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Futile hostility: the UK’s migration and asylum approach must change

Written by Gemma Hennessey

Hero image description: Two people arriving at a UK border terminal in an airport Image credit:Danny Howard Image license:CC BY 2.0

Last week the UK Home Secretary Priti Patel announced the New Plan for Immigration, outlining proposals which would further intensify its ‘hostile environment’ approach to irregular migrants, including those who seek asylum in the UK.

‘Hostile environment’ is a catch-all phrase for the set of policies introduced by the then Home Secretary Theresa May in 2012, which seek to deliberately make life for irregular migrants extremely difficult. Successive immigration laws have increasingly restricted the ability for individuals without regular status to access services, work or rent accommodation. At the risk of large fines, service providers – including doctors and teachers – are forced to act as immigration officers, by demanding papers before providing essential services, and reporting suspicions of irregular status. Once flagged to the Home Office, these individuals are at risk of indefinite detention and forced removal from the UK. The ‘New Plan’ would take the UK further into ‘hostility’, making it easier to detain and remove irregular migrants from the UK.

The government claims that the hostile environment serves two main purposes:

  1. To deter other individuals who may attempt to enter the UK irregularly.
  2. To encourage irregular migrants to leave the UK (justified by claim that they are burdens to public services).

Patel also claims it is informed by a principle of ‘fairness’ to ‘genuine’ refugees as opposed to presumed-bogus asylum seekers or so-called ‘economic migrants’. Despite these claims, the UK’s approach does not appear to be grounded in evidence and what’s more, is not working: irregular migration continues, whilst irregular migrants themselves, and society as a whole, suffers. The time is ripe for a fundamental rethink which puts evidence at the centre.

Does the hostile environment actually work to change people’s minds?

One would expect the hostile environment policies to be firmly grounded in evidence. Yet this is not the case. As pointed out by 454 immigration scholars in a recently published open letter, the New Plan for Immigration has ‘no basis in research evidence’.

Migration decision-making is complex, shaped by structural factors like inequality and (in)security, meso level factors such as societal norms and pressures, as well as micro level factors like personal aspirations and other intangible factors. The impacts of policies in countries of destination, like the UK, on individual’s decisions about whether to migrate, how to migrate (e.g. via a particular route), and where to migrate to (e.g. to the UK or another destination), are highly variable and often unexpected.

Evidence does not suggest that creating a hostile environment for irregular migrants, forcing them to live in poverty, without access to essential services and leaving them unable to work, has deterred further migration via irregular pathways towards the UK. People continue to flee unbearable situations in their home countries, continue to travel via irregular means given the lack of legal options, and continue to seek refuge or a life in the UK. The UK is chosen as a destination to join family members, or because it is imagined as a country of safety, or it may be that due to the legacies of colonialism, the UK is considered as a place with shared history, culture and language, and thus a natural destination choice.

Evidence also shows that the hostile environment fails to encourage people to leave the UK. Living in the UK’s hostile environment may be extremely difficult, but at the end of a deportation flight, an even worse environment is often waiting for returnees.

So what is the actual impact of the ‘hostile environment’?

If the government’s approach does not actually deter migrants nor encourage them to leave, what does the evidence say about the impact of the hostile environment? There is evidence to suggest that the implementation of ‘hostile environment’ policies not only does harm to migrants themselves, but also to British society as a whole.

The manifest cruelty of the hostile environment was brought to British public attention by Guardian journalists in their coverage of the Windrush Scandal. Forcing service providers to report to immigration authorities on irregular migrants deters individuals from seeking access to services, meaning individuals do not seek healthcare when needed, or report to the police when falling victim to a crime. Contrary to claims that the hostile environment reduces burdens on public services like the NHS, in practice running additional checks on patient's immigration status actually costs public services more. This outweighs any possible savings.

Living in fear of deportation, and in enforced poverty is detrimental to individual’s well-being, but to society at large too. Not being able to access (formal) employment means that individuals contribute less to the UK’s economy, and are unable to fill essential labour market gaps as key workers, as many migrants do. Harm caused to British society is not only financial. The rhetoric of the hostile environment fuels racial prejudice, leading to a more hostile environment not just for irregular migrants, but for people living the UK as whole. Living in the shadows undermines individual’s ability to thrive and to contribute to social and cultural life, as other migrants, including refugees, have and continue to do.

The hostile environment must be replaced with an alternative approach grounded in evidence

Research indicates that the views of the British public on the whole, about refugees and other migrants, are not negative. Around a fifth of Britons hold negative views, but twice as many hold positive views about immigration. Not only is the hostile environment unable to achieve its primary objectives, but it does not reflect the will of the people. Evidence does not suggest that creating a hostile environment for irregular migrants has deterred further migration but simply thrown irregular migrants deeper into poverty, leaving them without access to services and employment opportunities. Furthermore, hostile environment policies have created deeper, more fractured relationships and further entrenched racism across society, undermining resilience at the height of Britain’s most severe social, economic and public health crisis in recent history.

The UK Government has launched an online consultation which is an opportunity to challenge and put forward alternative approaches. Any such alternatives, grounded in ‘fairness’, should urgently consider a shift to a more evidence-based and arguably more humane approach to irregular migration. At the very minimum this would need to include: