Many people enter and exit the United Kingdom each year entirely legally. They come for holidays or studies or work or they arrive as refugees from conflict; they attempt to comply with our country's entry and exit requirements and, while here, obey our laws and conduct themselves in a civilized manner. Such people are in the United Kingdom quite legitimately and this article is not about them.
This article is about the people who do not arrive legitimately and whether a compulsory biometric identity card for British citizens would have any impact on illegal or otherwise undesirable migration.
Illegal immigration to the United Kingdom comes in various forms: Some people sneak across our borders, smuggled in lorries or boats; such people will generally arrive without any form of documentation. Other people have legitimate travel documents that entitle them to enter the United Kingdom for a holiday or a period of study, but then having entered they simply remain; these people are known as overstayers. Another group arrive and claim some form of asylum for a problem that they don't really have. Some people arrive for marriages that were arranged solely for the purpose of gaining the right of abode in the UK. Every illegal immigrant will have their own explanation: some come looking for an easy and prosperous life, some are running away from problems that they don't want to face, some are engaged in crime, some are just rootless persons wandering aimlessly and hoping to find a place they feel at home.
This article does not attempt to discuss whether any of these people should be admitted to the United Kingdom; that is a different debate. This article only discusses whether identity cards linked to a database of biometric information will be any use in dealing with those people that are, for whatever reason, classified as illegal immigrants.
There are two questions to examine:
Although easier and more effective immigration control has been offered as one of the benefits of biometric identity cards, the reality is that such cards will have little or no positive effect but will very likely help create far more serious problems.
Let us consider whether the proposed identity card scheme will help immigration officers identify illegal immigrants as they arrive:
So, in short, Mr Blunkett's ill-conceived scheme will do absolutely nothing to help immigration officers in their task at the point of entry.
Now let us consider whether the proposed identity card scheme will help immigration officers and the police find, and remove illegal immigrants once they are already within the United Kingdom. This situation is more complex because it depends partly on how the illegal immigrant arrived in Britain in the first place and also partly on how the card and the biometric information is used. In order to remove an illegal immigrant from the country you need to know first that they exist, second you need to know where to find them and third, you need to be able to know that they are not entitled to be in the United Kingdom. How does a biometric database with associated identity cards help with any of these needs? In short, it doesn't ... We already know that some people within the United Kingdom are illegal immigrants and it is not that difficult to know where to find many of them since they naturally gravitate towards those places of employment where few questions are asked and documents are not required. The principal difficulty is to know exactly who to apprehend at a particular moment and to prove to the satisfaction of a court of law that the person can justifiably be deported.
The only way that an identity card will help trace and identify a person is if everybody is compelled to use the card for the bulk of their day-to-day transactions such that it becomes impractical for a person not to have an identity card. Then, when the card or (other document such as a bank card linked by identity number to the identity database) is in widespread daily use for both major and minor transactions it will be possible to trace all those people who have been entered onto the system.
However from the point of view of somebody who we would ordinarily consider an illegal or undesirable migrant such a system is easy to defeat. All that is necessary is for everybody who wishes to enter the United Kingdom to claim asylum at the point of entry and give any identity that they want, real or false. They will then be issued with their own identity document and included onto the database. The large number of people who do this will make it impractical for the government to check every asylum claim and thus the majority of them, as now, will simply be accepted by default. It is true that these migrants not be illegal but mere legality was not and is not the only issue nor the most significant issue. Illegal immigration is an issue not merely as point of law but because large amounts of migration in a short period of time tend to negatively disrupt communities (both the receiving community and the community from which the migrants originated), make resource allocation difficult and put strains on society that are not matched by any benefits that the migration brings.
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