Hostile Environment: Battling the UK’s Immigration Barriers as an Art Worker

Hardline, right-wing policies restrict entry to the country to ‘the great minds’

In 2014, I received a letter from UK Visas and Immigration that stated: ‘A decision has been made to remove you from the UK.’ The Home Office had denied my request, as an Indian citizen, for a visa extension. I was about to start studying for an MA at art college and, at that point, had been living in the UK for around six years. I did not exactly consider it home, but I had spent much of my youth there. This is probably what had alerted the government to my case: I was a liability; I had gotten too close; I had overstayed my welcome. Just days before the deportation notice landed in my hands, Theresa May, then Home Secretary, had restricted the right for applicants to challenge visa rejections directly with the Home Office. If I wanted to lodge an appeal, I would have to do so in court.

My trial was to be heard at the Hatton Cross Tribunal Hearing Centre, close to Heathrow. In the six months leading up to my case – during which time my bank account was suspended and my passport impounded – I spent several weekends attending open court hearings, mostly immigration cases. Hatton Cross resembles a bleak, call-centre office block. The hearings were held in rooms in which the only ‘official’ architecture was a large wooden bench – emblazoned with the royal coat of arms and raised to an imposing height – for the judge to sit on.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Conflicted Phonemes (detail), 2012. Courtesy: the artist, Maureen Paley, London, mor charpentier, Paris, and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut 

Applicants, once seated, often faced windows with a view of the airport runways and the more than 1,000 flights taking off each day. ‘It looks like a degree-show interpretation of what an immigration court might look like,’ a friend who accompanied me remarked. I began to notice patterns: judges’ eyes would glaze over, or they would play on phones under their desks during trials; when applicants who didn’t speak English gave testimony, their translators would seemingly abbreviate it, speaking only for a fraction of the time; a lot was getting lost, but nobody was really paying attention.

The tribunal is not exactly an instrument of the law. It’s a loose, open, courtroom-style hearing in which the law is tested out, rather than explicitly exercised. There is some of the decorum, but not all of the rigour, of an ordinary court. There is room for manoeuvre: I represented myself, without a lawyer; I had people speak on behalf of my character who were not exactly witnesses. Even though the judge came in saying, ‘It doesn’t look very good for you, Miss Thomas,’ I was able to lay down papers in front of him and point to exactly where the Home Office had made an error in processing my paperwork. 

It’s the kind of structure that, for instance, in 2012 allowed artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan to provide testimony in the case of Somali asylum seekers in a Dutch immigration tribunal and a UK asylum tribunal. Abu Hamdan was disputing the language analysis tests that asylum seekers are made to undergo, which subscribe to the fallible logic that accents serve as proof of birthplace. He worked with 12 asylum seekers, each of whom had been subject to language, dialect and accent analysis and had their asylum request rejected as a result. As part of the project Conflicted Phonemes (2012), Abu Hamdan devised a system to map out the instances of migration, conflict and displacement that affect different Somali languages and dialects. His argument was simple, and yet is rarely made in tribunals: accents are the product of a range of influences and therefore an unreliable tool for determining a person’s origin. It is interesting to think about the structure of the tribunal as one that may be contested and subverted by those with the means to navigate its infrastructure.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Conflicted Phonemes (detail), 2012. Courtesy: the artist, Maureen Paley, London, mor charpentier, Paris, and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut 

But, of course, these instances are all too rare. Rather, tribunals are used by the state to subvert constitutional and human-rights laws and, more often than not, deport people. Of the eight immigration hearings (other than my own) that I attended at Hatton Cross, not one applicant was given leave to remain.

In the end, I was granted a visa for the duration of my studies. I was lucky – and deeply privileged. I spoke English; I had the help and support of a university; I was able to spend time learning the law; I could afford the trial fee (because, of course, applicants have to pay for the proceedings). Despite the many subsequent detentions – my passport is almost always flagged up at immigration control in Europe and the US – I was able to negotiate the system. Not everyone is as fortunate.

The summer I graduated was hot with campaigns leading up to Britain’s 2016 referendum on European Union membership. James Dyson, the billionaire industrialist and public advocate for Brexit, who also happened to be handing out the diplomas at our graduation ceremony, declared in the Guardian in 2015: ‘Sending [students] home with new technology developed here presents very good value to our competitor nations. Instead, our education system should be a tool to import the world’s greatest minds.’ By ‘greatest minds’, of course, Dyson means ones that will directly contribute to the national economy. For people who train in the arts, this is an almost impossible premise, primarily because the entire art world is held up by a community of low-salaried workers who, without private means, are unlikely to meet the visa threshold.

In summer 2019, I re-applied for a tourist visa. For those of you unfamiliar with the process, applicants are required to submit six months’ worth of bank statements, tax returns, property documents or rental agreements, travel insurance, a detailed itinerary with hotel bookings, or an invitation letter from a friend or institution. Their bank balances must show upwards of GB£3,000 if the visit is longer than a week. I spent months frantically preparing. The application form required me to detail how much money I make in a year, what my monthly expenses are and how much I intended to spend while in the UK. My biometric information was recorded at the visa appointment, which took place at a third-party company, not the UK embassy, since the entire process has been outsourced. Once again, I was refused a visa. ‘I am not convinced you are a genuine visitor,’ the letter from the embassy official who had processed my paperwork read. This time, I had no right of appeal.

Jeremy Deller, Putin's Happy, 2019. Courtesy: the artist and The Modern Institute / Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow 

Instead, I accepted a press trip to the Schengen area of Europe, for which the visa application process was less invasive. Even so, the institution that had invited me was required to sign a ‘guarantee letter’ declaring that, in the event of my ‘repatriation’ (read: deportation), they would bear the costs.

At the steirischer herbst contemporary art festival in Graz, I watched Jeremy Deller’s latest film, Putin’s Happy (2019). Set in London’s Parliament Square, it begins by focusing on a group of musicians (some of whom are dressed in conductors’ suits and 18th-century-style wigs) playing violins and singing both the UK national anthem and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (1824). ‘We made a conscious decision to sing the national anthem’, one of them says to camera, ‘because you can’t argue with that, whatever your political position.’

Deller asks a pro-Brexit demonstrator where she watches her news: Russia Today, she replies. Members of Extinction Rebellion are also there, alongside someone live-streaming about the plight of veterans with PTSD. Pedestrians rush past hurling the occasional ‘Fuck you!’ to a protestor they don’t agree with. Parties on both sides of the Brexit debate look ill-informed and desperate. It’s chaos.

Most viewers found the film amusing, which it is. But its humour is sad and dark, especially to someone like myself, who was made to feel unwelcome by exactly the same nationalist and racist policies that were instrumentalized in the Brexit debate. These hardline, right-wing policies, which have restricted entry to the UK, for me and many others, only  welcome people likely to lay out large amounts of money or buy property. For the UK government, the designation ‘great minds’ has nothing to do with intellectual or cultural value, and everything to do with spending power.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 209 with the headline ‘Hostile Environment’.

Main image: Jeremy Deller, Putin's Happy, 2019. Courtesy: the artist and The Modern Institute / Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow

Skye Arundhati Thomas is a writer based in Mumbai. She is a contributing editor at The White Review.

Issue 209

First published in Issue 209

March 2020

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