Behind ten years of the hostile environment

It is not just the callousness of a harsh Tory government that drives immigration policy, argues Don Flynn, but the logic of neoliberal capitalism that is striving to curtail the rights of all working people

The hostile environment for migrants was inaugurated ten years ago in a speech the then home secretary, Theresa May, gave to Parliament. Its aim was, she said, “to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.”

Since that date, the policy has furnished the news media with a regular set of scandals which have given serious weight to the allegation that it is the very embodiment of institutional racism. The most prominent of these sets of wrongdoing was the furore over the home office’s treatment of the Windrush generation of migrants – people from the Caribbean who had arrived in the UK before 1973 and spent a lifetime in the UK working, paying taxes and raising families. As hostile environment policies rolled out, thousands lost their jobs and homes and were threatened with deportation. Some were subjected to detention in immigration removal centres, and a number were actually deported or refused permission to return to the UK after travelling abroad.

But the Windrush generation people were not the only victims of the policy. It also made a devastating impact on thousands of international students who were accused of having faked the results of English language tests, with similar accusations of fraud being directed at self-employed professionals in relation to their tax returns. In both cases, the actions of Home Office officials were subject to severe criticism in the law courts.

Damaged credibility

The credibility of the Home Office and the ministers who led its operations was badly damaged during the course of these years and the department has had to scramble to recover its reputation by engaging with an extensive ‘learned lessons’ review of the Windrush cases and by rebranding its operation as being that of a ‘compliance’ environment, rather than a hostile one. But the two pieces of legislation that provided the framework for the policy – carried into law in 2014 and 2016 – remain on the statute book and continue to sustain barriers to work, renting accommodation and accessing public services, impacting all people who fit common, prejudiced views as to the type of person who might be considered an immigrant, and possibly an ‘illegal’ one at that.

Worse still, the Johnson Government considers that its Home Office, now led by Priti Patel, is sufficiently recovered from the worst of its opprobrium to launch a fresh wave of attacks on the rights of asylum seekers in the form of the Nationality and Borders Bill, currently going through Parliament. In addition, with its infamous Article 9 clause, the Bill is strengthening the power of the Home Office to act against British citizens who it can claim to be citizens of other countries. This allows the Government not only to remove British citizen status but, in some cases, fail to inform the individual concerned.

Ten years of vigorous campaigning against hostile environment policies have seen a number of high points, with public opinion for once swinging sharply towards support for the rights of migrants – most notably the rights of the Windrush generation and, among younger cohorts in particular, people fleeing civil upheaval and persecution as refugees. But still the Government perseveres along the path of stripping more and more people of their basic human rights and making them vulnerable to draconian action at the hands of the immigration enforcement authorities. What is the force that is driving them in this direction?

The tendency among many analysts is to attribute the drive for a hostile environment to a number of quaint features of the British cultural and political environment. The Lessons Learned review of the Windrush scandal is cautious about seeing institutional racism as a feature of this, but offers the view that the lesser charge of ‘institutional ignorance’ might be the key to understanding the problem. Officials implementing the policy erred because they were too aloof from the lives of the immigrant communities whose fates they were overseeing, and a corrective is needed to ensure they have more insight on these matters. Knowing that their public officials were equipped with this is seen as going a long way to reassuring a British public which, for a time, seemed to falter in its support for the strictest forms of immigration control, that the hostile environment will, in future, be administered in a proportionate and humane manner.

The civil society migrant rights groups that led the charge against the hostile environment can claim some credit for blunting a crude instrument of immigration enforcement power. However, a review of the websites of the leading organisations – JCWI, Migrants Organise, City of Sanctuary among others – suggests that their ambition for change goes no further than this. The way policies are implemented against individuals and communities is subjected to detailed criticism, but the reason why the Government is adamant that a hostile environment is the way to go is left unexamined. Yet raising the discussion to this level is likely to be the key to developing a political understanding of state authority and its imperative to strip immigration policy of any concept of the rights of migrant people.

International dimension

Immigration policy across the world increasingly draws on a limited number of templates which get transferred from one country to the next, with only minor modifications to tailor enforcement to the specific culture of the various state societies. The deportation of people who have failed to integrate to the required standard might be considered as the US model, which centres on the idea of ‘one strike and you’re out’. Points-based schemes across the countries that are adopting them draw on the kafala systems that operate in the Gulf state countries, with the primary feature being their temporary nature, tying the worker to a specific employer for the duration of their residence. When it comes to refugee policy, the forums which consider this issue talk of the ‘Pacific island solution’, pioneered by Australia, which works by banishing asylum seekers to remote territories for lengthy periods during which their applications are considered, far away from the assistance of the types of networks which, in other circumstances, have provided refugees with support and leverage against hostile authorities.

Paramount in this is the renewed stress on borders as providing the most basic tool for immigration control. Ever stricter visa regimes operate with the intention of keeping the unfavoured migrant outside the territory of the nation. More than that, states are increasingly cooperating in policies that aim to keep people not just on the other side of the border, but, if possible, contained in other continents altogether, held in check by the thuggery of corrupt police agencies and gangster-led militia. Border walls are built ever higher, and the actions needed to stifle people’s movement require deals being done by authorities across borders, with this becoming another factor which determines the features which hostile environment policies have in common.

Worker exploitation

Is there a logic which is driving the direction of these policies? If there is, we should be looking for it within the structures of a global economy in which 83 percent of global manufacturing jobs are located in the Global South, where the majority of wage workers labour in conditions of minimal rights. They are serving supply chains whose ultimate beneficiary is likely to be one of the world’s largest corporations, most of whom are incorporated in just eight countries. Immigration controls function to stop these rightless workers escaping from conditions of super-exploitation to seek a better life in countries where workers, across decades of struggle, have gained some rights, even if these are now fast-eroding.

The missing dimension to the fight against the hostile environment in the UK has been the failure to frame motivation for the deprivation of rights within the logic of the neoliberal capitalist order. It is because Britain is an integral part of this order that it is shaping its immigration policies in ways which deprive migrants of rights – exactly the same reasons why working people find it harder to make trade unions work with the same degree of effectiveness as they did prior to the defeats of the 1980s and the years after.

If the struggle against the hostile environment is to be taken forward, we will need a narrative which frames it as an attack on the working class of the same measure of importance as the assault on trade unionism and the austerity-driven rollbacks of public services and public space. If the struggle remains outside that perspective, then agitation for safeguards against its worst aspects will prove insufficient to the fundamental task of securing a rights-based underpinning of all aspects of immigration policy.

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