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Immigration scandals aren’t just a London issue: activists target Sheffield Home Office building

Activists gather to protest outside Sheffield’s Vulcan House which hosts a visa and immigration service

People gather outside Vulcan House
Lydia's Kitchen Talk Show

A number of activists from a range of groups have been coming together over the past months to protest outside Vulcan House in Sheffield. The building is routinely used by Home Office workers to run immigration and visa services. Recently, there have been ongoing scandals around immigration. The Windrush scandal showed exactly what white Britain thinks of people who have lived here for decades; the government’s attempt to deport refugees to Rwanda came in for huge criticism; the Nationality and Borders Act has been called “cruel.”

It is no longer a given, if it ever has been, that refugees are welcome in Britain. This is certainly playing out across Sheffield, so Now Then spoke to an activist who has been showing up outside Vulcan House to protest. We asked Rosa (a pseudonym) what had been going on, and why:

We're an autonomous group of people from lots of organisations, including SYMAAG, including ASSIST Sheffield, Sheffield anti-raids, including the people around Sheffield who feel strongly about these things. We've been out in front of Vulcan House since the end of April. We go as Home Office staff are going in, before we go to work at about 8am.

We knew that there was growing dissent within the Home Office itself, and I believe there's a twitter called Our Home Office or something like that. And, we had seen some of the 'Refugees Welcome' stickers posted around the city.

Our Home Office appears to be a Twitter account run by disgruntled Home Office workers.

As Rosa explains, Home Office workers are complicit in the violence involved in the maintenance of borders:

The civil service is so split up, and deliberately so. It's really fragmented into little jobs and allows people to feel detached from a wider picture. But all regimes, totalitarian or not, oppressive or not, need IT work, they need admin staff, it doesn't matter if you're working in enforcement. You're still part of a system that leads to this violence against people in our community. And I think we've really seen that in the last few weeks when we've had members of our community detained.

You can scroll to the bottom of this article to see the leaflets activists have been handing out outside Vulcan House. We asked Rosa if there had been any response from workers going in and out of the building:

We've had a number of passers-by come up to us, and people have come up to us to say they really support what we're doing. We’ve been handing out these letters which on one side explain why we’re there, and on the other side is a sample letter of resignation. Someone could use that to resign if they so wished. But it also includes other things you can do short of resigning, such as joining PCS. And a lot of staff have been taking them and they obviously don't say much to us as they do it.. So it's hard to know how widely distributed our letters are, or how management has reacted to that. We can't really say, but we have run out of leaflets every time we've gone. So that has felt positive.

Decentralised

Some people may well be surprised to hear that Sheffield has a Home Office building but, as we discussed with Rosa, civil servants are required to enact policies that come out of Westminster. Rosa explains:

There are actually 13 immigration reporting centres across the UK and the majority of those aren't in London, as the majority of asylum seekers are dispersed outside of London and the South East, and they tend to be dispersed to low income council areas. This is a very specific strategic thing that we're doing [in protesting], where these are Home Office workers who could see us around the city - we live here, we are talking about our friends and our neighbours and colleagues or the volunteers who we work with when we are talking about the people in the Home Office - it’s not some abstract concept.

Home Office workers, even if they’re based in Sheffield, are part of the system which targets and deports immigrants and refugees. Confronting the hostile environment involves confronting all the parts of the system which allow the government to enact its regressive policies. Home Office workers are complicit in upholding British borders which police asylum seekers and refugees.

Rosa explains what she thinks Home Office workers need to do:

I would love to see mass walkouts from the Home Office - a refusal to detain people. I appreciate it is very difficult to do as a worker, and for some people putting your job on the line means there's more to lose than others. And I have a huge amount of sympathy for that. But I also think without that sort of reaction from the Home Office there's no other way to stop people who are detaining members of our communities.

Rosa concludes:

I think ultimately we want to remind Home Office workers that they have a lot of power in this situation. And there are ways to act, both within your role if you keep your job or if you don't, if you're not in a position to resign - join a union and push back against these policies.

Reasoning

Below is the leaflet activists have been handing to people around Vulcan House, including Home Office workers:

YOU ARE COMPLICIT

What do you mean 'you are complicit'?

