The Body in UK Border Control

A Historical Analysis of the Intersection Between ‘Race’ and Gender in the Control of Immigration. A guest blog by Australian academics Dr Evan Smith & Dr Marinella Marmo explores the practice of ‘virginity testing’ by British immigration officers in the late 1970’s.

Chapters:
Introduction
Virginity testing
History of Discrimination in the British Immigration System
The Border as a Filter
Methodology employed
Relevance Nowadays: Contemporary Immigration Practices
Impact of Research

Introduction

Since 2008, we have been working on the project ‘The Body in UK Border Control’, which has been an examination of the intersection of ‘race’ and gender within the immigration control system and how the female body has been coded by the British authorities to reveal notions ‘identity’, integrity and genuineness. We have used the practice of ‘virginity testing’ performed by British border control officials in the 1970s as the main case study for our project. These ‘virginity tests’ were gynaecological examinations that attempted to verify signs of sexual activity or childbirth, and were used to scrutinise the stories of potential migrants from ‘undesirable’ countries, such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The purpose of the examinations was to prevent ‘bogus’ female migrants, usually entering as wives, fiancées or dependents of previously settled migrants, from entering Britain. For the immigration authorities, the invasive procedures were part of a series of techniques used to identify and refuse ‘bogus’ migrants, the detection of which was paramount.

Virginity testing

The practice of ‘virginity testing’ was a procedure under which enormous scrutiny was placed upon the body, which it was believed would reveal the ‘truth’, because the spoken testimony and documents of the female colonial migrant was thought to be suspect.

It is our argument that this suspicion arose from the institutional thinking of the immigration control system that, unlike male migrants, Asian women had no value in the labour market and their economic value was only determined by the use of their bodies.

Most were only allowed to enter Britain under the pretence of family reconciliation, as either child dependents, elderly relatives or ‘genuine’ wives – women that had a certain function within the migrant communities and within wider British society. The adult (and potentially single or sexually active) female was viewed by the British authorities as a threat to this subject position and believed that many Asian women were willing to exploit the family reconciliation program and enter the country under ‘bogus’ pretences. The restrictions placed upon women were largely based on the idea of the woman as a ‘commodity’, on how they can be used as a body, and not as a human being, to fit with societal needs of the destination country.

Although the practice of ‘virginity testing’ officially ended in 1979, migrant women, particularly from South Asia, continued to suffer discrimination based on their ethnicity and gender and instead of gynaecological procedures being performed, other methods of extreme scrutiny and examination were employed. Our research highlights the case of Anwar Ditta and her children, who experienced great physical scrutiny by the immigration control system and other sections of the Government, as the authorities refused to believe that Ditta’s children were her own. In the era before DNA testing, Ditta’s family was subjected to a high level of physical examination to determine whether she and her children could stay as a family in Britain. Like the ‘virginity testing’ controversy, the experience of Ditta’s family came because the testimony of migrants was deemed to be ‘inconclusive’ and potentially ‘bogus’, with the authorities preferring to defer to the ‘truth’ contained by the physical body.

Newly arrived immigrants from Pakistan at Heathrow airport in the 1960s. Photograph: Peter Keen/Taken from Observer Pic Lib

Newly arrived immigrants from Pakistan at Heathrow airport in the 1960s. Photograph: Peter Keen/Taken from Observer Pic Lib

History of Discrimination in the British Immigration System

Our research expands from these gynaecological examinations in 1979 to explore the history of discrimination within the British immigration system, underpinned by a heavy emphasis on scrutiny and weeding out potential ‘bogus’ migrants. It is argued that the border is not just a physical line on the map, but functions according to executive-led policy targets. We argue that these ‘tests’ are one of the most explicit examples of restrictions being placed on women and their sexuality in a functional border control setting in a Western nation.

The ‘tests’ are the most potent symbol of a system that relied heavily on racial and sexual prejudices, which spread from the highest levels of authority down to the individual immigration and entry clearance officers, to achieve its aims.

