Being respectable doesn’t mean that the Hostile Environment won’t get you

The hostile environment puts anyone who is not white or who cannot prove they were born in the UK in danger.

Commentary icon18 Nov 2020|Comment

Tony Conway

Coventry Against Racism

For many people, the hostile environment has always been there: young people stopped in the street; racist language daubed on houses; violent behaviour meted out by racists and fascists. But here the focus is the recent decision of the UK government to make The Hostile Environment part of State Policy by the way it treats its citizens and electorate.

When we think about asylum seekers, refugees and migrants, governments of all persuasions have used dog whistle politics, played out in the media and in the use of language – swamping, invasion, and the term “illegal” asylum seeker. No asylum is illegal. Claims for asylum should be processed according to the law, both national and international. But all too often these claims are delayed for years. What we need is fair treatment and safe rights of passage – keeping people out of the hands of traffickers.

The hostile environment, as a government policy, was brought into being in the first decade of the new century. The then-Labour government used the term to target terrorists, but then moved on to include a large number of people who had in many cases lived in the UK for decades.

On many occasions, governments have tried to introduce identity cards and in all cases these have been resisted. But nowadays, if you are young – not always under 25 – you will be asked for your date of birth so you carry around a passport or another form of proof of identity. If you are black, this will often go much further. For example, due to stop and search, black people are advised to keep till receipts to prove they have bought something. We know of cases where people are stopped in their cars. This is part of the hostile environment.

But the most recent and well-known set of cases are linked to Windrush.

Many people only find out that the State considers them an illegal immigrant when they change job, apply to go to university or attend a medical appointment.

Windrush: a papers scandal

A key element of the Hostile Environment has been the introduction of paper checks into ordinary life. Employment, accommodation, banking, driving, healthcare, applications to Higher and Further Education, for example. We are not talking here about one piece of paper but in many cases records going back to very young ages. In other words, people are asked to prove that they have the right to live in this country from the date they may have entered. When they entered, often with an older relative, no proof was required apart from in some cases an identity card. But in 2020 this isn’t enough. Many people only find out that the State considers them an illegal immigrant when they change job, apply to go to university or attend a medical appointment. And, of course, there is an element of racial profiling.

The key moment in the development of the hostile environment was the creation of a secret inter-ministerial group in government. Initially called the Hostile Environment Working Group, a wide-ranging number of ministers were involved, including those acting for care services, employment, housing, schools, justice, health and transport. The idea was to make life intolerable for those who were deemed to be unlawfully living in the UK, by cutting them off from the necessities of life and preventing access to all public life. This was to be achieved by introducing immigration checks into all walks of life. And herein lies the origin of the Windrush generation. Government wrongly assumed that the absence of papers meant absence of permission. The culmination of the group’s efforts were the Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016.

These efforts were backed up by heavier fines on employers and others if they didn’t complete the checks properly and by unceasingly more hostile raids by Home Office (HO) officials.

At the same time, legal aid was cut for any appeals against deportation orders. Some cases were won at great cost and during that time the victim lost access to healthcare, social security, work and pension. Many have died without receiving any of the compensation that was promised by the Home Secretary. But in any case, compensation does not make up for the fear, lost income and pension and the massive health implications. Some documented cases have died after being deported to a country they never knew.

Whilst EU citizens have the right to apply online for citizenship, they will have to prove that they are not unlawful – just like Windrush.

Retrospectively “illegal”: policy changes and Brexit

But even if all is right with your papers you can still be subject to HO regulations. For example, HO regulations are retrospective. A Bangladeshi chef had a five-year work visa and applied and got an extension. But someone in the HO then decided that all Asian Restaurants offered takeaways, and chefs working in takeaways couldn’t get work visas as a shortage occupation. He lost his case two years after been told he had leave to remain! This system puts many workers at risk of action by poor employers.

On 01 January 2021 the UK leaves the EU, and whilst EU citizens have the right to apply online for citizenship, they will have to prove that they are not unlawful – just like Windrush. Many, despite living here for 10 years, have only been given provisional status. And despite the government extending the time limit, some will have to be very careful if they decide to visit their families. Already one documented case shows that a 10-year-old was refused re-entry to the UK until a local MP and newspaper intervened. It is estimated that some 300,000 EU citizens will not have been given UK Nationality by the cut-off date!

We need a non-racist nationality act – removing the racist restrictions that have been placed on current citizens since the 1960s.

So, what can we do?

  • Call for the recommendations set out in the government-commissioned report published in 2018 – Windrush Lessons Learned Review by Wendy Williams – to be fully implemented, as promised by the government.
  • Unions should link up and find out who is at risk of deportation in confidence and agree a collective strategy. Stop the hostile environment by demanding the repeal of the 2014 and 2016 Acts.
  • Educate communities and workers in skills to support individual cases.

But we must go further. The UK needs to shift its attitude to immigration, including refugees and asylum seekers. It must be easier to get British Citizenship and change jobs. Asylum seekers should be able to work rather than being stuck in temporary accommodation. Those without documents who aren’t known to the State – estimated at 1.3 million – should be allowed citizenship and given status now.

We need a non-racist nationality act – removing the racist restrictions that have been placed on current citizens since the 1960s. Arrangements similar to those that exist with Ireland can be introduced. We need non-racist immigration policies and regulations. And, as we have seen, all regulations must be subject to scrutiny and not be arbitrary.

I’ll end by quoting a piece of graffiti I saw on the side of a small factory in Birmingham earlier this year: “Being respectable doesn’t mean that the Hostile Environment won’t get you!”

Tony Conway

Tony Conway is an active community campaigner. A Civil Servant until he was 55, Tony then became an officer of... Read more »