it was ‘performing its key role of welding together…toward[s] the construction of the broad democratic alliance’.[27] The Party hoped that the ‘Charter of Demands’ was ‘one component part of a programme to democratise, to force democratic victories in the teeth of what will be the most powerful opposition in various parts of the apparatus of state’.[28]

Keeping with the framework of the broad democratic alliance, the ‘Charter’ called for consultation between the police and ‘genuine representatives of black communities’ as Britain’s black communities needed ‘community policing with democratic accountability and control, not saturation policing’.[29] ‘Hard’ policing, such as Operation ‘Swamp 81’, was seen as keeping the black communities under control, rather protecting it and the ‘Charter’, like the resolutions put forward at the CPGB’s National Congress, called for the removal of ‘SUS’ and the disbanding of the SPG.[30]

Included in the ‘Charter of Demands’ were proposals put forward by the Communist Party previously, calling for ‘race relations and public order law’ to be ‘firmly enforced against racists’ and ‘given more teeth to outlaw the advocacy and practice of racism’.[31] As with the Party’s stance on immigration control, the Race Relations Act and anti-fascism, the repressive and anti-left bias of the state was weighed against the practical use of the state to combat racism. The police, who were at the forefront of the fractuous relationship between the black communities and the state, were widely seen as incapable of mending community relations, but, in line with the ideals of the broad democratic alliance, the CPGB stated its commitment to the ‘rights of the “non-political” individual – the right to be free of harassment, the right to walk without fear on the streets’, which the Party believed needed to be protected by some kind of police force.[32]

After the riots in July, the CPGB’s Executive Committee released a statement, ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, describing the disturbances as a reaction to long-term problems that had developed in the urban inner-cities, ‘in the context of both the deep crisis affecting our economy, and the particular consequences of Thatcher’s policies’.[33] However the Party noted that it was ‘crude economic reductionism’ to simplify the argument to ‘economic crisis = disturbances on the streets’, recognising the ‘important racial dimension’ of the riots.[34] The riots were not an isolated issue of ‘law and order’, but partly a wider reaction to the repressive actions of the police and the monetarist economic policies under Thatcherism, with the CPGB leadership stating:

 Thatcher is blind to the part played by her disastrous economic and social policies in causing the disturbances, and the police chiefs are blind to the connections between their everyday methods of policing and the violence they face.[35]

Therefore, the black and white youth were ‘not rioting against society at large, but were rioting against the police, against unemployment, against racism’.[36] The Party saw the broad democratic alliance put forward in The British Road to Socialism as the necessary strategy for the working class ‘to force democratic victories’ within ‘the most powerful opposition in various parts of the apparatus of state’,[37] which looked to working within the present system for immediate victories while attempting to build popular opposition for long-term reform. The response by the labour movement and the left had to be, the Party declared, more than simply ‘getting rid of the Tories’, instead it was to ‘respond to the immediate demands of the black community’, as the Party urged these organisations to campaign at local level, ‘linked to the need for left alternative policies nationally’.[38]

Lord Scarman’s Report and the Denial of Institutional Racism

Unlike the triumphalism of the state and strong Government celebrated by the Conservatives after the Falklands War and the Miner’s Strike, the aftermath of the 1981 riots saw the Government having to partially retreat from its forceful ‘law and order’ position and make concessions that police tactics in the black communities did involve racist and alienating behaviour. Although there was much speculation over the cause of the riots and numerous objections to their violence, many acknowledged that the heavy-handed police actions in the black communities over the previous decade had been a principal factor in provoking such a violent reaction by black youth.

Lord Scarman’s Inquiry was primarily focused on the events in Brixton, although the Government asked Scarman to take the July riots into account, but as Joe Sim noted, ‘This request was not evident in the final draft’.[39] The Scarman Report, wrote Stuart Hall, ‘was no panacea’, but ‘broke the prevailing law-and-order consensus’ that left the police blameless,[40] instead arguing that the ‘problem of policing a deprived, multi-racial area like Brixton cannot be considered without reference to the social environment in which the policing occurs’.[41] In reference to the environment of deprivation that existed in Britain’s inner cities, which increasingly suffered from the monetarist policies of the Conservative Government, the Scarman Report explicitly stated that there could be ‘no doubt that unemployment was a major factor… which lies at the root of the disorders in Brixton and elsewhere’.[42] Scarman acknowledged that the black community face similar problems to the wider working class in areas such as education, unemployment and discrimination, but on a much more severe scale. The result of this was that ‘young black people may feel a particular sense of frustration and deprivation’.[43] Scarman also found the riots to be ‘a spontaneous reaction to what was seen as police harassment’.[44]

However while Scarman criticised some of the actions by the police, the Report, on the whole, stood in favour of the police force. Scarman concluded that ‘the power to stop and search’, one of the immediate factors for racial harassment by the police, was ‘necessary to combat street crime’.[45] From this decision, Scarman found that ‘the direction and policies of the Metropolitan Police are not racist’, but did admit that ‘racial prejudice does manifest itself occasionally in the behaviour of a few officers on the streets’.[46] What the Brixton riots did reveal for Lord Scarman was ‘weakness in the capacity of the police to respond sufficiently firmly to violence in the streets’, finding that ‘the use of “hard” policing methods, including the deployment of the Special Patrol Group, is appropriate, even essential’.[47] Scarman concluded that ‘racial disadvantage and its nasty associate, racial discrimination’ still existed in British society, but controversially declared that ‘“Institutional racism” does not exist in Britain’.[48] This denial of institutional racism by Scarman demonstrated, according to Martin Barker and Anne Beefer, that Scarman’s Report was ‘a liberal Report, but one within entirely racist parameters’.[49]

