Today, Sunday 18th of August, the UK Border Agency deployed a team in East London to action the removal of ‘immigration offenders’. This kind of harassment happens with some frequency and is certainly nothing new. Which is precisely why it is important to remember these daily occurrences and to remember them as horrific. As each of these raids by the UKBA takes place they share a history of exploitation and violence – part petrified as the legislation that invests the officers with their powers and part the exercise of power in various forms.
Calls to support those being harassed by UKBA today directed people towards Sclater Street in Shoreditch. The street itself is a market on Sundays, selling some of the cheapest fruit, vegetables, toiletries and other essential items in the area (Tower Hamlets, which has the highest child poverty rate in the UK). It serves a geographical significance as it connects two important tourist and retail locations: Brick Lane to the east and BOXPARK Shoreditch to the west. Brick Lane, well known – thanks in part to the succession of local government and other institutional ‘multiculturalism’ campaigns – for being lived in by a number of different migrant communities over its history, is visited by large numbers of tourists and is home to a large Bangladeshi community and their businesses. BOXPARK Shoreditch is a shopping mall constructed from modified shipping containers which is described by its owners thus:
‘BOXPARK is not some run-of-the-mall shopping centre. It’s a living, fertile community of brands packed with talent, innovation and attitude that puts creativity and fashion back where they belong: on the street.’
Contrary to their claims, the infantile ‘pop-up’ entrepreneurial spirit that emanates from BOXPARK feels palpably of death as opposed to a ‘living, fertile community’. Yet the history of these black shipping containers, placed here to please a community of hip new instigators and beneficiaries of gentrification in the area, comes to add to the horror of the UKBA searches that happened about one hundred meters away from them.
In Scattered Sand, Hsiao-Hung Pai narrates and examines, with an important and convincing attention to suffering, the conditions of rural migration in China. When people are forced to leave not only their villages but also the entire country in order to earn a wage to feed their families, they engage in long, indebting, painful and potentially fatal trips. One such attempt by Xiao Lin, a farmer dispossessed of his land by the local authority in Fuqing, is described in its harsh detail in the book.
‘Xiao Lin had no idea what the journey would be like, not even which US city he was bound for … A long rope ladder hung down the side of the cargo ship. A man on board told the four migrants to climb up … When they were finally all aboard, they found they’d been only the second group of migrants to arrive. There were many more fishing boats to come with people from Fuqing and Changle. They had to wait for five to six days before the ship was full. When there were over 400 people on board, they started to move … Their living area was three huge storage containers at the bottom of the ship, each of which could accommodate up to 200 people. There was no other cargo on board … No one had proper bedding because they’d been told not to bring any, as it would overload the ship and take up too much space.’
Hsiao-Hung Pai, ‘Scattered Sand’, pp. 230-232
Pai goes on to describe Xiao Lin and the others slowly running out of food in their shipping containers as weeks go by. The journey ultimately failed and the migrants were sent back.
Whilst the shipping container isn’t as associated with perilous attempts to cross borders in the UK as it is in the US (a lorry from Calais probably serves the same function in the public’s mind), the proximity of BOXPARK – which participates viscerally in forcing poor migrant communities out of sections of London – to the UKBA officers enforcing removals is a geographical happenstance that perhaps allows us to think about the important political proximity the gentrifying and immigration policing projects have.
An engagement with the history of suffering racism, whether it materially impacts as a gentrifying force or the obviously brutal UKBA, can give some clues as to how we get rid of it. But it remains important to remember these moments of violence in their own right, so that being regular occurrences does not strip them of their horror or allow them to slip into a naturalised mundaneness.