We mean that by working for the Home Office, you are a small part of an increasingly oppressive regime that has caused and continues to cause extreme harm to people, here in the UK and in the waters surrounding it. This is nothing new - at least 40 people have died in Home Office run immigration detention centres, which enforcement staff in your reporting centre take people to (without charge, sentence, or access to the justice system) every week. The Immigration and Borders bill demands that your colleagues 'push back' - forcing people seeking refuge in the UK to drown.

You might be thinking 'but, I don't work in enforcement. I work with visas/students/admin/IT...' or 'Civil Servants don't make the decisions, they just carry out orders'.

The UK Civil Service was deliberately designed to break down its tasks into small parts. By working in this way, no-one feels responsible for the overall output. It's always someone else that made the decision, did the interview, gathered the evidence, made the order. This divided, bureaucratic approach is what Arendt described 'the banality of evil', how most people are 'just doing their jobs' within systems of oppression - often really boring jobs. All oppressive systems need administration, IT, and processing to function.

While you do your job, the system keeps functioning. And one of its main functions is to harm people.

We ask you - what is your red line? What would the UK Government and Priti Patel have to do for you to feel that you could longer be part of the system?

It is time for you to take a stand. If you believe yourself to be a decent human being, you cannot be part of this system any longer.

What should I do?

a) CRITICALLY ENGAGE with the impact of your work. Dig into the realities faced by people in their interactions with the Home Office. Face the fact that how you earn a living harms thousands of people on a daily basis. Use the knowledge of that as a driving force to act.

b) ORGANISE. Join your union. There is PCS policy to end all enforcement functions. Get involved and turn that policy into reality through collective action.

c) WHISTLEBLOW. Anonymous stories to the national press about what it's like inside this regime are powerful and useful. Recent coverage from Sky News showed this can be done.

c) RESIGN. The template letter overleaf outlines the reasons why you might do this. If lots of Home Office employees act with their feet and refuse to comply or leave their jobs, it would make a huge statement. Better still, drop copies of this leaflet and resignation letter on colleagues desks, before leaving. The Civil Service code means many of you are silenced - so leave, speak freely, and join our movement.

Protest

Below is a draft resignation letter that activists have written for Home Office workers who may wish to resign in protest:

To whom it may concern,

With a mixture of regret and relief I must inform you of my resignation.

I have found recent events, namely the passing of the Borders Bill and announcement of the Rwanda deportation deal, incredibly distressing and can no longer continue working under the Home Office for fear of the violence and distress these policies will cause so many people. Moreso, the claims that the Home Office are making to justify these policies are disingenuous at best and malicious at worst.

The Bill proposes that we are in an ‘emergency’ or ‘crisis’ due to the number of people seeking asylum in the UK. However, as a Home Office employee I know that the number of people arriving in the UK is broadly stable and proportionally quite small. However for the political benefit of the government a permanent manufactured crisis is promulgated via official channels as well as party political pronouncements. I can no longer be party to this.

Every day the Home Office interacts with people who have been deeply traumatised and taken huge risks to their safety to travel to the UK. I know they would not be taking these risky journeys if they did not have to. Many will have experienced trauma and abuse at the hands of traffickers. The Bill and the Rwanda deal do nothing to provide safe routes and so encourage the business of people smuggling. By making it harder for people to come to the UK through officially legitimate means, the Home Office is effectively supporting these dangerous ways of entering the country. I cannot condone this.

The Rwanda partnership deal is a cruel echo of colonial era banishments. The opposition of myself and my colleagues to this plan is widely known and has been plainly stated to the Permanent Secretary, the Home Secretary, the High Court and the media. Given the intransigence of the government in persisting with this bizarre vengeance, enacted on people whose welfare is our direct responsibility, I must withdraw my labour from the department to avoid complicity in this sadistic theatre.

I see everyday how people seeking asylum are considered second class citizens. At the instigation of the Home Office they aren’t allowed to work, rent a home, are terrorised with the ongoing threat of detention and deportation, and must go through a laborious, confusing and difficult process to try and gain refugee status. I am no longer able to distance myself from the realities that I contribute to.

For the reasons I have outlined above I am resigning, as I can no longer be complicit in the harm and violence that the Home Office is perpetrating.

Yours sincerely,
Vulcan House Employee

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