The Hostile Environment explained

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  • Discrimination, exploitation, and lonely deaths

    Elvis (not his real name), a Filipino man, died at home of suspected coronavirus, too afraid to seek medical help in case he got deported.

    Michael lost his job as a special needs teacher and was threatened with deportation after he was accused of having no right to be in the UK, despite having lived in the UK for more than 50 years.

    Anjay was exploited by one employer after another, with wages stolen, over crowded accommodation or sleeping rough and barely enough food to survive on.

    These stories and millions more are the result of one set of policies – the Hostile Environment.

    The Hostile Environment explained

    Some use the term “Hostile Environment” to describe all policies which make life difficult for migrants living in the UK – treating them as less deserving of dignity and humanity than British citizens.

    More specifically, it is a set of policies introduced in 2012 by then-Home Secretary Theresa May, with the aim of making life unbearably difficult in the UK for those who cannot show the right paperwork. Or, as she said at the time; “The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.”

    To achieve this, the Government set about trying to cut undocumented migrants off from using fundamental services including the NHS and state support, and made it illegal to work, or for a landlord to rent them a property. Doctors, landlords, police officers and teachers are tasked with checking immigration status, and often people who look or sound ‘foreign’ are asked to show their papers in order to rent a home or get medical treatment.

    The Home Office also accesses the data that public sector organisations use – so whether you are a patient speaking to a GP, a victim reporting a crime or an exploited worker reporting your boss to the authorities, your data can be checked by immigration officials.

    It turns us against each other – turning professionals whose duty it is to care into immigration enforcers. And it undermines trust in vital public services. When some of us are afraid to go to the doctor or to ask the police for help, we are all made more vulnerable.

    Yet the Home Office itself has admitted that the “vast majority” of undocumented people have done, and will do, nothing wrong.

    What impact does the Hostile Environment have?

    The Hostile Environment deters people from going to the doctor for fear of racking up a huge bill or being reported, detained and deported. It deters undocumented migrants from reporting crime to the police. It deters undocumented migrants from reporting unsafe working conditions or exploitative employers. It reduces the options for renting a home and pushes people into poor quality or even dangerous accommodation, at the mercy of their landlord.

    Hostile Environment policies also make doctors, landlords, teachers and other public sector workers responsible for immigration checks. These policies encourage and incentivise us to be suspicious of each other and undermine trust in our public services.

    There is no evidence that the Hostile Environment achieves its stated aim of forcing people out of the UK. But there is an extraordinary amount of evidence of the damage being done.

    The Right to Rent scheme requires landlords to check the immigration paperwork of potential tenants. If they rent a property to someone without the right paperwork, they face huge fines or even imprisonment. But there is effectively no consequence for taking the ‘low-risk’ option, opting for white people with British passports.

    The result is that the Court of Appeal has found it could take black, Asian and ethnic minority people and migrants up to twice as long to find a property to rent as a white British person.

    The Government should be doing everything in its power to end discrimination and racism. Instead, it says the discrimination caused is ‘worth it’ for the sake of the Hostile Environment. We’re fighting this at the European Court of Human Rights – find out more and support the case.

    Who is impacted by the Hostile Environment?

    We are all impacted by the Hostile Environment, which increases racial discrimination and asks us to be suspicious of each other. At JCWI, we believe Britain can do better than this.

    Those most affected are people without status in the UK. Most of the undocumented population in the UK is made up of people who came here legally, but subsequently lost their status, very often through no fault of their own. Some make the difficult decision to leave an abusive partner or an exploitative employer, even though it means they will lose their immigration status. Others grow up assuming they’re British, only to be told that they aren’t, even though they’ve never known any other country. And some fall out of regular status because they can’t afford the skyrocketing fees to renew their visa or to challenge an incorrect decision made by the Home Office.

    No matter our nationality or immigration status, we all deserve to be treated with dignity and humanity.

    Take action: Join us to fight for fairer immigration rules

    How did the Hostile Environment cause the Windrush scandal?

    Windrush scandal

    The Windrush generation are people who arrived in the UK from Caribbean countries between 1948 and 1973. They were British subjects and many children arrived here on their parents’ passports. Fast forward to 2012, when the Hostile Environment was introduced, and many of the Windrush generation, now in their 60s or 70s, lacked the documentation to prove their right to remain in the UK. This was made worse by the fact that the Home Office had destroyed thousands of landing cards and other records – in spite of warnings of the problems this could cause.

    The Home Office told the Windrush generation they must prove they had lived in the UK since before 1973. The Home Office demanded at least one official document from every year they had lived here. Attempting to find documents from decades ago created a huge, and in many cases, impossible burden on people who had done nothing wrong.

    In 2017 it started to emerge that hundreds of members of the Windrush generation had been wrongly detained, deported and denied legal rights. Coverage of these individuals’ stories began to break in several newspapers, and Caribbean leaders took the issue up with then-prime minister, Theresa May.

    The Home Office has argued the Windrush scandal was an accident – but an independent report in March 2020, the “Windrush Lessons Learned Review”, makes it clear – this was the inevitable result of policies designed to make life impossible for those without the right papers. The Home Office has promised to learn the lessons of the scandal, but the only way to stop it happening again, is to scrap the Hostile Environment.

    What are the alternatives to the Hostile Environment?

    The Government itself accepts that the vast majority of undocumented people have done and will do no harm in the UK. Instead of punishing people for becoming undocumented, the Government should enable and support people to get secure status. Currently, routes to status for those who are undocumented can take decades and cost tens of thousands of pounds. At JCWI we are calling on the Government to create new affordable and accessible routes to status.