The Scarman Report was criticised by the Communist Party’s National Race Relations Committee for its failure to recognise the existence of institutional racism, describing the Report as ‘full of contradictions’.[50] Some positive elements to the Report conceded by the Party were the connections between the disturbances and the economic crisis, racism within the police, community policing, the banning of racist marches and anti-racist training for the police, although many of these points included criticisms of their weaknesses.[51] Other parts of the Report were described as ‘just plain bad’, with the Party asserting that the Report contained ‘no explicit criticism of the Government’s economic and social policies’, the token gesture of a liaison committee with only ‘consultative’ powers, the negligent mention of racist attacks on black people and most importantly, the denial of institutional racism.[52]

At the CPGB’s National Congress in December 1981, the Party repeated the call for an accountable and co-operative police force, working with the black community, while calling for greater Party work within local communities, particularly in response to unemployment, the police and racism.[53] On the issue of racism, the Party recognised the ‘rightward shift in British politics affecting all aspects of life’ and expressed ‘great concern [at] the growing activities of racist and fascist organisations, and particularly the growing attacks on black people’.[54] The Anti-Nazi League had defeated the National Front electorally but fascists were ‘now returning to [the] traditional policy of street terrorism and underground activity’.[55] In the struggle against racism, the Party stated that it ‘must seek to win many more black members to its ranks’, but recognised that this was difficult and would ‘only happen inasmuch as the Party is consistently involved in fighting on the issues that the black community recognises as the most urgent’.[56] While the CPGB saw potential for the Party and the Young Communist League to help the youth, such as those involved in the riots, to ‘become involved… in non-anarchic, non-individualistic forms of mass action’, the Party failed to make headway in the black community and the Party’s membership continued to decline. Youth unemployment did not propel many youth towards the left, with the ‘overwhelming majority of the young unemployed remain[ing] apolitical’ and as Kenneth Roberts wrote, ‘Rather than being channelled into party politics, their discontents are more likely to be expressed on the streets’.[57] By the time of the 1985 riots in London and Birmingham, Thatcher had defeated the trade unions in the Miners’ Strike, had seen the British Army victorious in the Falklands War and had led a sustained campaign of privatisation of British industry – unlike the vulnerability experienced after the 1981 riots, Thatcherism was now at its hegemonic height.

British Crime - Civil Disturbance - The Brixton Riots - London - 1981


[1] Stuart Hall, ‘Policing the Police’, in Dave Cook & Martin Rabstein (eds), Black & Blue: Racism and the Police, CPGB pamphlet, London, 1981, p. 7

[2] Jackie Heywood, ‘Police Hawks Come Out On Top’, Comment, 10 May, 1980, p. 151

[3] Dilip Hiro, Black British, White British: A History of Race Relations in Britain, Paladin, London, 1992, p. 85

[4] H. Joshua & T. Wallace, To Ride the Storm, p. 7

[5] D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 86

[6] Hackney CP Branch Internal Policy Document, n.d., CP/LON/BRA/09/11, LHASC

[7] Neville Carey, ‘Bristol Police Fail in Take Over Bid’, Comment, 26 April, 1980, p. 136

[8] N. Carey, ‘Bristol Police Fail in Take Over Bid’, p. 137

[9] N. Carey, ‘Bristol Police Fail in Take Over Bid’, p. 136

[10] Chris Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981: A Post-Riot Analysis’, International Socialism, 2/14, Autumn 1981, p. 1

[11] H. Joshua & T. Wallace, To Ride the Storm, p. 7

[12] D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 87

[13] Darcus Howe, ‘Brixton Before the Uprising’, Race Today, February/March 1982, p. 69

[14] P. Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, p. 130

[15] P. Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, p. 129

[16] Cited in, Lord Scarman, The Scarman Report: The Brixton Disorders 10-12 April 1981, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1986, p. 95, Italics are my emphasis

[17] D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 87; P. Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, p. 132

[18] D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 88; John Benyon, ‘Going Through The Motions: The Political Agenda, the 1981 Riots and the Scarman Inquiry’, Parliamentary Affairs, 38/4, 1985, p. 409

[19] D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 88

[20] C. Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981’, p. 5

[21] D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 90

[22] J. Benyon, ‘Going Through The Motions’, p. 410

[23] Conference Invitation to ‘Racism and the Police’, October 1980, CP/LON/RACE/02/11, LHASC

[24] Conference Invitation

[25] Conference Invitation

[26] ‘Racism and the Police’, Comment, 21 February, 1981, pp. 6-7

[27] D. Cook & M. Rabstein, ‘Inner City Crisis’, in D. Cook & M. Rabstein, Black & Blue, p. 6

[28] Dave Cook, ‘Charter of Demands’, in D. Cook & M. Rabstein, Black & Blue, p. 32

[29] ‘Racism and the Police’, p. 6

[30] ‘Racism and the Police’, p. 7

[31] ‘Racism and the Police’, p. 7

[32] D. Cook & M. Rabstein, Black & Blue, p. 6

[33] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, Executive Committee Statement, 12-13 September, 1981, p. 1, CP/CENT/CTTE/02/06, LHASC

[34] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 2

[35] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 6

[36] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 9; Italics are in the original text

[37] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 11

[38] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 10; p. 11

[39] Joe Sim, ‘Scarman: The Police Counter-Attack’, Socialist Register, 1982, p. 58

