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The opaque workings of immigration

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The immigration process sometimes makes no logical sense altogether – being opaque and closely linked to national security and economic sustainability, observes Angeline Loh.


People in developing countries often have the impression that apparently more developed democracies have fair and just systems.

This impression is what raises the hopes of potential migrants to any particular developed country, as many such people take a gamble on their hope of making a better life or earning a better living there. This hope-raising impression drives people to stake virtually all their material possessions to leave home, loved ones and friends in search of their dream of a better life.

Yet the first obstacle to present itself to the would-be migrant are the immigration authorities of these countries, in the embassies or at border crossings i.e. airports, ports, railway border posts, highway border check points etc. Potential migrants find themselves suddenly exposed to the reality of the workings of immigration at these places.

Many experienced and inexperienced travellers tend to dismiss this as one of the hazards of migration. While it may seem to be the case, an experience of immigration processing could make any migrant have second thoughts about the country they thought was so wonderfully just and fair.

It must be realised that immigration is a selection process and that it is the most opaque department of a country’s government machinery. Its values are seemingly different from other state agencies, particularly of apparently democratic countries in the world. There is nothing transparent about this department, although it may give the applicant limited information which may or may not make any sense.

Immigration policies change like the weather, catching the potential migrant, in every way it possibly can. Often, even if the applicant meets all the criteria stated and gives honest information on themselves and their purpose for wanting to migrate, immigration can ferret out any excuse to deny the honest applicant entry clearance to a country for obviously spurious reasons, if not outright refusals for apparently no real reason at all.

Visa applicants are asked for myriad personal details, many of which are confidential e.g. how much money one has, details of who their parents are, when and where they were born, their citizenship, what occupations the applicant has worked in, relatives living in the country the applicant is going to, their addresses and contact details, marital status, if they have a criminal record etc. Original or certified copies of documents as well as photocopies for the convenience of the immigration officer who will decide on whether one should have entry clearance into the country are compulsory requirements. In certain cases, the decision of this first level officer is ‘unappealable’ and ‘unchallengeable’, even if it is seen as blatantly unfair or unjust.

So, the visa applicants would have wasted their time and in many cases their money, merely going through the proper channels and submitting a visa application. This can run into thousands of local or foreign currency, depending on what currency the immigration authorities of that foreign country demand. Sometimes, the expense incurred in preparing a visa application to submit to these foreign immigration authorities can be compared to a capital layout for an investment in the country the migrant is going to.

Developed countries, especially western democracies are increasingly taking to the usage of middlemen immigration agents, which obviously gets a cut of the visa application fees for their services to the various immigration authorities of the countries who use them. This being the arrangement, visa processing fees paid, whatever the amount, are often non-refundable, even if the visa application to visit those countries is rejected. The potential tourist or migrant should be aware of such pitfalls and make an informed decision by visiting the websites of any country they intend to visit or migrate to. Otherwise, they would be wasting a considerable portion of their resources and time in the application process.

Further, it would be wise for any would-be tourist to visit the embassy websites of foreign countries to ascertain what documents they should carry with them to show the foreign immigration officer at the counter on landing in the country, even if the immigration section of the website says, short term visitors from particular countries or regions don’t need to apply for visas, or may get visa on arrival.

Expectations of a happy holiday might summarily be demolished by instant deportation to your own country. Some people might think that all this ‘advice’ is merely creating more needless work, as they have no bad experiences concerning immigration to such countries. Well, hopefully, their luck won’t run out one day. Some might decide to use a migration agent, but these also charge a large fee for their services. So, would it be worth it if one was simply going on a two-week vacation?

Hitting border barriers

Security traps

An Iranian friend once said, about two decades ago, that on landing in the United States, persons from particular countries, including Iran were separated from the main queue of people lining up to go through immigration. These seemed to be the ‘special procedures’ groups, persons from allegedly ‘suspect’ countries who were separately interrogated.

There was another British friend who used to keep loose change in coins, in his jeans pockets and having forgotten to remove the coins before going through the metal detector at Heathrow airport, set off the alarm. Immediately, about seven to ten burly security personnel in bullet-proof vests, armed with truncheons surrounded this single unarmed individual in a defensive way – this was before 9/11. No doubt, the IRA was on the rampage in London around that time.

