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When the State Distrusts Individuals Based Purely on their Nationality

Written by Hazem Zohny.

The UK government finds my nationality sufficiently suspicious that it requires me to register with the police. Unlike any of the other foreign nationals working at my research centre, I alone have to present myself to the police to get ‘certified’ as part of my visa conditions.

This is because I’m from Egypt – one of the 40 or so listed countries (mostly poor and/or Muslim majority) for which this is a requirement. Basically, anyone who wants to live and work in the UK for more than 6 months and who is from the Middle East, Central Asia or a handful of South American countries has to do this.

There is no explicit rationale for it. The law itself says that it is a way of ensuring people like me comply with the terms of their visa, though zero justification is given for why people from these particular countries are singled out.

Even the policeman who issued my certificate had no idea, and when I half-jokingly suggested it was because I’m from a ‘dodgy country’, he laughed nervously and suggested instead that it might be a money spinner by the UK government (yes, aside from the mild indignity of presenting yourself to the police as someone who needs a bit of extra monitoring compared to his colleagues, you also have to cough up £34).

The only plausible rationale for this policy is this: people from these countries are believed to be less likely to comply with their visa conditions compared to people from other countries. And, even though my employer and the Home Office require me to keep my details updated, it is nevertheless deemed necessary to involve the long arm of the law to make it easier for the state to find and deport me if I (but not someone from, say, Canada or Australia) contravene my visa conditions.

I’ve been unable to find any evidence to support the idea that people from these listed countries are in fact more likely to contravene their visa conditions. But let us presume this is true: people from countries like Egypt are, on average, less likely to, say, leave the UK when their visa expires. This wouldn’t be an entirely unfounded assumption: people are less likely to want to go back to countries that are, socioeconomically at least, less pleasant to be in, no matter how rubbish the weather here is.

If this is true, might it justify this kind of discrimination? Because, on the face of it, this does appear like blatant discrimination: a harm (a fairly small one but a harm nonetheless) is being imposed on an individual simply because they belong to a particular group. Moreover, that individual has no control over belonging to that group (most people cannot choose their citizenship).

Of course, belonging to a group that is more strongly associated with some undesirable activity in and of itself does not justify treating every member in that group in a way that disadvantages them, however marginally. For instance, black males in London account for a significantly higher percentage of victims and suspects of violent crimes. Nothing about this ought to justify getting all black men in London to present themselves and pay a fee to register with the police, even though violent crime is presumably far more problematic than migrants contravening visa conditions.

True, there are an important number of disanalogies between being a particular foreign national and a UK national of a certain race. For instance, one might argue that the UK government ought to look at, say, knife crime and conclude that, rather than institute more draconian measures, it has an obligation to understand the root causes of those crimes, and to use its power to tackle those causes. In contrast, there isn’t much the UK state can do about the root causes behind why certain foreign nationals so desperately do not want to return home once their visas expire (unless of course you think a bit of old-school imperialism is in order).

This difference might go a little way in justifying this practice, but note the number of hoops we’ve had to jump to get to this conclusion. We’ve not only had to assume that individuals from the listed countries are indeed more likely to contravene their visa conditions compared to those not on the list, but we’ve also assumed that making all of them register with the police is the appropriate response to that possibility.

The sad reality is that for many people from those listed countries, they are sufficiently relieved to even be granted a visa to work here that they dare not lift an eyebrow at this requirement. Something tells me that if a country with a bit more international standing were on that list, this practice would have long ago been scrubbed.

Until then, nothing tells someone who is here to work (and who is paying taxes and subject to the laws of the land like everyone else) “we don’t trust you” like making it a criminal offense for them to fail to present themselves to a crime fighting institution so they can be more effectively monitored.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. > I’ve been unable to find any evidence to support the
    > idea that people from these listed countries are
    > in fact more likely to contravene their visa conditions.
    Hmm, I looked on Google for about 10 seconds and found this list from Homeland Security:
    Indeed, it’s from the United States and not the UK, but at least it’s some data rather than no data.
    And indeed, the “overstay rates” for visitors from developed countries (i.e. those visitors admitted under the visa-waver program) average about 0.5% (e.g. Austria and Belgium), with the poorer countries on that list more like 1.8% (e.g. Greece or Portugal), whereas the rates from countries that require visas average about 3% or 4% (with some outliers like Gambia and Liberia closer to 20%, and Djibouti at 42%!). Egypt is on the lower end of this group at 2.35%, but that’s still 6x higher than, say, Denmark.
    Thus in general there seems to be a clear line — at least in the United States, and acknowledging that there are outlier countries — between a country’s wealth / level of development and the likelihood that visitors from that country will overstay their welcome.

    1. Thanks for that link – it’s interesting as it raises the question of the appropriateness of focusing on percentages here. From that same US data, the 42% from Djibouti who overstayed in the US that year amount to 423 people, and the 2.5% who overstayed from Egypt amount to under 2000. In contrast, there were 25,000 UK citizens overstaying, 16,000 overstaying from France, and 10,000 from Italy. Djiboutians aren’t the people border control should be worried about here.

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