Opinion: Thinking about “foreign criminals”

Watching the recent episode of ‘Dispatches’ on Channel 4 entitled ‘Inside Immigration’, got me thinking a bit about attitudes towards ‘foreign criminals’ in the UK. The idea of the programme was that undercover reporters worked as temps in the UK Border Agency’s processing offices and gave the inside story on the chaos and disorganisation there.

Halfway through, during a ‘pause for thought’ about the real consequences of maladministration, the narrator piped up: ‘Gabriella’s story as a shocking example of what the human cost can be when things go wrong’ at the UKBA’. But the story was somehow not what I was expecting- it wasn’t about a delayed application- in fact Gabriella had been attacked in a park by a man who had previously been convicted of rape and sexual assault and was due to be deported back to Sierra Leone. The Border Agency had not yet been able to remove this man, 6 months on from his release. It was suggested that the Border Agency’s failings were directly responsible for what happened to Gabriella and the verdict was suitably damning.

So why did this feel so wrong? What happened to this woman is appalling and inexcusable. But surely it was the man who was ultimately responsible, not the Border Agency?  The same thing could, and probably would, have happened to another woman in Sierra Leone had the man been deported there, and she would probably have had less access to justice and recompense. This is an important point. It is wrong to hold too tightly to the notion that this man should have been Sierra Leone’s problem- actually he would have been a problem for a vulnerable woman in Sierra Leone, not the abstract ‘Sierra Leonean state’, which is a very different consideration.

I am not suggesting that states should not be responsible for dealing with their own citizens who commit crimes, or for protecting their citizens from harm. Of course they should. However, it is vital that we remember that the responsibility states have to do this derives from the responsibility everyone has to protect everybody else. The state system is the practical means by which this is achieved. But it is a deficient means- states will fail to protect human rights, and we must all assume responsibility when they do. ‘Your criminals are your problem, and ours are ours’ is in a sense true, but in a practical, not an absolute, sense.

Criminals who are citizens of other countries should to be removed. But it is not good enough to say, ‘just get them off our soil as soon as possible, they’re not our problem’. Following the Abu Qatada case, this attitude has been expressed by all three party leaders and has almost become the accepted norm. But it betrays our proud recent history of internationalist and collectivist thinking, enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.

Abu Qatada is a Jordanian citizen, who has been charged in Jordan. The proper place for him to go to face justice, and then to live, is therefore Jordan. But if Jordan will use evidence against him obtained under torture or execute him, this engages our responsibility to him as a human being, not as a citizen of Jordan. If we deny we have this responsibility we risk idolizing the nation state and dehumanising ourselves. This has all kinds of knock-on effects – as was recently pointed out, it diminishes our ability to make a fuss when human rights are abused abroad. Chemical weapons in Syria, for example.

If Britain is to remain a credible voice internationally, it must remain committed to the European Convention on Human Rights. But there will only be the public will to do this if we continually make and re-make the case for why international human rights are so important in the first pace. The largely unquestioned attitude towards ‘foreign criminals’ in Britain today suggests we have much work to do.

* James Harper works for a Liberal Democrat MP specialising in Asylum and Immigration casework. The views expressed are his own.

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  • George Lees 1st May '13 - 1:48pm

    “The same thing could, and probably would, have happened to another woman in Sierra Leone had the man been deported there, and she would probably have had less access to justice and recompense” I agree best to let them in to rape here as the victims are better cared for! Did Simon Hughes authorise this? Is this what he/you hope to achieve in Bermondsey?

  • George Lees 1st May '13 - 2:39pm

    Remember too that the rape victim who had “access to justice and recompense” lives in Camberwell not a stone’s throw from your constituency –

  • There’s a saying along the lines of ‘to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail’. If you’re obsessed with the idea that it’s necessary to close countries down behind impenetrable borders, like East Germany in the 1970s, then deporting people looks like the answer to all domestic problems. It isn’t.

    If there’s any evidence against Abu Qatada, let’s have it. There isn’t, except so-called ‘evidence gained by torture’, which isn’t evidence of anything at all.

  • James Harper 1st May '13 - 3:34pm

    George, that’s not the point I’m trying to make at all. I’m just saying that it’s bad everywhere, not just here, and so a completely isolationist view is wrong. I emphatically don’t think it would be better to allow rapists to be here because we have a better justice system.

  • George Lees 1st May '13 - 5:41pm

    Governments owe a primary responsibility to their own citizens and protecting them from rapists is fairly high up there. So saying “It is wrong to hold too tightly to the notion that this man should have been Sierra Leone’s problem” seems to suggest that we should keep him here if we are not sure the SL authorities will deal with him. I.e put our own citizens at risk in the cause of some strange internationalist world view. I guess you supported Vietnam expelling a certain ageing UK popstar? The link to AQ does not really work as the only person at risk if he is repatriated is himself. Still I admire the guts of defending both rapists and terrorists in one article.

  • James Harper 1st May '13 - 6:07pm

    I agree with what you say. I wouldn’t say you should put your own citizens at risk because of an internationalist world view, that would indeed be weird. I guess I wasn’t really trying to suggest any practical guidelines on how to deal with foreign criminals. I was more trying to get at the thought processes underlying some of the attitudes towards the issue. The link to AQ I felt worked on the level of assumptions and attitudes, but not in the direct sense as you rightly point out. It was always going to be difficult to stand up for an internationalist position without undercooking the responsibility of state to citizen!

  • George Lees hits the nail squarely when he says that a governments primary duty is to protect its own citizens. ‘Baby sitting’ Sierra Leone’s rapists is not a rational approach for a responsible government. On the issue of Abu Quatada, maybe it’s time for some lateral thinking by the government.
    Why doesn’t Theresa May do a ‘Julian Assange’ ?
    Would it not be possible to fly Abu Qatada out to Jordan quietly, with little notice and no fuss, and give him full political asylum, within the British embassy in Jordan.? Give him food, rooms, and facilities of a similar, or marginally better standard, to those he would get here in prison.
    Then, tell him that he is very welcome to stay in the British embassy, and enjoy political asylum there, for as long as he wants, or that he is free to leave the British embassy whenever he wants.?
    His human rights thus sorted, and the UK’s desire to be rid of him, both resolved, all in one go?

  • Yes Gabiella (as were UK citizens in general) was let down by a failure in both the Criminal Justice system and the UKBA, by them not promptly expelling a foreign national upon their initial conviction for crimes committed in the UK. As James says, the man was ultimately responsible for the predicament he got himself into and as he was only being deported back to his home country the expulsion raises no substantive human rights issue, whereas his continued presence in this country does.

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