Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

Windrush: could this be the end of the ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants?

Written by Marta Foresti


This morning we woke up to the news that the British Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, resigned for trying to deny the existence (not the absence!) of targets to remove illegal migrants from the UK and increase deportations.

This comes in the wake of the 'Windrush scandal'. Briefly, approximately half a million people from various Caribbean colonies arrived in the UK before the 1971 Immigration Act, when Commonwealth citizens already living in the UK were given indefinite leave to remain. But the Home Office didn’t keep any records, making it difficult for these people to prove they are in the UK legally. In other words an administrative glitch which can easily be fixed.

What’s surprising is the reaction in a country where concerns over immigration swung the Brexit vote and where politicians from all sides have promised to reduce the number of migrants coming to the UK. Just a little further afield in mainland Europe, anti-immigration parties have dominated recent elections in Italy and Hungary.

So what is going on? And what failures does the Windrush scandal expose within immigration policies, in Britain and beyond?

Distinctions between legal and illegal migrants (and related targets) don’t deliver.

The Windrush generation were made ‘illegal’ due to their lack of documentation caused by changes – mostly restrictions – in immigration policies and rules over the years. The three million EU citizens living in the UK will soon be in similar circumstances: we arrived in the UK legally under a certain set of rules, and we are about to experience a change in status after Brexit. With less than a year to go, we still don’t know which rules will apply. The UK Government is calling for an overall reduction in immigration through the UK’s net migration target. But this has been shown to be unworkable and potentially damaging to the UK economy. What we need is clear rules and systems to monitor and better manage the reality of global migration.

Creating a ‘hostile environment’ is unjust and inhumane – no wonder people don’t like it.

Asking doctors and teachers to check the status of fellow human beings; applying draconian and unfair ‘deport first, appeal later’ rules; the prospect of queuing for hours on end at the border – people don’t want or need this in their daily lives. A good case in point is the resistance to President Trump’s attempts to make America an ‘unwelcoming’ country, himself elected on an anti-immigration platform. Anti-immigration statements may win elections in the short-term, but may not pay off in the long run. This can clearly be seen in the outrage around the treatment of the Windrush generation.

Public attitudes towards migrants are not as negative or resolute as made out to be.

Even those who hold strong anti-immigration views are open to different perspectives and opinions when it comes to people they actually know, or can sympathise with. After all, they probably would have done the same in their shoes. In this case, everyone could see – and importantly feel – the pain felt by the Windrush generation in the face of unjust treatment and blind rules. But the outrage also focused on the fact that these people are very much British citizens ‘no matter what’, that they are integrated in, and contribute to, their communities. Remarkably, politicians across the spectrum were (for once) united: these are British citizens ‘like you and I’.

So what should the newly appointed Home Secretary, Sajid Javid (himself the son of immigrants), learn from this? Do away with the net migration target and dispel once and for all the notion that Britain is a ‘hostile environment’ to anyone. Also, think twice about too many hard lines, in both the Brexit talks but also the negotiations over the Global Compact for Migration. It's clear the public want clarity and fairness, not senseless targets and unrealistic promises. Politicians in the UK and beyond should pay attention to this and put an end to a 'hostile environment' for everyone, everywhere.