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Dystopia is already here - just not for you

Something has gone terribly wrong at the Home Office. Everyone’s saying it: starting with Guardian readers and Europhile tweeters, the chorus has extended — via Jacob Rees-Mogg — all the way to the Home Secretary.

Nobody can say exactly what. The fact, as others have pointed out, is that the Windrush generation has fallen foul of the hostile environment doing what it’s meant to: make life intolerable for those whose immigration status is irregular or marginal or, in these most infuriating cases, merely complicated.

What’s gone wrong, from a crudely political perspective, is just that the routine brutality of immigration enforcement has crept a little too close to ‘ordinary people’, and been spotted. There’s something unusual about us being outraged at the hostile environment. There is nothing at all unusual about the outrage itself.

Anti-migrant politics have been brewing in practically all wealthy countries for decades, and making a break for the mainstream for several years. Most discussion of the most virulently xenophobic strains, though, has focused on their voters — the endless debate about whether Trump voters are motivated by race or economics; the prognosticating about whether the Front National or UKIP will wreck old social-democratic parties — rather than their architects.

Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s Go Back to Where You Came From, released last year, is a rare exception. There’s no value in treating far-right arguments like something to be considered with an open mind, and Polakow-Suransky — who was funded by George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, and accordingly treated with suspicion by many of his interview subjects — makes no pretense of doing that. But when people like David Goodhart are using their good reputations to insist that people like Marine Le Pen are nothing to be feared, there’s a lot to be gained from a book like this that lays them bare. Having Le Pen on the page admitting she’d rather face a social democrat, because voters on the centre-right are more likely to defect to her than those on the centre-left, that’s a useful antidote to chin-stroking about whether the far right is really right-wing. A thousand interviews with the Danish People’s Party’s mixed bag of voters could never paint a picture of the stakes as clearly as getting a party spokesperson to straightforwardly say that non-white people can never be Danish.

But the most interesting thing about the book is its bigger argument: that immigrants are no threat to European democracy, but anti-immigrant political parties are. Polakow-Suransky’s concern is that far-right parties have a populist disregard for civil liberties, particularly minority rights, which could doom our democracies if an anti-immigration backlash launches them into power.

Something else seems more frightening to me: not that we’ll be unable to contain anti-immigrant sentiment, but that we’ll be too successful at it. When a far-right party surged in Australia in the late 1990s, it didn’t sweep to power and crack down on minorities. It was headed off by a conservative government which cracked down, more narrowly, on refugees. Those policies have destroyed the lives of thousands of people, but they’re so far from being a threat to the country’s democracy more broadly that most Australians just don’t care about them.

That’s the truth, not just about Australia but about most rich countries: every dystopian future you’ve read about is already here, neatly confined to a world of immigration administration most of us never encounter.

Take international students. Many countries welcome them — but they’re careful about it. To avoid exposing themselves to asylum claims, Western governments operate tests to exclude people who might not be ‘real’ students. (This is the ‘genuine temporary entrant’ requirement in Australia, or the ‘bona fide’ condition in New Zealand.) Peter Mares writes, in his excellent book about temporary migration in Australia, about a woman who lives in Quetta, in Pakistan. She wants to join her father in Australia; they are both Hazaras, which makes life in Pakistan dangerous.

But she can’t lodge a claim for asylum. For one thing, she hasn’t suffered the kind of highly targeted persecution typically needed to claim protection. More importantly, though, to apply for asylum in Australia — rather than register with the UN and wait years for a chance at resettlement in a country not of your choosing — you need to be in Australia. She can’t come, though: Quetta is so dangerous for Hazaras that she can’t convince immigration officials she’d return there, and so can’t get a student visa.

