Airports Now A Frontline In The War On Terror


This week, the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, David Miranda, was detained at Heathrow airport by the UK Border Agency under schedule seven of the Terrorism Act 2000, which gives immigration officers the extensive powers to detain and interrogate anyone entering the UK suspected of being a terrorist. Miranda's detention by UK authorities (with apparent White House prior knowledge) has made headlines.

It seems that the security services, with the co-operation of the UKBA, are now targeting those in the realm of investigative journalism, particularly in the wake of Edward Snowden controversy. However the UK border control system has long been used for counter-terrorism and national security purposes. Since 9/11, the border control system has become one of the frontlines in the War on Terror.

In the last decade, visitors from across the developing world have been scrutinised and interrogated by the border control authorities under the auspices of national security, focussing on what Liz Fekete describes as the “enemy alien”. But the intersection between national security efforts and the agenda of the border control system is not just a recent phenomenon, with the national-border security nexus having a well-established historical precedent.

As far back as 1905, when the Conservatives introduced the Aliens Act, border control has been informed by national security concerns, with the Tories anxious about terrorists (primarily anarchists) coming from Central and Eastern Europe. The two World Wars saw further restrictions placed on “aliens” for security purposes, but it was in the 1970s that the modern border control system was created that placed strict constraints on all non-UK citizens.

The Immigration Act 1971 worked under the assumption that close monitoring of the migrant intake was required to ensure that only "suitable" migrants were allowed in, fuelled by a great anxiety that "bogus" migrants were entering the UK under false pretences, or evading border controls entirely. To counter this, a vast border control system was established that sought to detect and deny entry to (or deport) "undesirable" people. The border control system also encompassed other government agencies, such as the police, the Department of Social Security and the National Health Service, to create a complex web of organisations that could cross-check data and detect ‘bogus’ or ‘illegal’ immigrants within the UK.

This coincided with the rise of international terrorism, with threats to the UK primarily coming from Irish Republicans and Middle Eastern/North African terrorist groups or regimes. The agencies imbued with the mission of national security were able to use the structures set up by the border control system to detect, monitor and apprehend (or prevent the entry of) "potential terrorists". This was often done in a generalised manner, based on stereotypes and racist assumptions of certain national and ethnic groups.

Wide-ranging powers of arrest, detention and exclusion were given to the authorities under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts (in 1974 and 1976) to deal with suspected Irish terrorists, with Josephine Doody calculating that 448 people had been excluded from entering Great Britain from Northern Ireland or Ireland between 1974 and 1999.  Alongside this focus on Irish terrorism, recently uncovered documents from the National Archives in London show that the UK government were also very concerned with Middle Eastern and North African terrorism, undertaking significant steps through the border control system to detect "potential terrorists".

There were four main areas where the border control system acted in a counter-terrorist capacity: the interviewing of potential visitors to the UK at their place of origin and the refusal of visas; the detection of potential terrorists at their port of entry into the UK; the monitoring of potential terrorists if they were allowed entry into the country; and the deportation of "undesirable" people from the UK. Documents show that the border control system was given a broad profile of what characterised a ‘potential terrorist’, coinciding with mandatory security checks on nearly all Middle Eastern and North African nationals in 1980. The following extract shows how broad the terrorist profile that the authorities developed:

"Of either sex, between 18 and 35 (often looking older than the age claimed, if this is in the lower half of that age bracket). Travelling most frequently in pairs but occasionally singly or in a small group, sometimes using travel documents from the same batch. Fit appearance (even if applying for a visa for medical treatment), often giving an impression of mental toughness; not easily discomposed, even in circumstances which might make others irritated or impatient. Unlikely to be official visitors: more likely to apply as students or businessmen (or for medical treatment) but may (a) display vagueness over courses proposed, appointments with firms etc, and (b) appear to lack elementary knowledge of a professed speciality."

In trying to achieve the UK’s counter-terrorism objectives, the border control system placed blanket restrictions on certain nationals in order to prevent a minute number of potential "threats" entering the country — it seemed that the procedure was to treat all Middle Eastern and North African nationals seeking to visit the UK as potential terrorists until considered otherwise. Although there was little evidence of this process having an effect on catching suspected terrorists trying to enter the UK, blanket restrictions that placed all visitors from these regions under suspicion were utilised as a frontline defence against Middle Eastern terrorism occurring in Britain. This did not just encompass interrogation of people applying from these countries for visas to the UK, and extensive questioning their port of entry, but also entailed monitoring in the UK, including requirements to register with the police (even if on a short-term visa) and the UK authorities seeking to limit the appeals process for deportations.

When the Blair government launched the Terrorism Act in 2000, the security services, as well as the police and the border control system, were able to draw on a series of practices developed since the 1970s in order to prevent "potential terrorists" from entering the UK. Although as the detention of David Miranda has demonstrated, the broad powers granted to border control officials to scrutinise those suspected of "terrorism" have often been applied arbitrarily. In the words of Joshua Rozenberg: "It is impossible to escape the conclusion that the power [has been]used disproportionately and therefore inappropriately".

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