[40] Stuart Hall, ‘From Scarman to Stephen Lawrence’, History Workshop Journal, 48, Autumn 1999, p. 188

[41] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 194

[42] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 205

[43] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 194

[44] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 195

[45] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 207

[46] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 198; Italics are my emphasis

[47] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 201

[48] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 209

[49] Martin Barker & Anne Beezer, ‘The Language of Racism – An Examination of Lord Scarman’s Report and the Brixton Riots’, International Socialism, 2/18, p. 108

[50] ‘The Scarman Report’, December 1981, CP/CENT/CTTE/02/06, LHASC

[51] ‘The Scarman Report’

[52] ‘The Scarman Report’

[53] ‘Social and Economic Policy’, Comment, 5 December, 1981, p. 39

[54] ‘Racism’, Comment, 5 December, 1981, p. 37

[55] ‘Racism’, p. 37

[56] ‘Racism’, p. 38

[57] Kenneth Roberts, ‘Youth Unemployment and Urban Unrest’ in, J. Benyon, Scarman and After, p. 182

Determining the number of ‘virginity testing’ cases within the UK immigration control system

On this day (February 19) in 1979, Labour MP Jo Richardson led the criticism in the House of Commons of the Home Office and the Home Secretary Merlyn Rees over the gynaecological and physical examinations conducted upon South Asian women migrating to the UK, colloquially known as ‘virginity testing’. During this session of parliament, Rees announced:

a vaginal examination … may have been made only once or twice during the past eight years, according to records which have been looked at.

However a month later, Richardson stated that the Indian government was aware of at least 34 cases. The following post is an excerpt from our book, Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control, which discusses how much we know from the archival records about the number of cases of ‘virginity testing’ there were between 1968 and 1979.

Palgrave cover

We will never know how many women underwent virginity tests, in part because the government pursued a policy of denial and minimisation. Its reconstruction of the facts – and the shielding of evidence – suited its strategy of maintaining ‘good race relations’. For example, on 19 February 1979, Home Office Secretary Rees asserted in Parliament that ‘a vaginal examination … may have been made only once or twice during the past eight years, according to records which have been looked at’.[i] Yet in contrast to this assertion, we know from Amrit Wilson’s visits to immigration detention centres in 1977 that ‘“virginity tests” were routine’[ii], suggesting a completely different picture of what was taking place on British soil. From official and internal documents, we could only establish that the practice was mainly recorded offshore, at the High Commissions on the Indian subcontinent.

In mid-march 1979, more information emerged at the official level about offshore cases. In the House of Commons, Labour MP Jo Richardson, citing the Indian Minister for External Affairs, revealed that ‘at least 34 cases of virginity testing’ had occurred at the British High Commission in New Delhi.[iii] Behind closed doors, stories of these cases and others were already emerging and being shared amongst certain parties at the Home Office. In a letter in early March 1979 from the FCO to 10 Downing Street staff, Private Secretary J. S. Wall stated that ‘[t]he facts, as far as India is concerned, are that since October 1975 … there appear to have been nine cases in Bombay and 73 in New Delhi’.[iv] By January 1980, the FCO had a much clearer picture of the figures, but was reluctant to make them, or the extent of their impact, known. This was evident in a handwritten note to D. W. Partridge from the Migration and Visa Department of the FCO that we identified, which noted that those 73 cases that had occurred at the British High Commission in Delhi since October 1975 were examinations that ‘formed part of the normal medical examination’ and ‘all examinations [of the genitals] had been visual only’.[v] The same note said there had been 10 cases in Bombay, three of which involved internal vaginal examinations, with it unclear whether the other seven examinations were internal or external examinations of the genitals.[vi]

The note to D. W. Partridge also stated that in Islamabad there had been ‘no requests specifically for vaginal examinations made since 1975’, but acknowledged that ‘in some cases ECOs had asked [the] doctor to report “signs of marriage”’, which was a euphemism amongst High Commission staff for scrutiny to be placed upon the applicant’s genitals, breasts and stomach.[vii] It further stated that ‘no record of the number of such cases’ existed but that ‘they may account to a total of under 20 a year in the past two years’.[viii] The note emphasised that in Dacca, where Alex Lyon knew of previous cases of virginity testing occurring in the mid-1970s, ‘[n]o women were ever referred for vaginal examination’, but admitted that ‘one virginity test’ (emphasis in original) was performed in 1978 ‘by purely external examination, not involving examination of [the] vagina’.[ix]

The same note also referred to the Dacca High Commission, where it was much more common for women to be examined for physical evidence that they had borne children, upon the request of an ECO, which involved doctors examining the breasts and stomach for stretch marks. These cases numbered 20 to 30 per year.[x] The note mentioned that on ‘rare occasions’ women were examined ‘to establish whether they were pregnant when they claimed not to be but obviously were’, and ‘whether the applicants had borne children if conflicting evidence from other family members’ was available.[xi] The note concluded that ‘it is not possible for us to quote a precise and accurate figure’, but gave the approximate figures for the number of women given some form of physical examination to determine whether they had borne children or had ever had sexual relations, as requested by ECOs in South Asia:

          Delhi                            73

          Bombay                       10

          Dacca                      40–60 (over 2 years)

          Islamabad                    [unknown]

          Karachi                        [unknown]


          Total                            123–143[xii]

There is no evidence in the file that this note was ever typed up and distributed within the FCO other than to Mr Partridge. We also do not know whether and, if so, how Mr Partridge communicated with others on this matter. However, this is the most detailed document that we have identified in our research that records the number of victims of virginity testing and other forms of physical examination imposed upon South Asian women by the British immigration control system. Even though we have captured these figures, there remains a sense that the total picture is difficult to access. Yet these numbers do help us appreciate that virginity testing was far from an isolated practice.

