A study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has found that the hostile environment policy, introduced by Therese May in 2012 in an effort to deter irregular migrants from staying to the UK, has fostered racism and discrimination, contributed to pushing many people into destitution, and erroneously affected people with the legal right to live and work in the UK.
The hostile environment’s key objective has always been to make life for those living in the UK without immigration status so difficult that they ultimately decide to leave. In order to achieve this, measures under the hostile environment make it harder for individuals without status to rent a house, find a job, get driving licences or even simply open a bank account, in the hope that by making these basic services harder to access, they would voluntarily leave and irregular migration numbers would decline.
As voluntary returns/departures from the UK have dropped since 2014 (after the hostile environment came into force), the IPPR’s report found that the policy not only fails to meet that goal, but it also has endangered and complicated the lives of migrants in the UK in various ways.
Firstly, for those without immigration status with little to no financial support from the state, finding work is essential to ensuring some financial security and to avoid destitution. By forcing employers to check employees’ “right to work” and criminalising work without immigration status, the hostile environment pushes migrants without a status into the shadow economy and cash-in-hand jobs (especially if they are not allowed to open a bank account). This makes them vulnerable to exploitation and modern slavery if they manage to find work, and destitution if they don’t. The risk of destitution and impoverishment is exacerbated by the restrictions on access to benefits and healthcare. The report specifically mentions malnutrition, cramped and substandard accommodation, and mental ill-health among undocumented migrant families unable to access public funds.
The problems do not stop there. The hostile environment, it turns out, not only impacts its target population, namely individuals without immigration status, but also many individuals with legal immigration status.
As such, the report shows that the policy fosters ethnic and racial bias, as home and work raids are often targeted at specific nationalities on the basis that they are “believed to be removable.” Unsurprisingly, these people are often people of colour and ethnic minority background. Similarly, the right to rent checks have been ruled discriminatory and biased against people of ethnic minority backgrounds, because they make landlords more suspicious of “removable-looking” people, whatever that may mean, and therefore disadvantage tenants of ethnic minority backgrounds who might very well be British nationals or people with leave to remain.
Recently, the hostile environment has been under heavy scrutiny. In March, the Wendy Williams Windrush review was laid before Parliament. The report overtly criticised the workings of the Home Office’s hostile environment, exposing how thousands of legal UK residents were classified as illegal immigrants and denied the right to work, rent property, access healthcare and benefits during the Windrush Scandal. In April, the Court of Appeal affirmed that immigration checks required by landlords to ensure that tenants have the right to rent are discriminatory, but fell short from ruling that the discrimination was severe enough to render it unlawful. The case is currently being appealed.
The IPPR report warns that a significant proportion of EU citizens will miss the EUSS application deadline of 30 June 2021, barring them from accessing benefits and many public services and losing their immigration status altogether. Despite the mounting warnings and criticism, the Home Secretary confirmed in May that EU citizens who fail to apply for status under the EU Settlement Scheme in time will be unlawful residents and fall subject to all hostile environment policies currently in place.
For all these reasons and many more, the report is unequivocal in its condemnation of the policy, stating that “restrictions on access to benefits can force people without immigration status into destitution. There is evidence of malnutrition, cramped and substandard accommodation, and mental ill-health among undocumented migrant families unable to access public funds … The hostile environment does not appear to be working for anyone: for migrants, for the Home Office, or for the wider public.”
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After the death of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 at the hands of a white police officer, protests against police brutality and institutional racism erupted in the US and around the world. The US now finds itself in a period of political unrest and upheaval not unlike after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. In the UK, George Floyd’s death resonated with many, mobilising thousands in London, Manchester and Cardiff to march in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, a movement dedicated to ending violence and systemic racism towards black people.
Highlighting the racism and unfairness engrained in the American justice system is important, but it is easy to judge what happens abroad without looking inward. The reality is that Britain is not innocent when it comes to institutional racism or police brutality – far from.
When it comes to UK immigration, the dissonance between how white (Western) immigrants and immigrants of colour from the Global East and South are treated is painstakingly stark. The culmination of these double standards was the 2018 Windrush Scandal, which erupted after Theresa May introduced the hostile environment rules in 2012. Under the hostile environment, those who lack documents evidencing their lawful residence become subject to the hostile environment checks. They are no longer allowed to work, rent or even open a bank account in the UK.
Many people of colour who came to the UK in the 50s, 60s and 70s from Commonwealth countries were granted indefinite leave to remain in 1971 but when the hostile environment kicked in, thousands of them were not able to prove their status, and as a consequence, were wrongly told that they were in Britain illegally. Hundreds were detained, and some of them deported, despite living and working in the UK legally for decades.
Although Windrush victims are now able to apply for compensation under the Windrush Scheme, the number of applications has been remarkably low, and internal reviews confirmed that the government’s hostile environment immigration policies still have devastating impacts on the lives and families of black citizens in the UK. With the new Points-Based Immigration system, set to come into force in January 2021, that impact is set to worsen. Requirements like visa fees (UK fees are among the highest in the world), income thresholds (the minimum salary under the PBS is set at £25,600) and health surcharges (recent controversy on the NHS surcharge led the government to scrap it for migrant NHS staff) have been found to predominately affect those from the East or South, as they are less likely to be able to meet financial requirements. The new points-based system thus builds on existing discriminatory structures instead of breaking them down. That is not a coincidence.
Don’t be mistaken - Windrush was a direct result of an immigration system set up to discriminate against some but not others. It was not just a profound institutional failure or mistake of government. It was not a mistake at all, but rather simply the hostile environment rules put into practice. The points-based system is a continuation of that. It is institutional racism at its peak, rearing its ugly head yet again, here in the UK.
When the then Prime Minister Theresa May (yes, you read that right - the same person who introduced the hostile environment in the first place) apologized for the catastrophe of Windrush in April 2018, she insisted it was not her government’s intent to disproportionately affect people from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds in the operation of her hostile environment policy. That statement shows exactly what the government fails, or refuses, to understand, namely that racism is much bigger than discrimination with intent, that it encompasses more than active and direct discrimination. It is about institutional neglect of certain parts of the population, certain neighbourhoods, and certain ethnic minorities, creating and feeding into more hardship for those groups compared to their white British counterparts. The public health crisis that we are currently dealing with is only the latest of an endless string of examples.
People of colour are 2.5 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than their white counterparts in the UK. For the black Caribbean and African population, that number goes up to three against one. This is partly because BAME communities are more exposed to the virus, as a third of all working age black Africans and black Carribeans work in key worker roles (that is 50% more than white British people), whilst Indian men are 150% more likely to work in health or social care roles than their white British counterparts. It is also because BAME communities are more economically vulnerable to the current crisis than white ethnic groups, and not enough is done to actively help them bridge that gap.
To make matters worse, people of colour are not only more likely to die of the virus once they get it, but they are also 54% more likely to get fined for violating lockdown rules than the white majority British population. More broadly, in our criminal justice system, Metropolitan Police officers are four times more likely to use force against black people compared with the white population.
It is true that the UK is not a nation of gun ownership like the US. It is true that British police officers do not carry weapons. And it is true that these things play a part in limiting violence and abuse of power. But we cannot trick ourselves into believing we are so much better, and that it could not happen here. The US might be a land of extremes, and the UK a country of covertness, but the foundational institutional challenges we face are the same.