This is just one example of the way rich states get around the spirit of refugee law by keeping would-be asylum seekers away from their territory. It is pretty easy to enter the United States as a tourist under the visa waiver program — if you are from one of 38 countries, designated because they’re very unlikely to produce refugees. Before the Czech Republic joined the EU, the UK deployed immigration officers to Prague airport to turn away discriminated-against Roma people so that they wouldn’t reach British soil, since they were judged likely to claim asylum. To claim protection, you need to get into the country; to get into the country, you need to be unable to claim protection: it’s hard to imagine a neater Catch-22.

Meanwhile, for those who are here, the state quietly pries. There are plenty of Orwellian flourishes: immigration minister Caroline Nokes writing an article “dispelling the myth” of mistreatment of the Windrush generation. A guide for people deported to Jamaica, on the basis that Jamaica is their real home, advising them to try to ‘act Jamaican’. The way guides like these, and brochures for the IOM’s squint-and-it’s-voluntary repatriation programme, parade happy faces and talk of ‘new opportunities’ — promising that you, too, can learn to love deportation.

But the propagandistic style pales next to the stark facts: that every three months, every bank account in the UK is checked against official records to make sure it doesn’t belong to an illegal immigrant. (The records are routinely wrong, but the Home Office doesn’t care and the banks err on the side of caution.) That employers and landlords with no training in immigration law are made the enforcers of a Kafkaesque system designed to be incomprehensible. That their inevitable wrong decisions are then used by the British government as reason to presume you guilty until you can prove otherwise. There’s no need to labour the conceit — but how can we not see a bit of Brave New World in a system that lets the children stay but deports the parents, and breaks up marriages if the foreign partner makes only an average wage?

In the United States the authoritarian streak is too transparent for any literary comparison. ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has agents wait outside courthouses to seize the victims of crimes for deportation. They treat the presence of an undocumented migrant as an immediate threat worthy of a high-speed car chase that killed the couple they were pursuing. Perhaps most chillingly, activists and journalists have been repeatedly targeted by ICE because of their political views. Shaun King, a columnist active in the Black Lives Matter movement, was stopped at the border and questioned about his activism after a family trip to Egypt.

Australia, of course, has its prison camps — where thousands of reports of abuse are mostly ignored and conditions are so bad that a cut to the toe can escalate into fatal septicaemia — but it also has its workhouses. Backpackers on a working holiday can extend their visa by a year if they do three months’ work in a rural area. Because the extension needs sign-off from an eligible employer, there’s a booming new industry of hostels in rural areas promising work that never appears and bosses using their position of power to steal wages. We don’t have any real idea what UK immigration policy will look like after Brexit, because the government has repeatedly postponed the white paper that’s meant to start the debate. But proposals from both left and right to tie work visas to particular working hours, sectors or regions give every reason to suspect that this kind of intrusive regulation — implemented, as ever, by unqualified actors in the private sector and malicious ones in politics — is on the horizon.

Nitpicking this apocalyptic description, as someone no doubt could, cannot detract from the reality that in what we blithely call ‘liberal democracies’ there is an extensive section of the state apparatus that tears apart families, facilitates wage theft, targets people for their political beliefs, and imposes baroque and unjust bureaucracy on anyone trying to escape the net. If we saw that writ large we would know what to call it. It sounds dystopian because it is.

It’s just that they’re not coming for us. Even in the US, where people are most alert to the prospect of a dark new era, they’re waiting for it to happen to them, and mostly it’s not going to. So we’re missing it. There’s something unsatisfying, in a world like this, about Pastor Niemoller. Because the risk isn’t that we let these things happen, and eventually they happen to us too.

It’s that, precisely because they don’t happen to us, we keep letting them happen. The Windrush crisis is a rare moment — like Australia’s 2005 scandal over a mentally ill permanent resident held in immigration detention for ten months — that offers a hope of avoiding that. When the perfectly ordinary cruelty of the hostile environment is briefly revealed, people are overwhelmingly horrified. So this can’t be a time just for patches that help the Windrush migrants, and let that system slide back out of public view. It has to be taken as a chance to expose and confront every shred of its deliberate inhumanity, while people are paying attention.