This handwritten note to D. W. Partridge also attempted to draw a distinction between the examinations that occurred at Heathrow and those that occurred in South Asia. Discussing the examinations carried out in Delhi, the note stated that these ‘formed part of a normal medical examination’, but acknowledged that the gynaecologist ‘had been asked to advise on the marital status of the female applicants’.[xiii] However, even though the gynaecologist later stated that ‘all examinations had been visual only and that she had not carried out any internal examinations’[xiv], the examination of the genitals for administrative immigration control purposes, rather than for a medical purpose, was a violation of the human rights of the women involved. The note confirmed that the 10 cases in Bombay involved examinations of daughter dependants (all over the age of 18), with three definitely involving a vaginal examination, as mentioned previously.[xv] While the FCO claimed that these cases were ‘part of a normal medical examination’, a telegram from the High Commission in Delhi stated that it was ‘the practice at all posts in India not … to refer or encourage wives and children under 18 for settlement to have a routine medical examination’.[xvi] The telegram claimed that in the second half of 1979 no women or children under 18 had been referred for medical examination in India, in contrast to 281 husbands.[xvii] This suggests that the physical examination of women at British High Commissions in India was carried out but was not officially recorded, as were medical examinations for men seeking to migrate to Britain.

Guardian front page

[i] Hansard, 19 February, 1979, col. 221.

[ii] Wilson, Dreams, Questions, Struggles, p. 78.

[iii] Hansard, 21 March, 1979, col. 672w.

[iv] Letter from J. S. Wall to N. Stephens, 5 March, 1979, PREM 16/2000, National Archives, London (hereafter NA).

[v] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 1, FCO 50/675, NA.

[vi] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 1.

[vii] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 2.

[viii] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 2.

[ix] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 2.

[x] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 2.

[xi] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 3.

[xii] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 3.

[xiii] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 1, FCO 50/675, NA.

[xiv] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 1.

[xv] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, pp. 1-2.

[xvi] Telegram from British High Commission in Delhi to FCO, no. 35, 9 January, 1980, FCO 50/676, NA.

[xvii] Telegram from British High Commission in Delhi to FCO, no. 35, 9 January, 1980.


State crime and the migrant experience in the UK

After the coverage of the number of recent deaths of black people at the hands of the police in the United States and the commentary about similar victims of police/prison brutality in the UK and Australia, I thought I would post this excerpt from our book Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control. Although it concentrates on the immigration control system, it also talks about the concept of state crime more broadly and the importance of transforming how we look at the deaths, injuries and abuses suffered by ethnic minorities in the UK (as well as elsewhere) at the hands of state institutions.


The conduct of the immigration control system as state crime

The theory of state crime is a relatively recent development in criminal justice research, particularly in relation to the discussion of the practices of governments in Western liberal democracies, where the rule of law maintains that a legitimate use of force may be wielded by the institutions of the state, and effectively ‘consented’ to by the people who elect the government. This relates to the idea of ‘sovereignty’ – that a country has the right to solely determine its own laws (and enforce them) within its borders – although many scholars have argued that this idea of sovereignty is a myth.[1]

Criminologists Penny Green and Tony Ward have developed this idea of state crime by questioning the concept of the liberal democratic state’s legitimate use of force and arguing that the ‘legal limits of legitimate force are inherently vague’, and that the ‘strict enforcement of what limits do exist is intrinsically difficult and will often be contrary to the interests of the enforcing agency.’[2] For Green and Ward, the concept of legitimate force derives from a state’s claim to sovereignty and from ‘some degree of consent’, such that ‘there is likely to be some tacit understanding of the limits of legitimate conduct’.[3] One of the factors these authors use to define state crime is thus when the state acts outside the limits of legitimate conduct and its actions would seem illegitimate in the eyes of the civil society that the state purports to serve. They propose that state crime ‘should be restricted to the area of overlap between two distinct phenomena: (1) violations of human rights and (2) state organizational deviance’.[4] Human rights, in Green and Ward’s view, are ‘the elements of freedom and well-being that humans need to exert and develop … for purposive action’, while state organisational deviance is defined as:

Conduct by persons working for state agencies, in pursuit of organizational goals, that if it were to become known to some social audience would expose the individuals or agencies concerned to a sufficiently serious risk of formal or informal censure and sanctions to affect their conduct significantly.[5]

It is taken as implicit by Green and Ward that ‘passive failures to protect individuals against violations of their rights’ are also included within this definition of state crime.[6]

Green and Ward also point out that there is a difference between ‘individual deviant acts committed by state agents’ and ‘acts committed in pursuit of organisational goals’[7], with only the latter constituting state crime. Michael J. Lynch and Raymond Michalowski emphasise the term ‘organisational’ in the concept of state crime, proposing that often those who commit human rights abuses ‘are not morally depraved’, but are usually ‘ordinary workers who come to accept the normalcy of an organisational culture in which these acts, even if regrettable, are understood as simply part of their jobs’.[8] We have seen this in the history of abuses within the British immigration control system, as the government has tried to refute such abuse by attributing it to an individual (or individuals), usually at the lower levels, acting outside the parameters of their job. But it is often the case that the individuals are under pressure and informed from above, which creates the opportunity for abuses to occur.

