The Permission to be Cruel: Street-Level Bureaucrats and Harms Against People Seeking Asylum

Abstract

Immigration and asylum policies and practices in Britain have turned increasingly hostile. People seeking asylum are exposed to a panoply of control measures and rendered vulnerable. The state has exteriorized its controls and drawn-in various actors and agencies who now enact state power in the control of migration. This article moves away from essentialist and simplistic notions of the state—one that views the state as monolithic and coherent with strictly defined social borders—and explores the role of what Lipsky (2010), in his book Street-level Bureaucracy, calls “street-level bureaucrats.” It shows the ways in which actors and agencies enact state power and inflict cruelty on asylum seekers through their strategic actions and inactions. Drawing on data from ethnographic research, this article demonstrates how bureaucratic practices create and exacerbate psychological distress among asylum seekers and push them into dangerous and potentially life-threatening situations. By doing so, this article makes a contribution to the literature on migration, state racism and violence.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Pseudonyms are used throughout this article.

  2. 2.

    The “hostile environment” is defined by a set of administrative and legislative measures that was implemented under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, and then followed by the Conservative government. The measures were designed to make the lives of people without legal immigration status difficult, so that they are forced to leave the country. The policy also empowers figures across British society to become quasi-immigration officers, such as employers, landlords, and National Health Service administrators.

  3. 3.

    In Britain, general practitioners (GPs) treat all common medical conditions and refer patients to hospitals and other medical services for urgent and specialized treatments.

  4. 4.

    This research was approved by an institutional ethics committee and also followed the ethical protocols outlined in the British Society of Criminology Statement of Ethics.

  5. 5.

    The Home Office is a UK ministerial department responsible for immigration and security.

  6. 6.

    There have been several reports from across the country of asylum seekers subjected to racial violence (see, for instance, the Calendar of Racism and Resistance by the Institute of Race Relations (https://www.irr.org.uk/news/type/irr-news/)).

  7. 7.

    I noted a range of examples of hyper-vigilant behavior, such as individuals feeling afraid to visit the GP’s office due to a security guard standing outside the building, as well as incidences where individuals experienced flashbacks due to fire alarm tests and ambulance sirens. Certain individuals were afraid of a postman knocking at their door and remained hidden even after the knocking had stopped. A large number of those experiencing these symptoms were fleeing persecution.

  8. 8.

    The Conservative government’s hostile agenda have made matters worse as police have engaged in data-sharing by reporting the victims of serious crimes to immigration enforcement. This data-sharing has increasingly deterred victims with a precarious immigration status from coming forward to report crimes. Not only is this a breach of the police’s obligation under human rights law to investigate serious crimes, but it is also a violation of the civil and human rights of victims who are treated as “undesirables” and “undeserving” of protection and are therefore exposed to further cruelty (see Bradley 2018).

  9. 9.

    It was not clear on what basis his money was confiscated.

  10. 10.

    At the time of interview (and after months of no medical care), Inam began receiving psychological support and counseling from a third sector organization. No probing questions were used and trauma exploration was strictly avoided. Telephone calls were made twenty-four hours, three days and seven days after the interview, and the respondent did not flag any concerns.

  11. 11.

    In one case, an asylum seeker who was fleeing persecution had a severe facial disfigurement due to gunshot wounds and was considered for facial reconstructive surgery. He had to wait until the three-dimensional models of his face were finalized, but during this period, his asylum claim was refused, and he was rendered destitute. The hospital refused to treat him due to the rejection of his asylum claim.

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Acknowledgments

I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions and advice. I would also like to express my gratitude to Gemma Lousley (Birkbeck, University of London), Agnieszka Martynowicz (Edgehill University), Scott Poynting (Charles Sturt University), Sarah Turnbull (University of Waterloo), and Aaron Winter (University of East London). I would also like to thank the speakers and audience at the Race, Mental Health and State Violence symposium where this paper was first presented (held at Birkbeck, University of London on April 10–11, 2018 (https://www.bbk.ac.uk/events/remote_event_view?id=440).

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Bhatia, M. The Permission to be Cruel: Street-Level Bureaucrats and Harms Against People Seeking Asylum. Crit Crim (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10612-020-09515-3

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