17-08-26: UNESCO Chair in the National

Published: 4 September 2017

Alison Phipps on how Theresa May has succeeded in providing the hostile environment for migrants she promised

Alison Phipps: The Home Office make me sick ... Theresa May has succeeded in providing the hostile environment for migrants she promised

This article was first published in The National on 26th August 2017. 

I have given up counting how often the Home Office leaves me losing the will to live these days, but it’s pretty much a daily occurrence. It comes not just with the day job, but with living with, and caring for and loving, those who did not have the good fortune to be born with a purple passport marked UK Citizen in their mouths. For that is the real silver spoon.

In 2012, the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, said in a newspaper interview: “The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration.”

This has included the constant changing of rules, with the result being many of those seeking to come to the UK legally are branded “illegal”, leaving many others, such as non-UK EU nationals, doubting the legality of their residence.

As Colin Yeo states on his Freemovement blog (freemovement.org.uk – an absolutely vital resource in these matters): “The ‘hostile environment’ for migrants is a package of measures designed to make life so difficult for individuals without permission to remain that they will not seek to enter the UK to begin with, or, if already present, will leave voluntarily. It is inextricably linked to the net migration target; the hostile environment is intended to reduce inward migration and increase outward emigration.

“The hostile environment includes measures to limit access to work, housing, health care and bank accounts, and to reduce and restrict rights of appeal against Home Office decisions. The majority of these proposals became law via the Immigration Act 2014, and have since been tightened or expanded under the Immigration Act 2016.”

On Thursday, we heard that net migration figures had fallen considerably. This is not good news. These figures included a 25 per cent drop in asylum applications and an increase of six months in asylum processing time – fewer applications taking more time indicates a serious lack of a quality service.

It is a matter of national shame that at this time of humanitarian crises we take fewer than before of those in need. Many end up in immigration detention, but we also learned on Thursday that for the majority this is pointless and vastly expensive. The majority of those detained are released, after G4S, Serco and others have been paid handsomely for their work.

All of this is a result of the policy of creating a hostile environment.

I see this in evidence everywhere – it’s in the look of panic in university admissions officers when they hear that you’ve secured a major grant which will involve the need for visit or study visas and may trouble the Tier 4 quotas. It comes with the knock on the door from friends needing someone to help them navigate another arbitrary Home Office form.

The hostile environment wins out as I cancel or re-book travel and visits from overseas academic colleagues because the Home Office has exceeded its own processing times and failed to return passports for travel, even though it has “issued a visa”. And then there is the utter intolerance of any miniscule error on any paperwork. Unless, of course, it is sent by the Home Office. Then it is merely “unfortunate”.

We also heard the story this week of the 100 (and probably more) letters sent out from the Home Office “in error” to non-UK EU nationals, and affecting in particular a Finnish academic in London.

The usual raft of MPs commented, “it beggars belief”, “I couldn’t believe it” and so on. I experience disbelief every day anew, but after 10 years of witnessing this across my life and my work, I know it gets us nowhere. White, educated, middle-class folk are now both noticing and suffering what has been going on for decades for the marginalised and serially excluded. That “our” stories reach the news is no surprise, we get more air time. It’s called “white privilege”.

Those of us who live in this “hostile environment” know that as soon we submit paperwork, some quite unbelievable administrative nonsense will come back to us.

I’ve seen the allocation of five different dates of birth to one individual, none of them correct; I’ve seen applications for indefinite leave to remain rejected because the signature on the form didn’t fit in the box (it did, but it was the only thing the Home Office could think of to delay issuing the paperwork); and I’ve seen rejection letters so riddled with grammatical errors, incorrect gender assignments, and other mistakes that whoever wrote them would fail a basic English exam. The letter I was invited to read out at the Edinburgh Fringe at Chill Habibi, Arab Arts Focus, was a case in point. My favourite example of an absurd asylum rejection letter stated: “You say that there is guerrilla activity in the region of the country you are from. We have consulted a zoologist and there are no reported sightings of guerrillas [sic] in that part of the country.” If you didn’t laugh ...

To all who think the Home Office can’t really be that bad, please look at the evidence.

The rules on citizenship just changed again and not to make anything easier. The lawyers I work with are now regularly using words such as “draconian” and “punitive”. And the Government is working on a new Immigration Bill. If you want to be as sure as possible that you can spend your life living with those you love and care for then get the most secure immigration status in the UK you can, as soon as you can. If you can afford to, use a lawyer. Expect to be incredulous, humiliated, angry and to waste hours and hours and hours on contradictory bureaucratic processes. The Right to Remain Tool kit is an excellent resource: righttoremain.org.uk/toolkit.

The Home office has absolutely created the “hostile environment” May spoke of. The fact it is illogical and against all but xenophobic reason is precisely the point.

Alison Phipps is Unesco Chair for Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts at the University of Glasgow.


First published: 4 September 2017