In the area of immigration control policy, with a particular focus on Australia’s immigration control policy, Sharon Pickering and Michael Grewcock have both utilised he concept as developed by Green and Ward to highlight how the modern discourses that criminalise irregular migration (by refugees and asylum seekers) provide the context for state crimes to occur whereby these migrants become the victims. Grewcock states that Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers has been long criticised for ‘breaching human rights norms’, but notes that ‘few legal or formal sanctions have operated against Australian government policy’.[9] Along similar lines, Pickering points out that over the past decade and a half, ‘Australia has retreated from its international human rights obligations and has sought to particularly distance itself from its international human rights obligations to refugees’.[10] However, any condemnation by the international community has been interpreted by many in Australia as ‘an attempt to undermine the policies and practices of a democratically elected government’.[11] A ruling government is unlikely to prosecute itself for state crimes, even if its practices do constitute a violation of human rights, are institutionally embedded and are conducted in pursuit of the goals of the state. So what is the point of labelling these practices as state crimes? Pickering and Grewcock both argue that labelling a certain practice or act as a state crime allows a space for a challenge to be made within civil society and an alternative view of the ‘refugee question’ to emerge. As Pickering concludes in a 2005 article, the use of the term ‘state crime’ ‘may assist in the deployment of alternative meanings for legitimate sovereign behaviour and the terms through which its legitimacy may be judged’.[12]

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 7.46.20 pm

An IRR report into the deaths of asylum seekers and ‘irregular’ migrants in the UK

British immigration control and state crime

We see similarities between the phenomena described by Pickering and Grewcock and the abuses that we have described in this book. One of the continuous features of British immigration control since the 1970s is that there are ever tightening restrictions placed upon non-European migration, but as mentioned earlier this has not stopped the flow of people into Britain. Liza Schuster has argued that, despite controls becoming ever tighter, people still find a way into the destination country, stating that:

Controlled borders, let alone closed borders, are a fiction, and … the European and other governments which attempt to enforce these are involved in a symbolic battle at best.[13]

It is within this symbolic battle, Schuster claims, that there are ‘very real serious costs and consequences’ of the enforcement of immigration control, not only for migrants but also for the destination countries.[14] In addition to the massive financial costs of maintaining border control, hundreds of migrants die or are injured while seeking to gain entry to the destination country and there is an ‘increase in racial prejudice and racial violence each time migration controls become the focus of political attention’.[15]

The figures on how many have died, been injured or been physically or mentally abused within the British immigration control process are incomplete, and only cover a much more recent period of time than that examined in this book. For example, Harmit Athwal for the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) states that, between 2006 and 2010, ‘77 asylum seekers and migrants … have died either in the UK or [while] attempting to reach the UK’.[16] Of these 77, 15 died ‘taking dangerous and highly risky methods to enter the country’, 44 died ‘as an indirect consequence of the iniquities of the immigration/asylum system’ (with 28 of those committing suicide), seven died in police custody, seven died ‘at the hands of racists or as a consequence of altercations with a racial dimension’ while out in the community and four died while undertaking work in the ‘black economy’ as irregular migrants who are not provided with any state assistance.[17] After the deaths of three migrants in Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre in July and August 2011, Athwal reported on the IRR website that 14 people had died in British immigration detention centres since 1989.[18] These reported figures are most likely to be underestimates of the real size of the problem and Athwal suggests that there may be more, such as those who die while trying to enter Britain, those who are repatriated to a place where they fear for their safety and those who die while working in the ‘black economy’.[19] Athwal also emphasises that these figures do not include the violence experienced by settled migrants and the next generations, at the hands of either other members of the community or institutions of the state, such as the police. Another IRR study from 2010 found that 89 people had died as a result of racial violence since 1993 (the year of Stephen Lawrence’s murder)[20], while the IRR website claims that over 140 black and ethnic minority people died in police custody between December 1978 and November 2003.[21]

Can these deaths be attributed to state crime? Looking back at Green and Ward’s definition, these deaths can be seen to eventuate from the pursuit of organisational goals by state personnel (such as preventing irregular migrants from entering the country, deporting unwanted migrants, and ensuring that living in the UK as an irregular migrant intolerable) or the failure to adequately protect vulnerable individuals. As Leanne Weber argues:

[t]he majority of border-related deaths can be attributed to the ‘structural violence’ of border controls – that is, to systemic effects that multiply the risks of death and injury faced by illegalised travellers.[22]

And like the Australian context, in Britain the migrant has little recourse against state crimes. Mary Bosworth and Mhairi Guild have explained that the migrant is in a ‘substantially different, and far more vulnerable, position’ than the domestic criminal, and the ‘British immigration complex does not encounter the same [legal] constraints as the [domestic] criminal justice system’.[23] Liz Fekete has lamented that ‘[n]ot one of the twelve deportation deaths the IRR has documented since 1993 [to 2007] has led to a police officer or immigration official being successfully prosecuted for murder or the lesser charge of manslaughter’.[24]

The death of migrants is not the only basis on which to justify use of the term ‘state crime’. Serous abuse and physical and psychological harm at the hands of the state can be classified as state crime. And the practice of virginity testing reveals that the maltreatment of vulnerable migrants is not reserved to irregular migrants. Moreover, migrants showing up at the border with documents are subjected to state abuse. This demonstrates that state crime at the border can take many forms, and more often than not goes unreported and remains unknown. However, these abuses can be explained as a consequence of attempts to achieve the organisational goals of the immigration control system: the ‘desire for order’ and the aim of preventing ‘undesirable’ migrants from entering the country.

