May 2012. Two years into her role as Home Secretary, Theresa May announces her plans for a ‘Hostile Environment’, a set of policies that would ultimately go on to shape the experiences and identity of my adolescent years.
So what is it really? The Hostile Environment is commonly used to describe all policies which make life difficult for migrants living in the UK – treating them as less deserving of dignity and humanity than British citizens. (JCWI) More specifically, it is a set of policies introduced in 2012 by then Home Secretary Theresa May with the aim of making life unbearably difficult for those who cannot show the right paperwork. In reality, the brutal policies have been deemed ‘unlawful and discriminatory’ by EHRC and prevent people from accessing safe housing, healthcare, work and bank accounts. It has now been rebranded as the ‘Complaint Environment’.
Talking about immigration is not something revolutionary, especially after years of intensifying anti-immigrant rhetoric which has come to a climax during the Brexit era and is demonstrated by voyeuristic and xenophobic coverage of migrants trying to cross the channel this summer. I wanted to discuss this topic because in the last 8 years, the debate has yet to reflect the realities of those who navigate the UK’s complex immigration system and the effects of policies on their everyday lives.
The first aspect that is not discussed clearly is the high financial costs extracted on those who exist in the system. Currently, the immigration and nationality fees are exorbitant and legal aid is difficult to access, leaving people at the mercy of destitution and exploitation. The cost for the Leave to Remain application is £1,033 and indefinite leave to remain is £2,389. On top of applying for your Leave to Remain, you pay the NHS Health Surcharge which is £400 based on the amount of leave on your visa. If you have any dependants they will also have to pay the charge. So, for example, if you are a family of 4 who is applying for Leave to Remain for 2 years you pay a total of £7332 for every 2 years. This does not count the cost of lawyer fees, which are not a feasible option for everyone. If you were a refugee who lives on £5 a day with no access to any other help or a working-class migrant, could you afford to pay this every 2 years? The cost of it all can shape your whole life and trap you in a cycle of debt unable to move forward.
The human cost of the Hostile Environment is rarely touched upon in the media either. There are high emotional and mental costs of navigating a system that is unfairly designed to make your life harder, to make you want to pack up your bags and leave. You feel powerless, lost inside a complex maze where your fate is left in the hands of the caseworker who picks up your file and drained by the consistent uncertainty and instability while your claim is being processed.
The Independent’s article about the devastation caused by Hostile Environment poignantly illustrates the ‘true scale of pain inflicted’ through individuals’ personal accounts. Finnish historian Eva Holmberg, who was one of around 100 EU nationals mistakenly informed by the Home Office that they were to be deported from the UK, comments: ‘It is probably difficult for British people to understand how much emotional energy it takes for people to fight what must seem to them random deportation cases but were actually logical and intended outcomes of the hostile environment.’
The Covid-19 pandemic has further demonstrated the inequalities caused by the Hostile Environment approach as migrants are too afraid to seek out healthcare for fears of being reported to the Home Office, or migrants without safety nets of government support due to the impact of having No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) are facing homelessness and poverty.
There is little to no evidence that the Hostile Environment actually works and the available data does not show an increase in either enforced or voluntary return and instead, has helped to foster racism and discrimination. We need more accessible and affordable routes to status and a system where the humanity of individuals are recognised with compassion and understanding of the reasons that people with less privilege migrate.