A brief history, and where we are now.
The Hostile Environment – an Overview
Throughout history, hostility towards the ‘other’ coming to ‘our’ land has accompanied any group migration into Britain, including those instances where people were fleeing terror, persecution, war or revolution. Nevertheless, until the 1880s, official policy was one of ‘liberal tolerance’ which took account of the significant cultural, social and economic contribution of refugees to their adopted nation.
In the decades around the turn of the 20th century, the arrival of 200,000 Jewish people fleeing murderous pogroms in Eastern Europe tipped the scales, and the narrative of hostility first took clear form with the 1905 Aliens Act designed to restrict sanctuary for exiles from elsewhere.
In the 1930s, anxiety about incoming groups characterised the British official response to those under threat of life in Europe, with a visa system introduced specifically to restrict refugees’ entry to the country. The Kindertransport of 10,000 Jewish children was – after much debate and disagreement – eventually permitted entry, but the parents of those children were not, and many perished.
In the ensuing years, groups were accepted from various places of danger, and from the Caribbean when we needed people to come and help rebuild the country. But life was made terribly hard for so many who answered Britain’s call, for example with the Windrush generation of immigrants. For them, and for the refugee groups, there were often many obstacles in being accepted. Anti-immigrant rhetoric rumbled constantly in the background and sometime exploded into plain view.
But it is in the most recent two decades that the vocabulary of hostility has been refined and developed with great elaboration. We now have a tortuous weave of rules restricting, and for many, making almost unbearable, the lives of those seeking sanctuary here. These constitute the now notorious ‘Hostile Environment’, with its specific vocabulary of hostility that currently permeates public discourse.
The paradox is that, while we have been striving as a nation towards nurturing acceptance of diversity and respect towards anyone whom we might perceive as ‘different’, we have also fine-tuned a system of unprecedented unkindness towards people seeking sanctuary. This system has been described in recent years by the Red Cross, Amnesty, Refugee Action and other refugee organisations, and many politicians themselves – as – quite simply – cruel beyond measure.
The Hostile Environment Today
What does the Hostile Environment look like?
The Hostile Environment is ostensibly aimed at “illegal” immigration, but, in reality, hugely affects everyone going through the asylum process, with its well-known ‘culture of disbelief’, and its underlying design to make things as difficult as possible for all people seeking refuge here. Its language, inherently violent – ‘force’ ‘enforcement’, ‘bogus’, ‘removability’ – has become normalised in everyday language.
Here are some milestones of the Hostile Environment.
2002: The strategic impoverishment of some categories of asylum seekers was legislated in 2002 (‘planned destitution’ as it is generally referred to). This was followed by a litany of official measures aimed, ultimately, at discouraging anyone from seeking asylum with us. Alongside this, and carefully nurtured in the mainstream media, public hostility towards immigrant populations increased.
2010: The term “Hostile Environment” is first used by Alan Johnson, then (Labour) Home Secretary, in regard to immigration policy. This new term encapsulates the narrative, the already-harsh policies and the increasingly restrictive legislation on asylum and immigration introduced and enacted from the late 1990s and into the first decade of the 21st century.
2012: Home Secretary (now Conservative) Theresa May declares her intention to create a ‘really’ hostile environment for anyone in the UK illegally. ‘Hostile environment’ becomes a standard phrase in public and governmental discourse.
2014 -2016: Legislation and hundreds of rule changes that affect people’s ability to rent, study, work, survive –
and allow the Home Office to:
revoke driving licences and close bank accounts
deport people from EEA countries who are sleeping rough
deny free healthcare
restrict enormously people’s right to appeal Home Office decisions (nearly half of which are nevertheless appealed, and of those appeals, more than half the original Home Office decision)
limit severely access to work for those seeking asylum
demand data from NHS, schools, and universities to check people’s immigration status
interrupt and prevent marriage ceremonies where it is suspected that people are not ‘genuine’ in their reasons for marrying (this extends to breaking into houses and pulling people from the bed they are sharing as a married couple and moving them to detention) and even declare void a marriage undertaken when a person’s immigration status is considered by the Home office to be unresolved
deport unaccompanied minors once they reach the age of 18 – even after many years in this country throughout childhood, and with no connections remaining in their countries of origin.
Destitution, Detention, Deportation
Chief cornerstones of the measures to enforce immigration policy
Destitution: People seeking asylum are given a little over £5 per day, often insufficient to cover basic needs. At certain stages of the asylum process, even this amount can be withdrawn, and many become destitute. Severe limitation of the right to work means in effect that the vast majority of people seeking asylum cannot work, often for years, while their claim is being decided. This result is often poverty and ensuing destitution.