This raises a question in relation to the cases of abuse seen in the British immigration control system and in the Australian system: can these abuses be considered ‘state crimes’ as defined by Pickering, Grewcock, and Green and Ward? Clearly, similar abuses have occurred in both immigration control systems. And by the definition put forward by Green and Ward, as used by Pickering and Grewcock, these abuses could indeed be defined as state crimes, pursued in the process of state organisational goals.

What is the purpose of calling these abuses state crimes? It must be to redress the balance in the discourse on how migrants are treated within the British immigration control system. The present discourse is framed by a popular assumption that migration is a transgressive act that must be responded to with the full force of the coercive powers of the state, which often surpasses the ‘legal’ limits of this coercion. By highlighting the actions of the state as a form of criminal activity, rather than focusing on the possibility of people entering the country under false pretences, we are hoping for a shift in the dominant discourse.


[1] See David Garland, ‘The Limits of the Sovereign State: Strategies of Crime Control in Contemporary Society’, British Journal of Criminology, 36/4 (Autumn 1996) pp. 445-471; Saskia Sassen, Losing Control? Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization (New York, 1996).

[2] Penny J. Green and Tony Ward, ‘State Crime, Human Rights and the Limits of Criminology’, Social Justice, 27/1 (2000) p. 102.

[3] Green & Ward, ‘State Crime, Human Rights and the Limits of Criminology’, p. 108.

[4] Green & Ward, ‘State Crime, Human Rights and the Limits of Criminology’, p. 110.

[5] Green & Ward, ‘State Crime, Human Rights and the Limits of Criminology’, p. 110.

[6] Green & Ward, ‘State Crime, Human Rights and the Limits of Criminology’, p. 111.

[7] Green & Ward, ‘State Crime, Human Rights and the Limits of Criminology’, p. 110.

[8] Michael J. Lynch & Raymond Michalowski, Primer in Radical Criminology: Critical Perspectives on Crime, Power and Identity (Mansey, NY, 2006) p. 186.

[9] Michael Grewcock, Border Crimes: Australia’s War on Illicit Migrants (Sydney: Institute of Criminology, 2010) p. 18.

[10] Sharon Pickering, Refugees and State Crime (Sydney: Federation Press, 2005) p. 13.

[11] Pickering, Refugees and State Crime, p. 14.

[12] Sharon Pickering, ‘Crimes of the State: The Persecution and Protection of Refugees’, Critical Criminology, 13 (2005) p. 160.

[13] Liza Schuster, ‘An Open Debate on Open Borders: Reply to Stephen Castles’, Open Democracy (29 December 2003) (accessed 18 November 2009).

[14] Schuster, ‘An Open Debate on Open Borders’.

[15] Schuster, ‘An Open Debate on Open Borders’.

[16] Harmit Athwal, Driven to Desperate Measures: 2006-2010 (London, 2010) p. 2.

[17] Athwal, Driven to Desperate Measures, p. 2.

[18] Harmit Athwal, ‘Three Deaths in Immigration Detention’, IRR website (4 August 2011) (accessed 26 August 2011).

[19] Athwal, Driven to Desperate Measures, p. 2.

[20] Harmit Athwal, Jenny Bourne and Rebecca Wood, Racial Violence: The Buried Issue, IRR Briefing Paper 6 (London, 2010) p. 3.

[21] IRR, ‘Black Deaths in Custody’ (19 February 2004) (accessed 26 August 2011).

[22] Leanne Weber, ‘Knowing-and-yet-not-knowing about European Border Deaths’, Australian Journal of Human Rights, 15/2 (2010) p. 41.

[23] Mary Bosworth and Mhairi Guild, ‘Governing through Migration Control: Security and Citizenship in Britain’, British Journal of Criminology, 48 (2008) p. 711.

[24] Liz Fekete, ‘Europe’s Shame: A Report on 105 Deaths Linked to Racism or Government Migration and Asylum Policies’, European Race Bulletin 66 (Winter 2009) p. 5.

The Prevention of Terrorism Acts and exclusion orders: 40 years since their introduction

This week it will be forty years since the introduction of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (Temporary Provisions) 1974, passed quickly in the aftermath of the Birmingham pub bombings in November 1974. The POTA was a broad piece of counter-terrorism legislation and many of the controversial elements of contemporary legislation concerning counter-terrorism and national security can be traced back to this 1974 Act. Many have written about the dramatic powers of the POTA, including the extensive powers of arrest and detention, but this post will focus on exclusion orders, which were granted under the POTA and the first piece of border control legislation to inhibit travel between the UK and Ireland. Although abolished in 1999, the national/border security framework created by the POTA and its exclusion orders have informed how terrorism is “countered” at the UK border in the 21st century. Part of this post is based on a paper on monitoring potential ‘terrorists’ coming from the Middle East and North Africa in the 1970s and 1980s currently under review, which is why there are references and comparisons to this in the post. If you would like to read a draft, please get in touch.


The major terrorist threat to the UK during the 1970s was from the Provisional IRA and other Irish nationalist groups. Although most of the attacks during the 1970s occurred in Northern Ireland, Irish terrorism was always seen by the UK authorities as an internal or domestic terrorist issue. This was in contrast to the terrorist threat from the Middle East and North Africa, which was seen as an external threat, with an internal Foreign and Commonwealth Office report from 1980 stating ‘The main, continuing external threat of terrorist activity in Great Britain still comes from the Palestinian groups’.[i] As Kathryn Fisher has written, ‘International terrorism was positioned as non-domestic and non-British, an enemy from outside’.[ii] From a border security perspective, the irony of the Irish nationalist terrorist threat was that Irish citizens were free to enter and reside in Britain without restriction,[iii] while the much less immediate threat of Middle Eastern and North African terrorists entering Britain was heavily regulated.

