Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Unpacking the Figure of the ‘Foreign Criminal’



Time to read

4 Minutes

Post by Luke de Noronha, DPhil Candidate in Anthropology (COMPAS) at the University of Oxford. His doctoral research will examine the deportation of ex-offenders from the UK to Jamaica, exploring the lives of deportees in Jamaica as well as their friends and families who remain in the UK. Luke is on Twitter @LukeEdeNoronha.

In the last few years, the ‘foreign criminal’ has emerged as a new folk devil in the UK. Since the foreign national prisoner (FNP) crisis of 2006―in which it emerged that over 1,000 foreign prisoners had been released without being considered for deportation―‘foreign criminals’ have attracted much scorn from politicians and  journalists. Today, conversations about immigration control rarely proceed without reference to these unequivocal ‘baddies.’ Their notoriety might appear self-explanatory: they are migrants and criminals, and most British people don’t like either―hence their elevated status as ‘manifest  undesirables.’ Yet, I think there’s more work to be done here. The animosity, or rather the venomous hatred, reserved for ‘foreign criminals’ reflects and perpetuates racialised and gendered stereotypes. Put simply, talk about ‘foreign criminals’ is racist, and this racism works with and through gender (as racism always does).

In a recent paper, I try to unpack the figure of the ‘foreign criminal’ through an analysis of media articles and parliamentary debates around the time of the FNP crisis. In moving beyond the simple migrant + criminal calculus, I suggest that ‘foreign criminals’ were constructed as specific kinds of migrants and specific kinds of criminals. As migrants, they were mostly characterised as asylum-seeking men, deceitful and dangerous villains who proved that the immigration system was rotten to its core. As criminals, they were described as ‘murderers, rapists and paedophiles’ who posed existential threats to ‘our’ streets and ‘our’ public―notably to British women.

Of the hundreds of articles written on the FNP crisis in the summer of 2006, around a third featured the words ‘rape’ or ‘rapist.’ This is despite the fact that only nine of the 1,023 released prisoners were convicted of ‘rape’ (by most media accounts). These stories of the ‘foreign criminal’ as rapist reflect deeply entrenched fears about the dangerous sexuality of racialised men. These men were dark, dangerous, sexually violent outsiders who committed abhorrent acts of hypermasculinist violence, all the while making claims on the British state for refuge. One can see how discourses on asylum, crime and foreignness crystallise in these portraits of ‘ideal villains.’

The reality is a lot less sensational. Noncitizen offenders tend to commit similar crimes to citizens, only they’re inordinately convicted for fraud and forgery offences (read: immigration crimes) and drugs offences. Some ‘foreign criminals’ have been in the UK for a long time; some are arrested at the border. Some have claimed asylum; some have not. In other words, and as we might expect, the immigration and criminal justice systems seek to manage and apprehend a wide range of individuals. Reality is messy. However, media articles and parliamentary debates work to produce ‘foreign criminals’ as monstrous figures, beyond all intelligibility. This narrative works to justify and even celebrate the incarceration, indefinite detention and forced expulsion of certain bodies.

By unpacking the figure of the ‘foreign criminal,’ I make the case for thinking more deeply and expansively about race and gender. I’m not claiming to offer anything new, only to suggest that migration studies, as I’ve experienced it, tends to be a little lacklustre when it comes to talking about race (and here I speak mainly of and to the UK context). Further, when we think about the mechanics of racism, we can see how gender and race work through one another. Much valuable work has been written on and by racialised women as to the ways gender and race inflect one another. I try to think ‘intersectionally’ about ‘foreign criminals’ too. Their maleness is about race and their race is about their maleness. Only in thinking about both can we understand the figure of the ‘foreign criminal.’

Credit: Sarah Lee/Guardian
Racism is the mechanism through which people and groups are produced as inferior; as dangerous and immoral, as dirty and undeserving. Groups subject to racist discourse are always described as displaying problematic, backwards and debased gender norms. If we think about the figure of the ‘black brute’ invoked to justify lynching in the antebellum South, or consider the ‘Muslim grooming gangs’ that have served as the platform for new modes of far-right activism in the UK, we realise that the dangerous sexuality of racialised men is a narrative with many historical precedents. I argue that the discursive construction of ‘foreign criminals’ cannot be interpreted without a critical reading of British national identity and the spectre of race.
In this paper I also try and think about the problems ‘foreign criminals’ pose for NGOs and migrant advocates. For instance, how did migrant advocates respond to the policies instituted in the wake of the FNP crisis (i.e., the Home Office drive to detain and deport noncitizen ex-offenders, regardless of personal circumstances)? While ‘the response’ (broadly conceived) sought to contest the idea that all ‘foreign criminals’ should be deported, it did so largely by claiming that some of those labelled ‘foreign criminals’ were in fact victims, whether ‘genuine refugees,’ or ‘victims of trafficking.’ The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t speak against but with state categories.
State categories like the ‘refugee,’ the ‘victim of trafficking,’ the ‘failed asylum seeker’ and the ‘foreign criminal’ are categories that must be filled with discursive content. Certain noncitizens are made to embody these labels, symbolically and legally, and this process relies upon and perpetuates familiar ideas about race and gender. Whether duly acknowledged or not, most people know what a ‘victim of trafficking’ might look like, or could articulate some characteristics of ‘failed asylum seekers’ and ‘foreign criminals’ (in raced and gendered terms). In filling these state categories with meaning, journalists and politicians, but also NGOs and migrant advocates, play their part in constituting these figures. Importantly, these figures are located within a crude victim-villain binary. The implication of my argument is that only through challenging state categories can we unearth the dominant ideas about race and gender that distinguish ‘good’ migrants from ‘bad’ ones.
I note something obvious: the figure of the ‘foreign criminal’ is a dangerous racialised man. While this may be apparent, the ways that we might challenge the narrative appear less so; it requires that we make some quite difficult arguments about race and move away from claims to victimhood. Thinking with state categories encourages us to think about migrants as either victims and villains, obscuring the role of race and gender in dictating who goes where. Thinking against state categories can do the opposite. The figure of the ‘foreign criminal’ tells us a lot more about ourselves than it does about non-citizen offenders.
Read the full paper here, published as part of the University of Oxford’s International Migration Institute’s working paper series.
Any thoughts about this post? Get in touch with us! Send us an email, or post a comment here or on Facebook. You can also tweet us.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

de Noronha, L. (2015) Unpacking the Figure of the ‘Foreign Criminal’. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/figure-of-the-foreign-criminal/ (Accessed [date]).

With the support of