Last night the BBC showed the drama documentary, Sitting in Limbo, about the injustice and humiliation heaped on Anthony Bryan as a result of the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ policy towards immigrants.
Bryan was just one of at least 160 people (government figures) wrongfully detained or deported, and over 1000 claims for compensation have been lodged. As at 6th February only 3% of claims had been settled, which puts the hand-wringing of the current Home Office Minister, Priti Patel, into perspective.
Who was responsible for the hostile environment policy?
It’s easy to go after the Labour immigration minister who first invented the term, Liam Bryne, and it’s even easier to go after Theresa May who oversaw the deployment of ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’ vans.
But what Sitting in Limbo illustrated was the utter banality of evil. Without the collaboration of dozens of minor functionaries the policy would have fallen apart.
Bryan’s life was systematically dismantled by the immigration officers who arrested him (twice), the officials who booked him in to detention centres, the apparatchiks who demanded documentation from him that he’d already supplied, the jack-in-office who referred to his ‘alleged’ children’, and the driver of the van that took him 166 miles from London to the Verne detention centre on Portland, Dorset - among many, many others.
Any one of these people could have disrupted the hostile environment assembly line of shame and indignity by saying no, but none of them did. ‘I’m just doing my job’, said one officer asking Bryan for yet more proof of the 50 years he’d spent in the UK. ‘Yes,’ said Bryan, ‘a job that ruins people’s lives’.
Hannah Arendt coined the term ‘banality of evil’ after watching the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. Some of the people who contributed to Nazi atrocities were evil, she said, but many weren’t. They were just humdrum cogs in a machine, 'following orders' - a defence against culpability rejected at the 1945-6 Nuremberg trials.
'A deportation order has been issued against you,' says one official as Bryan sits before him after months - years - battling to prove his right to remain. 'On your arrival in Jamaica you will receive the sum of £1000 to help you resettle'.
Was that official watching Sitting in Limbo last night? What was he thinking?