In 1973, the Provisional IRA shifted its focus from merely targeting the British in Northern Ireland to a wider bombing campaign on the British mainland. This began with a bombing at the Old Bailey at March 1973 and continued throughout 1974 until November that year, when two Birmingham pubs were bombed, killing 21 people, and the UK government, blaming the Provisional IRA (the group has never claimed responsibility for it), hastily formed the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1974.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act gave the police and the security service wide-ranging powers of arrest and detention to counter terrorism extending from Northern Ireland. Of particular importance are the exclusion orders that could be delivered to potential terrorists under the Act to prevent people under suspicion of terrorist activity from entering Great Britain (as opposed to the United Kingdom, which included Northern Ireland). Part II of the Act gave the Secretary of State the power to exclude persons from entering mainland Britain if they were suspected of preparing terrorist acts ‘designed to influence public opinion or Government policy with respect to affairs in Northern Ireland.’[iv]However UK citizens who had been living for the last 20 years or born and ordinarily resident in Great Britain (England, Wales and Scotland) could not be excluded. This meant that people could not travel to mainland Britain from Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland if they were suspected of taking part in Irish nationalist terrorist activities and were excluded under the new legislation.

The 1974 Act did not prevent people from entering Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland or Great Britain if suspected of being involved in acts of terrorism. The reason that Northern Ireland was not included in the legislation was because it was believed by the UK government that ‘terrorist attacks in Britain inevitably tend to be committed by people who have travelled here from Ireland, while those that take place in Northern Ireland tend to be committed by those already living there, or by those who have come over the border from the South’.[v] If a person who was not a UK citizen, they could be prevented from entering the whole of the United Kingdom (including Northern Ireland), but this was only for people suspected of being involved in terrorist activities designed to impact upon the politics of Northern Ireland, which became a problem for the authorities in the late 1970s and early 1980s as they tried to formulate ways in which the border control system could prevent potential Middle Eastern and North African terrorists from entering the country.

Exclusion orders were, as Josephine Doody has argued, symbolic that ‘an explosion or death from terrorist activities in GB was intolerable or unacceptable to the House of Commons but such an explosion or death in NI was of little concern.’[vi] But Doody also points out that exclusion orders were ‘viewed in NI as a second best option’ because the powers of arrest and detention were far greater in Northern Ireland under Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973.[vii] Between 1974 and 1999 (when the legislation allowing exclusion orders was repealed), 448 people had received such orders.[viii]

In 1976, the Prevention of Terrorism Act was revised and strengthened, with exclusion orders now able to be used to prevent people travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, but this was a rarely used loophole by Irish terrorists. But the 1976 Act also, for the first time, introduced (under Section 13) checkpoints at ports of entry between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, even though both regions belonged to the United Kingdom and travel between them by UK citizens was completely allowed. Because the monitoring of travellers in between Northern Ireland and Great Britain was implemented under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and not the Immigration Act 1971, immigration officers did not work at these port entry points, with the control points actually staffed by the police (often Special Branch officers). The police, in some cases, used landing and embarkation cards similar to those used under the Immigration Act for all non-UK passport holders and for many who travelled between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the line blurred between border control official and police officer. In his review of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, Lord Shackleton wrote, ‘a passenger may thus be in doubt whether he is speaking to a police officer, an immigration officer or some other official’ and that ‘[h]is attempts to find out may not always meet with success’.[ix]


[i] ‘Near East/North African Terrorism in Great Britain: Possibilities for Preventative Action [final version]’, n.d., p. 1, FCO 60/685, National Archives, London.

[ii] Kathryn Fisher, ‘From 20th Century Troubles to 21st Century International Terrorism: Identity, Securitization, and British Counterterrorism from 1968 to 2011’, unpublished PhD thesis, London School of Economics, 2012, p. 19.

[iii] There has not been much research into the policing of the UK-Irish Republic border and counter-terrorist efforts against Irish nationalists, although Henry Patterson’s recent book uncovers a lot of new material regarding this. See: Henry Patterson, Ireland’s Violent Frontier: The Border and Anglo-Irish Relations During the Troubles (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

[iv] Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1974, Part II, s. (3) 1.

[v] Cited in, Josephine Doody, ‘Creating Suspect Communities: Exploring the Use of Exclusion Orders in Northern Ireland’, Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, 4/1 (January 2012) p. 82.

[vi] Doody, ‘Creating Suspect Communities’, p. 83

[vii] Doody, ‘Creating Suspect Communities’, p. 83

[viii] Doody, ‘Creating Suspect Communities’, p. 80

[ix] Lord Shackleton, Review of the Operation of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Acts 1974 and 1976 (London: HMSO, 1978) p. 30.

UK border control has long history of screening for ‘unhealthy’ migrants

High on the excitement of a potential by-election victory this week, UKIP’s Nigel Farage has called for immigration restrictions on people with HIV. This proposal has been roundly criticised as prejudiced against people with HIV, as well as impractical (as argued by The Guardian‘s Sarah Boseley). But Farage’s suggestion taps into a longer history of the UK border control system being used to screen and reject incoming people who were viewed as ‘unhealthy’ or a threat to the health of the body politic. Below is a short excerpt from our new book, Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control, that provides a bit of historical context for this, looking at how the border control system was used to prevent people from entering the country for ‘medical reasons’. People interested in this might also want to check out this 1983 article by Paul Gordon and this 2006 volume edited by Alison Bashford (who has written extensively about this subject in the Australian context).


