Immigration Manhunts and British Post-Colonial Identity

by | 15 Aug 2013

No I will not show you my papers

Last week the British government’s Border Agency (UKBA) pushed its new and controversial “go home” campaign into full effect along with an accompanying, and highly criticized immigration stop and search at several London tube stations. The vast majority of the criticism to UKBA’s campaign has been largely focused on the basic premises that the Tories are either a) cynically trying to win votes from the UK Independence Party (UKIP) or b) they are racist. As plain and as simple as that. However I feel as though both of these arguments are missing the larger picture.

I do not believe that the Tories are so foolish as to systematically alienate almost a quarter of the population only to win a few votes from UKIP. In fact even UKIP’s Nigel Farage has condemned the “go home van” as well as UKBA’s stop and searches. The ultimate irony here being that in the wake of the Home Office’s new campaign, UKIP has come out looking more like “sensible and moderate conservatives” than the Tories (or at least until Godfrey Bloom’s comments about “bongo bongo land”). Nor do I believe that it’s a simple case of the Tories being just plain racist. That implies that they would have had overt policies of racial exclusion as agenda items all along. But if that were the case I don’t think that they would have waited three years to launch their public attack on racial and ethnic minorities.

At a time when we see inequality grow, the economy fail to recover as fast as what the Tories had promised and Theresa May’s own Home Office in shambles, threatening her political ambitions, the coalition government (especially the Tories, who are the de facto controlling party) are suffering from a crisis of legitimacy and identity. The government needs to assert its status as “master,” and cultivate their identity as leaders of the British people.

Historically, colonial Britain was always able to define itself by introducing a third dehumanized identity to oppose itself to, the identity of its colonized subjects. Through colonialism the British Empire constructed its identity as cultured, civilized, educated and moral from the opposing colonized people whom the Empire constructed as base, savage, primitive and immoral and who lacked legal recognition as full people. This process, what Edward Said referred to as Orientalism, is how the British colonial empire came to know itself as well as exercise power over the colonized world.

20212_523668617700112_1894000887_nToday the discourse of power, knowledge and identity turn towards the illegal immigrant, a subject who is constructed as an internal invader, a “non” person. In fact, in the late 20th and 21st century the illegal immigrant has become the non-person par excellence. Being “illegal” means not having papers in a context in which a paper identity has become the essential mode of a person’s existence. Considered nonexistent as a legal person, even though they exist, these individuals are denied recognition of their actual personhood. Thus states create on their territory a legal borderline between those who can be protected by the law and those who cannot (for more on this see Who Sings the Nation State by Butler and Spivak and Chanayou’s book Manhunts A Philosophical History).

Finally, much like colonialism, the identity of the illegal immigrant takes on a racial element. As Franz Fanon poetically illustrated in Black Skin, White Masks, racial drama plays out in the open; as such there is no unconscious element. The black person in an anti-black society is fully conscious of their situation, because their very body marks them as “Other.” The similarity to colonial discourse is especially striking here since according to eyewitness accounts the current anti-illegal immigrant campaign seems to be exclusively targeting racial and ethnic minorities. The illegal immigrant’s body, like the colonial body, now betrays it.

It’s important to emphasize that I’m not simply talking about the practice of scapegoating, where the racialized illegal immigrant is the easy target to blame for the government’s failures. What is at stake here is the formation and maintenance of a political identity. This is an identity where the British assert themselves as a “civilized,” “cultured,” and “enlightened” people tied together by blood and soil while its opposite is cast as an invader, or parasite that endangers the body of the nation. Hence the discourse of protection comes to the forefront. Grégoir Chanayou noted that the

founding act of xenophobic [and I would add racist] politics is the drawing of this boundary line between those who have to be protected and those who can—or rather, must—be excluded from protection. Political xenophobia is defined by this operation of demarcation whose matrix… was borrowed from the discourse of economics (2012, 67).

National identity then is negatively constructed in terms of what it isn’t, or rather what it must be protected from (68).