The ‘war on terrorism’ ratcheted up border security so high in many western democracies that people were subjected to body searches, confiscation of everyday items they travelled with, including bottled water and other liquids they carried, medicines etc. Footwear had to be removed when going through immigration, and lines of people could be seen sitting on seats and airport floors taking off or putting on their shoes. Since then, migrant paranoia seems to have stayed on ‘high’.

It is clear to ordinary migrants that migration is potholed with security issues in many countries and any misunderstood ordinary migrant, particularly those who can’t speak and understand little of the country’s local language, may inadvertently fall into any of these ruts and be blacklisted for virtually no good reason. However, many ordinary, innocent folk feel that their honesty will be their saving grace, but this does at times, prove to be the reverse. It may be due to a certain profiling criteria given to immigration and security personnel of characteristics or gestures associated with potential terrorist threats that they must to be on the alert for.

This profiling seems to colour much of security thinking that migrants who appear anxious or nervous at border crossings can fall into this profiling criteria and attract security attention. At the time of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, a rosary (prayer beads) found in the possession of a Catholic person may be deemed a suspicious object, as Catholics were generally under suspicion. It was worse for young Irish Catholics.

There are many other examples that illustrate the security link to migration and the obviously cold reception migrants receive at the borders of some developed western democracies which claim to be advocates and protectors of human rights. Still, this is not the only ‘threat’ anticipated by certain governments, which can trap innocent migrants who migrate for completely legitimate reasons. Economic downturns are also good excuses.

Economic migrants trap

Many countries limit the number of migrants seeking employment within their borders for good reason. But, some governments are also afraid of large migrant populations they think will leech on the country’s social security systems set up mainly for their citizens. With this possibility in view, conditions are placed on migrants allowed into a country.

About a decade ago, foreign students in UK universities were barred from taking up any work for the whole duration of their studies. It must be admitted that some Malaysian students did contravene this condition to supplement their tuition fees and living expenses while they were there. There were also some who illegally overstayed but escaped the immigration dragnets for unknown reasons.

However, not all migrants are apt to try to find loopholes in immigration conditions, and many do go through the proper channels if their circumstances change. The UK, being a country with an established welfare system after World War Two, was at one time a popular destination for families for this reason.

Yet, with the ups and downs of the global economy and the resulting downturns in national economy, increasing cutbacks have been made in social security benefits and the state National Health Service. Over the past 20 years, higher education has also seen cutbacks, and now home students don’t receive grants but have to obtain study loans or take up jobs to pay for their tertiary education. That the European economy is not at its peak now is global common knowledge.

Ironically, UK immigration seems to maintain the myth that this country is still a popular destination for migrants who want to ‘grab’ unemployment benefits given to unemployed locals. Many former British colonies that don’t have similar welfare social security systems are now coming up on their own steam and have achieved a reasonably high level of development like India and Singapore. There are others that are similarly on the rise, where local populations remain in the country, although some may migrate to find suitable jobs or job opportunities.

But the UK and some other western democracies still keep a tight rein on economic migrants and try to keep out those they expect will ‘sponge’ on their social security systems, making rather arbitrary immigration decisions, which bar beneficial migrants as well as non-beneficial migrants.

Paradoxically, immigration authorities seem to categorise migrants according to their nationality and the political relationship with the migrants’ country of origin. This may split up families where migrants who have become British citizens still have family members of different nationalities who may be barred from visiting them on the basis that they may remain with their British family once they come into the UK.

As some of these cases are not properly examined or investigated, with embassy immigration officers perhaps neglecting to interview particular visa applicants to ascertain their true intentions, the decisions made can be completely arbitrary and unjust based only on unproven and false presumptions. How fair and efficient then is border regulation?

Overall, the immigration process sometimes makes no logical sense altogether – being opaque and closely linked to national security and economic sustainability. The nature of immigration control raises a plethora of questions concerning inherent personal prejudices, hidden agendas, resistance to corruption, inhumane treatment of migrants, and actual policy decisions. The whole system sometimes seems to have little to do with honesty, justice, reasonableness or even logic.

Even though, migration has become a part of our lives for various reasons, potential migrants must be aware that immigration controls are the pivots of migration. The ability to migrate to a better situation depends on the immigration regulation system of all foreign countries. Developed nations sometimes turn out to be mere limes or lemons. Good to see but impossible to eat whole. Some will even leave a bitter aftertaste because of their immigration policies, procedures and personnel.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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