The ways in which the physical body was to be examined within the British immigration system were codified in the various pieces of immigration control legislation and the internal instructions for immigration control staff and medical examiners circulated by the Home Office and the FCO. Officially, the primary purpose of the medical examinations to be conducted upon arriving migrants was to detect any health issues that might threaten the domestic population (and the migrant themselves); but this rationale was often used to disqualify ‘undesirable’ applicants and to extract further information from applicants (which could then be used to interrogate their claims if deemed unreliable).

The requirement that Commonwealth migrants be subjected to a medical examination was enshrined in the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962. The power to refuse entry on medical grounds after such an examination was outlined in the Act as follows:

2 (4) Nothing in subsection (3) of this section shall prevent an immigration officer from refusing admission into the United Kingdom in the case of any Commonwealth citizen to whom section one of this Act applies –

(a) if it appears to the immigration officer on the advice of a medical inspector or, if no such inspector is available, of any other duly qualified medical practitioner, that he [sic] is a person suffering from mental disorder, or that it is otherwise undesirable for medical reasons that he [sic] should be admitted.

However, the full parameters of the medical examination and its purpose in the immigration control system were only outlined in internal documents. Instructions given to Medical Inspectors in 1967 detailed six categories of Commonwealth migrants that could be referred to a Medical Inspector:

  • holders of Ministry of Labour vouchers and their dependants (emphasis in the original text);
  • other Commonwealth citizens intending to make their home in this country or to remain for more than six months…
  • any immigrant appearing to … be mentally or physically abnormal or both;
  • any immigrant appearing … not to be in good health;
  • any immigrant appearing to be bodily dirty;
  • any immigrant in regard to whom there is any mention of health as a reason for his visit.[i]

The medical examination posed a bureaucratic hurdle for most Commonwealth migrants entering during the 1960s, as they entered on work vouchers that depended on a clean bill of health; but the fact that dependent wives and children were also subjected to these examinations demonstrates the ‘desire for order’ of the immigration control system. The Home Office acknowledged that the ‘power to refuse on medical grounds does not apply to persons entitled to admission as wives … or children under 16’, but their referral to Medical Inspectors reinforced notions that migrants from the former colonies needed to be inspected to ascertain their physical ‘worthiness’ and that they needed to be screened as harbingers of disease. The FCO’s argument was that, although dependants could not be refused entry for medical reasons:

it is in their interests to be medically examined before leaving home, since if they require medical treatment, the medical report they bring with them will enable the British authorities to ensure that they receive such treatment as soon as possible after arriving in this country.[ii]

We would argue that it was in the interests of the British state to encourage those who did not technically require a medical examination to submit to one as this presented another administrative obstacle for the applicant, and could be used as an impetus for the authorities to find another official reason to deny them entry. FCO advice released in 1969 reiterated that dependants could be refused entry on medical grounds, but if an examination voluntarily submitted to ‘reveals that the dependant will need treatment in the United Kingdom’, the FCO stated that ‘a condition on admission may be imposed’.[iii]

The powers of Immigration Officers to refer migrants to a Medical Inspector and to refuse entry on medical grounds were made more explicit in the Immigration Act 1971. Schedule 2 of the Act simply stated:

(2) Any such person, if he [sic] is seeking to enter the United Kingdom, may be examined also by a medical inspector or by any qualified person carrying out a test or examination required by a medical inspector.

The Immigration Rules concerning medical examinations put forward that the ‘general aim’ of such examinations was ‘to enable [the] Immigration Officer to refuse entry to persons having a serious illness which might endanger the health of others’ or ‘persons suffering from a mental disorder or some serious condition which would prevent them from supporting themselves and their dependants’.[iv] However medical examinations were used to discredit the claims made by potential migrants and to intensify the scrutiny placed upon them. The scrutinising gaze of the immigration control system was thus cast upon the physical body as a marker of ‘truth’ when other forms of evidence (such as oral testimony and written documents offered by the applicants) were considered to be unsatisfactory.

Under the intense scrutiny of the border control authorities, if testimony and documents were not considered to be adequately convincing, the focus of the authorities shifted to physical examination, with the body becoming the marker of ‘truth’. As Didier Fassin and Estelle d’Hallunin wrote about refugees in the French border control system, ‘their word is systematically doubted [and] it is their bodies that are questioned’.[v] Unlike Foucault’s concept of torture, whereby the physical body is manipulated to extract the confession of ‘truth’ and the ‘truth’ is uttered or written by the tortured individual[vi], in the context under examination here the body becomes a text that is ‘read’ by the authorities, and the ‘truth’ is thus determined by those who ‘read’ it. In this process, the body reveals what the authorities want to see.


[i] ‘Instructions to Medical Inspectors’, n.d., FCO 50/132, National Archives, London.

[ii] ‘Medical Examination Overseas of Commonwealth Citizens Coming to the United Kingdom’, n.d., p. 2, FCO 50/132, NA.

[iii] ‘Advice to Medical Referees’, n.d., pp. 102, FCO 50/284, NA.

[iv] ‘Instructions to Medical Inspectors’, p. 1, RCRF/1/08, Runnymede trust archives, Black Cultural Archives, Lambeth.

[v] D. Fassin and E. d’Halluin, ‘The Truth from the Body: Medical Certificates as Ultimate Evidence for Asylum Seekers’, American Anthropologist, 107(4), 2005, p. 598.

[vi] See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin Books, 1991) pp. 35-42; Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Vol. 1 (London: Penguin Books, 2008) pp. 58-61.