The Ehang 184 is a Chinese-produced taxi drone that has begun tests in Dubai of trips up to ten miles long. When it arrives on the market, each one will probably cost its private hire operator between $200,000 and $300,000. But prices fall almost as fast the technology improves. According to Paul Rigby, the CEO of Consortiq, a drone consultancy firm, you can now buy for £500 a drone with capabilities that in an equivalent model five years ago would have set you back £10,000. In five years’ time, Rigby says, there’ll probably be drones that can carry a person two hundred miles before the batteries need to be recharged. Uber foresees a day when a 50-mile drone taxi flight from the São Paulo suburb of Campinas to the city centre will cost the equivalent of $24.
Refugees who can afford it currently pay thousands of dollars to escape war zones and make the uncertain journey to a place of greater safety in Europe. In the future, perhaps some of them will be able to travel by drone: they will not then have to make extraordinarily dangerous trips across the desert and sea; they will not be raped, tortured or held hostage by traders; and they will not have to trek across hundreds of miles of sodden farmland, watching out for members of the civil guard of whichever country they are traipsing through, their utility belts laden with CS gas, extendable batons and handcuffs.
These drone-renting refugees will be able to fly wherever they choose – within geographical limits; they won’t be able to cross oceans – without going through hundred-page visa applications. They will go to places that are not crushed by war and poverty, where they know someone already, where a language is spoken that they speak, where they have some hope of receiving a warmer welcome, where they think they may get a job, a roof, a future. And on their way to this place of hope, they will pass silently over the seas, rivers, deserts, wire fences, passport check cabins, customs posts, earthworks and imaginary lines known as borders. How will states respond?
Last week, nurses and doctors demonstrated against the Department of Health’s edict, enabled by the Coalition’s 2014 Immigration Act, that healthcare workers must check the immigration status of all their patients, even those asking them for emergency healthcare, in order to determine whether or not they are entitled to it.
The UK’s territorial border is being redrawn in GPs’ waiting rooms and hospital A&E departments. It is in the mind of every landlord assessing new tenants, in the computer of every police station’s desk sergeant, of every bank clerk and of every Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency worker. It is on every school admission form. This is Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’.
Why shouldn’t the border be extended to every shop’s chip and pin device, to every local library’s membership application form, to vending machines and public toilets that require you pay with a debit or credit card?
To work properly, all this would need a rigorous identification system, a net that catches us all – those with the right to reside and those without. Once it was being used to identify, bar and remove those of us who reside illegally in a given sovereign territory, it could also be used to deny basic rights to any others among us identified as ‘undeserving’ by whichever government or business they were interacting with. If undocumented migrants can’t receive emergency medical assistance without running the risk of being deported, it is only a matter of time before other ‘scroungers’ are denied it. Maybe that doesn’t apply to you and me. Perhaps we’re lucky. How long until we’re not?
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, successive home secretaries imposed performatively punitive forms of control on asylum seekers. They cut their benefits to destitution levels and shipped families far from their support networks to cheaper homes. When austerity measures were introduced in the early 2010s, the same approach was applied to working-class citizens, not only in order to reduce government debt, but also to train low-paid households to live without government support – to survive on less.
The migrant rights movement has often focused its rhetorical strategies on building sympathy, encouraging non-migrants to recognise the unpapered Other as someone deserving their support. However, if those of us with residency rights come to see that we are only a few steps away from a life in which we too are labelled, tracked, controlled and denied – if we come to see that our interests are bound tightly with those of people who, as Jeremy Hunt knows, so fear deportation that they will not ask NHS workers for help even when they are desperately sick – then we might develop not just sympathy, but solidarity.