In his 2012 book Manhunts: A Philosophical History, Chanayou outlined how political identities are constructed through the act of the manhunt and what he calls the “dialectic of the hunter / hunted”. Chanayou notes how the exploitation of immigrants serves as a visual reminder of the failure of humanism and state sovereignty (the very notion that a person exists in a space “illegally” challenges the concept of state control; hence the illegality of that person existing in a geographical space is a threat to government); however, paradoxically, they are also needed by the economies who profit from their exploitation. As such they need to be made invisible, i.e. dehumanized non-persons (in the legal sense of the word) (2012, 50). This creates a push/pull tension that allows ensures the invader is omnipresent, and always hunted.

Much like colonialism’s use of the colonial administrator, the hunter asserts his or her mastery through an intermediary (in the case of state-sponsored manhunts, the police or military). Manhunts in this case become a public spectacle of supposed preventative security that is founded on a logic of the elimination of “dangerous” individuals in order to provide a measure of safety. The measure of safety, which is designed to protect society from danger, is not determined by the seriousness of an act committed, but by the estimated danger of an individual.

We find this mode of thought, today, in the notion of pre-emptive manhunting. Bringing in the discourse of preventative safety, the government can not only create its identity in relation to the “subhuman” hunted, but also strategically use manhunting doctrine to deflect and silence criticism from its own population since the rationale is that “we are doing this for your own good.” The goal for the hunter here is not the capture or the kill of their prey, but the affect of the chase. As such the idea of “bringing a man down” is not to kill or capture him, but to devalue him, to reduce him to an animal, to let the chase destroy his “humanity” and then to assert their own identity vis-à-vis their dehumanized prey. The actual concrete practice of the hunt is to establish a situation where the hunted is denied their humanity.

The hunter must first instigate the hunt; they must make the prey run. This is done through either a) coercion or threat or b) incentive, i.e. the “go home” van campaign. The van proudly carried with it both the menace of threat (arrest and deportation) as well as an incentive (legal aid in returning to the country of citizenship). Chanayou notes that once the hunt is on, the first of these weapons at the disposal of the police is the identity check. This is a filtering technique that calls for establishing a checkpoint where people pass by, preferably where the individuals sought live (2012, 83). The second weapon is the technique of an ambush that is followed by a spectacular roundup where a large group is arrested (83–84). UKBA  has followed this schema for state-sponsored hunts to the letter, complete with the most spectacular of roundups when UKBA flooded its Twitter account with pictures of those arrested.

However this campaign carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. UKBA’s racialization of illegal immigration means that a large population of people who are guaranteed protection by the state find themselves excluded. In other words the implicit message is that the old colonial worldview where only white people have the right to be British is still with us today. Just as the treatment of colonized subjects exposed the hypocrisy of European Humanism and helped to galvanize support for anti-colonial movements, the dehumanization and hunting of racialized illegal immigrants shatters humanist myths of progression, tolerance and multiculturalism that contemporary Britain has come to define itself by. But today this is a population who are in a position to legally defend themselves and take up campaigns of their own, such as the “Liberty van”, the Twitter storm criticizing UKBA, and the strengthening of oppositional parties and politicians that challenge hypocritical policies.

In closing his dialectic of the hunter/hunted, Chanayou points out that the history of power is also largely a history of struggle and that the asymmetrical power relationship that comes from the process of being hunted can cause the prey to internalize the position of the hunter. A reversal then occurs in which the former prey becomes the hunter, the tragic irony of the prey escapes only by becoming what it sought to escape from (88). So the bleaker possible outcome of this campaign is the prospect of it creating those who would wish to reverse the hunt thereby escalating cycles of violence both within the UK and abroad.

Anthony Faramelli is a PhD student at The London Graduate School and part-time lecturer in Media and Culture Studies at Kingston University


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Join 4,657 other subscribers

We respect your privacy.


*fair access = access according to ability to pay
on a sliding scale down to zero.



Publish your article with us and get read by the largest community of critical legal scholars, with over 4500 subscribers.