Detention: people can be and are, picked up without warning and detained, in one of the UK’s seven detention centres, often without a reason being given, often illegally, always without any indication of when they might be released, and often for months or even years. This applies both to those who have served a prison sentence of more than 12 months, and many others who have not – indeed, many who have no criminal record whatsoever. Around half are released – with similarly little warning and no explanation – back into the community from which they were apprehended (55% last year). Britain is the only European country to allow indefinite detention of people seeking asylum. The British Medical Association has called for detention to be halted in most cases, or at least strongly restricted, as it is shown to cause long-term harm to the thousands of people who are subjected to it each year.
Deportation: Many people are forcibly deported back to countries which are unsafe for them. This includes countries acknowledged by the Foreign Office as unsafe for British people to travel to, such as Afghanistan. Many disappear, are arrested, tortured, and some killed, after they have returned.
In the year ending December 2019, 52% of initial decisions on asylum were positive.
22,549 people were awaiting decisions after 6 months old, some for much longer, in the largest backlog ever recorded.
The Home Office has now abandoned its target of processing ‘straightforward’ claims within 6 months.
WINDRUSH – a moment of truth
The Windrush revelations in 2018 suddenly revealed the real workings and structures of the Hostile Environment. People who had the right to British citizenship, and who had lived as British, in the UK, all or most of their lives, were deprived of the right to work, evicted from their houses, denied healthcare, detained, and deported. While this disaster has been acknowledged as a grave mistake, it has also revealed Home Office policy and practice, and how these affect thousands of other people who also have a right to be in the UK, as well as those who are finally deemed ineligible but who should nevertheless be treated with humanity during the entire process.
Glimmers of Light
Resisting the Hostile Environment
Over the past two decades, campaigning to resist the Hostile Environment has been an ongoing accompaniment to its increasing severity. Recent campaigns have targeted the injustices of destitution, detention and deportation.
Three current ongoing campaigns include the national “Lift the Ban” campaign, which is gathering wide public support and cross-party agreement to allow people seeking asylum to work after 6 months.
There are also campaigns in 2019 to bring the maximum time for immigration detention down to 28 days, in line with other legislation concerning all detention here, and across Europe.
Hastings Community of Sanctuary is part of these campaign, belonging as part of the national City of Sanctuary movement.
A third major campaign concerns the right to family reunification, so that children given asylum in the UK can apply to bring their immediate families to join them.
Alongside the story of people seeking asylum with us is that of the relatively small group of refugees who have been brought into the UK through resettlement programmes. The Government offers wide-ranging and comprehensive support to this group, enabling our new fellow-citizens arriving via this route a good chance of making a strong new life with us here in the UK.
Since the Windrush outrage, there have been a number of changes in the Home Office, with a decrease in the use of immigration detention and planned moves to improve processes and decision-making in various ways. However, the prevalent narrative of disbelief and hostility will be difficult to dislodge, and the labyrinth of rules and legislation likewise difficult to dismantle.
This process will be strengthened by the growing call for non-compliance from groups such as Docs not Cops, who together with Migrants Organise and Medact, are challenging Home Office charging policies for healthcare, and their demands for NHS data-sharing in order to locate people with uncertain immigration status.
Landlords and teachers are similarly protesting against Home Office requirements effectively to become border guards in checking the data of those seeking a place to live, and of the children in our schools.
City of Sanctuary espouses a policy of active welcome and making space for the voices of those seeking refuge – the ‘experts by experience’ who can tell us how it is to be someone seeking refuge in this country.
Transforming the Hostile Environment
Welcome as a ‘Radical Act’
Throughout the increasing harshness of the Hostile Environment there has been a counter-narrative of protest against official decree and public hostility. Most people seeking sanctuary here have also encountered kindness and hospitability from significant sub-groups – from the Red Cross, Amnesty, refugee organisations both national and local, church and community groups.
Together, we continually pose the question: does the Hostile Environment, which is clearly so deeply harmful to so many people, really reflect the stated values of our country?
And we note that the hostile environment now so deeply entrenched in our nation is spreading across many others as well. Across Europe, and the United States, people are now being aggressively criminalised for helping those seeking refuge – even for saving their lives. In 20i9, Biago Conte was on hunger strike in Sicily to save a man from deportation. He said:
“We live in dark times. We are returning to dehumanisation. After having struggled to tear down walls, we are building them again.”
Hastings Community of Sanctuary, including the Refugee Buddy Project, Hastings Supports Refugees, Hastings Immigration Bill Campaign and all others supporting those seeking refuge in our town and nearby – are working alongside our new friends from other places to transform the tenets of the Hostile Environment. In the words of our council’s unanimously agreed resolution, we ‘welcome to Hastings and St. Leonards those fleeing violence and persecution, value the contribution they can make to our town, and take practical steps to integrate all people into our communities, activities and culture’. We stand united to show and practise universal human values of kindness and welcome, and the recognition of each other as fellow human beings.
Felicity Laurence, Chair, Hastings Community of Sanctuary