Embracing the theories of Kristeva, Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault and Agamben, we have argued that the discriminatory practices utilised by British immigration control reflected a system, borne out of colonialism, that tried to select and filter migrants into ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ in an attempt to reassert order in a postcolonial world, where Britain could no longer rely on its imperial structures to maintain stability in the domestic sphere. As the metropole of a vast empire, Britain had traditionally allowed colonial subjects unrestricted entry into the country and in the post-war era, Britain’s economic needs saw the need for an influx of labour and the relinquishment of its colonies, which triggered large-scale immigration to Britain from the colonies. However the attitude of the British towards these migrants was predominantly shaped by the colonial experience and immigration policy was often driven by competing economic, political and social demands, fluctuating between recognising the economic demand for migration and the fostering of fears of social problems supposedly caused by non-white migration.

The Border as a Filter

The result of this policy was that the British border control system that operated as a filter between the host society and the colonial ‘other’.

The border was not a fixed barrier that prevented all migration, but tried to prevent ‘undesirable’ colonial migrants from entering the country, unless when deemed necessary by the British authorities.

The border could be crossed, but the potential migrant had to endure extreme scrutiny and examination, prostrating themselves physically and mentally to the British state, in order to be ‘accepted’ by the host society. It must be that the border was not a fixed geographical entity, but moved in accordance with the desires of the state, starting in the British High Commissions in the former colonies in an attempt to maintain the colonial divide in the postcolonial era.

Methodology employed

The methodology we have employed is based primarily upon recently disclosed archival material from the National Archives in London, including files from the Home Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Commission for Racial Equality. This gives a unique opportunity to look at important dynamics within the British Government from an internal viewpoint (confidential letters, communications, and instructions), as well as providing material for looking at the impact of these governmental directives upon border control practises. These archival sources are complemented by archival material obtained from the Institute of Race Relations Library, the United Nations Human Rights Commission, the Steve Cohen collection at the University of Manchester’s Race Relations Archive, the archive of the Runnymede Trust at the Black Cultural Archives, the archive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants at Hull History Centre and the Tandana online archive of the Asian Youth Movements.

We have then combined this archival historical research with contemporary criminological and postcolonial theory. A historical approach is adopted to examine the primary archival documents. The analysis of the extracted documents will make use of criminological theoretical approaches (such as the theories of intersectionality, the ‘schizophrenic’ state/structural ambivalence, the border as a filter and the ‘othering strategy’ of off-shore government activity). This approach aims to portray a clear picture of how racial and sexual discrimination intersected in the immigration control system and uncovers a new and complex history of Britain’s relationship with its migrant population and its former colonies.

(Image courtesy of the Guardian)

(Image courtesy of the Guardian)

Relevance Nowadays: Contemporary Immigration Practices

We believe that our research is relevant because it contributes to our understanding of contemporary immigration practices. This book will explore the important links that can be found between historical processes and modern practices and institutions within the British immigration control system. In the past and in contemporary times, the British Government has claimed that its immigration policies have been fair and non-discriminatory, but examination of the internal documents has provided much material to counter these claims, and similar arguments can be found in present discourses on the function of immigration control, particularly in regards to the debates surrounding asylum-seekers and human trafficking.

Impact of Research

Our research has had a significant impact thus far. After our research was published in the highly regarded academic journal Gender & History in mid-2011, our findings were reported on in The Guardian and several other papers and media outlets. We were interviewed for BBC Radio 4’s Today program and for the Associated Press, which was syndicated in over 100 media outlets worldwide. We have been in contact with several production companies in the UK looking to feature the practice of ‘virginity testing’ in documentaries for television. We are currently writing a monograph on our research findings for Palgrave Macmillan, which should be available in late 2014.

Evan Smith can be contacted at: evan.smith@flinders.edu.au

Marinella Marmo can be contacted at: marinella.marmo@flinders.edu.au

More information, with links to press reports, can be found at: http://hatfulofhistory.wordpress.com/the-body-and-border-control/

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3 responses to “The Body in UK Border Control

  1. Pingback: Labour’s 1983 manifesto and immigration | Hatful of History·

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