Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The hostile environment is alive and well

Sajid Javid’s claim that the hostile environment is over has been exposed as bogus – and Brexit is about to make it worse, writes Luna Williams


Last March, the new home secretary Sajid Javid made a promise to dispel the ‘hostile environment’ policy which had gripped the United Kingdom and its laws since 2009.

‘It’s a compliant environment,’ he told parliament, a few hours after he had started his new position in the Home Office, ‘I don’t like the phrase “hostile”. The terminology I think is incorrect and I think it is a phrase that is unhelpful’.

The hostile environment policy was first introduced by Theresa May during her reign as home secretary. It was initially designed as a deterrent for illegal immigrants who had come to the UK, with the basis of making remaining in the UK so difficult for them that they would ‘voluntarily leave’. Included in the policy was the 2014 Immigration Act, which requires charities, communities, healthcare services and banks to carry out ID checks.

The darker side of the policy saw the removal of homeless European Union citizens living in the UK, ‘Go Home’ vans and the ‘deport now, appeal later’ strategy which targeted asylum-seekers that had already been granted leave to remain as refugees.

These issues came to a head with the Windrush scandal last year, which saw hundreds of Windrush-generation citizens wrongfully deported and threatened (by the Home Office), after their citizenship records had been lost and destroyed (by the Home Office).

After Amber Rudd – who shouldered the blame for the fiasco – had resigned, Javid swooped in to save the day and, to the relief of many, immediately denounced the hostile environment policy. Since then, the phrase has been hushed throughout Westminster, as though not talking about it will somehow erase the past.

But after Javid’s commitment to dispel the policy nine months ago, has anything changed?

Right to Rent scheme

While the policy is no longer actively being pushed by the UK Government, the scars of the system are still etched into the fabric of our country.

The Right to Rent scheme was introduced in 2016, towards the end of May’s reign as home secretary. The scheme encourages landlords to vet their potential tenants and gives them the right to refuse their property and services to anyone that does not have the proper documents. It was introduced as part of the hostile environment policy; initially in order to make life as difficult as is could be for illegal immigrants who were trying to find shelter in the UK. However, it continues to impact the lives of legal immigrants and their families today.

A survey conducted by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) in the wake of the scheme found that 42 per cent of landlords said they would be less likely to consider a potential tenant who did not have a British passport (which is only received by those who become a British citizen having permanently settled in the UK), while 27 per cent said they would be reluctant to negotiate with anyone who had a ‘foreign-sounding’ name or accent.

These results are staggering and suggest that the policy has provided fertile ground for racist and discriminatory attitudes, in which landlords are forced into the roles of (to quote JCWI) ‘border control officers’.

Domestic abuse victims

Sadly, the Right to Rent Scheme is just one of the pitfalls of the hostile environment policy.

The SafeLives charity, which campaigns against domestic abuse, found evidence to suggest that Black, Asian and minority-ethnic women are disproportionality impacted by specific forms of domestic violence. According to a report it released in 2015, victims from BAME communities typically stay quiet for 1.5 times longer than their white, British-born counterparts. There are different factors which could play into this, but a major element is the fear that many migrant women feel when reaching out to authorities. Many believe that contacting the police will result in losing their Spouse Visa and therefore giving up their lives in the UK, and this is not unjustified; between 2015-16, 27 out of 45 police forces reported migrant domestic abuse victims to the Home Office.

Three years on, with the hostile environment policy no longer technically active, one would hope that this issue would have been resolved. Unfortunately, it has not.

This December, the first ever ‘super-complaint’ was lodged against English and Welsh police forces over their referrals of vulnerable victims of crime to immigration enforcement bodies. This came off the back of an investigation by the organisations Southall Black Sisters and Liberty, the latter of which uncovered a secret data-sharing arrangement in which the police reported victims and witnesses of crime to immigration officials.

Wrongful deportations

According to Harriet Harman MP, the chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Home Office still regularly makes ‘poor decisions and successive gross errors of judgement’.

This is most evident in their readiness to deport legal and legitimate immigrants.

A governmental review in 2018 revealed that the Home Office had attempted to deport more than 300 highly-skilled migrants. The list included doctors, teachers and engineers – all professions which are listed as ‘in shortage’ in the UK, meaning we cannot fill these workforces with domestic talent alone.

In 2018 alone, the Home Office also lost 75 per cent of their appeals to the upper tribunal, after trying to overturn decisions by independent judges which had granted refugee status to asylum-seekers.

It is unclear if and how Javid’s promises to end the hostile environment have had any effect. While the policy may be over in practice, its remnants remain: and while it is optimistic to hope that it is now behind us, the looming uncertainty of Brexit and how it will impact our immigration system makes the future look fairly bleak.

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Luna Williams is the political commentator for the Immigration Solicitors UK

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