By Hannah Jones
It is some time since we added to this blog, as our research on the Go Home van and the hostile environment culminated in a book published a year ago, which we have been encouraging people to read – including by making it available as a free ebook. Yet it doesn’t seem that Theresa May has read or learnt from it.
The experiences of the ‘Windrush generation’ in having their status as British citizens entitled to basic protections questioned does not come as a surprise, given this could be predicted by close readers of the Immigration Act 2014 which set out ways in which there would be automatic suspicion of all people seeking to receive healthcare, rent a home, open a bank account, or earn a living – with penalties not just for those doing this ‘illegally’, but also for those doing the checking should they get it wrong. This means shifting the responsibility for checking often complex settlement status to unqualified and inexperienced people in every walk of life, which complements moves across government which have whittled away at skilled, experienced staff with institutional memory and replaced them with inexperienced, overworked and underpaid, often temporary, staff with less professional nous and more demanding targets to reject requests for help – whether in immigration services, welfare offices, or decision-making on healthcare – inevitably resulting in an increasing number of misplaced refusals of entitlements.
Not surprising, but still upsetting, angering, shameful. More surprising, perhaps, is that this has eventually made national headlines over successive days. Environment Secretary and Brexit Leave campaigner Michael Gove claims this is due to a more compassionate attitude following Brexit, claiming:
“The truth is that the Brexit vote allowed the British people to say ‘Look, we’ve taken back control, we can now determine what migration policy is in our interests and we can combine both what’s in our economic interests with proper humanity.’ And the really striking thing now is that Britain has the most liberal attitude towards migration of any European country. And that follows the Brexit vote.”
This is an outstanding and extraordinary piece of nonsense, fake news, or what might in other times be called ‘a lie’.
As many have noted in past days, the current shameful treatment of British citizens who arrived in the UK at the invitation of the British government to (re)build national institutions after the Second World War is part of a long-term set of laws, policies and practices which the current Prime Minister’s officials named themselves as a ‘hostile environment’. Perhaps this was read, charitably, by some as an environment that would be hostile to only those who ‘broke the rules’; hostile in a fair way. This seems to be the view of Tony Smith, a head of the UK Border Force, who argued that ‘you need an identity management strategy if you are going to have a hostile environment. You can’t have one without the other’. What he means here is that an ID card system with unique personal identifiers (as exists in many European countries) enables a more effective exclusion of people without the correct papers from the institutions of everyday life. In that sense, a hostile environment can be much more effective in targeting specific groups because systems are in place. Indeed, this – civil liberties issues – was one of the reasons for strong opposition to a comprehensive ‘identity management system’ when proposed by recent UK governments. Without such a system, however, a hostile environment is certainly possible; it consists of an ‘environment’ of suspicion and threat that can encompass anyone at any time – even someone with settled status whose documents are unavailable, even someone born in the UK with parents with legal status, even someone who has no immigration history in their family but works for a bank or rents out a home.
This is why our research project looked not expressly at the laws and policies that constitute a hostile environment (though these came into it) but at the effects of government communication campaigns on immigration. These have consistently aimed to emphasise threat – both of (illegal) immigration (to settled communities) and of immigration control (to those deemed to be ‘in the UK illegally’). They emphasise toughness – which links nicely with an assumption of guilt rather than innocence in assessing the claims of the Windrush generation. Our research suggested this emphasis on threat in government communications did little to reassure people; in fact, the visibility of tough immigration control measures appeared to make a significant proportion of people more concerned, rather than more reassured – including people who did want immigration to be controlled in a tough way. In one interview with a community support worker in Bradford, we heard that:
“you talk to people and they say … “Are we going to be allowed to stay here?” this is third generation, they’ve contributed, you know. There’s this sort of slight feeling with what’s going on, you know, not necessarily the neighbours, but with the rhetoric.”
This was one of the most striking and disturbing moments of our research. Alongside accounts of mistrust of government messages and communications (from those who feared immigration and for those at the sharp end of immigration control) and experiences of mistreatment by immigration control services, the idea that life-long British citizens, born in Britain of British parents, would feel their ability to stay in their country of citizenship was under threat was chilling. But this was just a sense of threat rather than a real threat – right?
What we are seeing now, and what has stemmed from legislation passed during our study (and, as we found, emerging from previous policies of both Labour and Conservative/Coalition governments) is that this is far from outlandish. In fact it has been happening to people for some time, but it is only very recently that this has been recognised as a problem more widely. Recognised to the extent that Bob Kerslake, someone who held one of the most senior roles in the civil service, was moved to compare the current situation to that of Nazi Germany.
Kerslake’s warning has of course been dismissed as extreme or ‘rather silly’ by people such as Nick Clegg. While Clegg may claim he was always against the hostile environment, and voted against some legislation, he continued in post as Deputy Prime Minister as his government introduced both the Go Home vans and the Immigration Act 2014, which provided the legal measures to back up the hostile environment. No-one is claiming that the current situation in the UK is the equivalent of the extremes of Nazi rule; the government is not systematically murdering people in their millions. But we do have indefinite detention of racialised groups of people. We do have a situation in which specific elements of participation in society – including the right to work and the right to rent housing – are being denied to groups of people. People are being removed from their country of citizenship without warning. Regulations to remove rights have been put in place in the full knowledge that the records that would have helped people to prove their citizenship had been destroyed. There is widespread uncertainty and fear. Members of society from all walks of life are being required to participate in restricting and regulating the rights of others, with penalties if they do not participate. There is certainly nothing silly about being seriously concerned about any of this.
We must not be distracted by Westminster politics from the real suffering caused by immigration control. But it is important to ask what has happened to democratic accountability when government ministers and the Prime Minister can claim that they were unaware of (and therefore not responsible for) actions taken under their authority. This is particularly worrying when the same politicians have presided over the removal of skills, expertise, autonomy and resources from front-line services and decision-makers. But we should also be concerned about how long it has taken for these abuses to reach widespread public attention – what has happened to the local investigative journalism that might have once held our democracy more closely to account by piecing together stories like this? What has happened to the national institutions of civil society that are seemingly unable to get attention from national media?
There is a seeming wilful ignorance which is perpetuated by statements such as that of Guy Verhofstadt that a ‘bureaucratic nightmare’ must be avoided for EU nationals in the UK, given the ‘warning’ of the Windrush scandal. Many EU nationals have been applying for British citizenship in the shadow of Brexit, and have already experienced the ‘bureaucratic nightmare’ of having to prove continuous residence and evidence of all exits and entries to the country over the last 5 years, in order to do so. This retrospective need to provide documentation without expecting it to be required is hard enough. Imagine having to do it as someone who had lived in the country for decades.
Britain invaded and colonised countries around the world. Later, it encouraged people from those countries – British subjects as a result of that colonisation – to come to work in Britain when labour was needed. Most were subject to ongoing racism, both structural and personal. In the intervening years, through hard-fought struggles, racism has become less acceptable; Britain began to accept itself as a nation of many ethnicities and cultures. But stronger equalities laws have not dismantled the underlying colonial logics at the heart of British society. As we found in the Mapping Immigration Controversy research, as in our everyday lives, belonging will always remain more fragile for those marginalised by historic processes of racialisation. Like the welfare state or the NHS, anti-racist progress is a struggle to build but much easier to dismantle.