Migrants’ Rights Network: What is driving the ‘hostile environment’ idea (in the UK)?

by , under Don Flynn

By Don Flynn*

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The announcement of yet more changes to the immigration rules will cause anxiety to run down the spine of many a legal migrant as they struggle to understand whether it has implications for them.

The government has declared that the intention behind the new Immigration Bill currently being considered by Parliament is to create a ‘hostile environment’ for the people it describes as ‘illegal’.

There is a tendency to think of this group of people as being entirely distinct from the larger body of legal migrants, who live their lives in accordance with the rules and regulations and never come into contact with the ‘illegals’.

It was this thought which encouraged the view set out by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) a few weeks back in its ruling as to whether the wording of the posters on the ‘Go Home or Face Arrest Vans’ used by the Home Office Border Force as a part of its Operation Vaken exercise in the summer was likely to give rise to anxiety or offence to settled people of recent immigrant origin.

The ASA expressed the view that it would not, since the legal migrant knows that she lives an existence that is vastly removed from that of those who have chosen to break the law. The sight of one of these vans trundling down her local high street was not something that she ought to worry about at all.

But the truth is that many so-called legal migrants spend a great deal of time worrying that they might end up as illegal migrants, or at least (and this would be just as bad) that other people will think that they might be illegal migrants.

This happens precisely because the worlds of the ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ are not hermetically sealed off from one another but instead separated by a porous membrane of regulations which reach out and touch many aspects of everyday life, as well the big issues relating to border crossings and controls.

The truth is that migrants can become illegal for many reasons, including losing their jobs, or a row in the family that causes them to be excluded from the home. The precarious tightrope existence faced by many migrants means that their status often depends not just on their good behaviour, but on the conduct of family members, employers or college authorities.

The announcement of yet more changes to the immigration rules causes anxiety to run down the spine of many a legal migrant as they struggle to understand whether it has implications for them and if they ought to consider consulting a lawyer to double-check that they are still ‘legal’. Many will recall the HSMP Forum court case a few years ago, when a group of highly skilled migrants found themselves involved in expensive litigation with the Home Office after changes to the points-based system suddenly plunged them into an undesirable category.

Migrants can be denounced, traduced and trashed before the authorities for reasons that run from petty spite to outright racism. The Home Affairs Select Committee only last week expressed its concern that the Border Force didn’t seem to be doing enough to follow up tip-offs from members of the public who had phoned in to report a unwanted migrant in their neighbourhood. For all of these reasons and more, migrants will tell you that they often feel like they live in a suspicious society, with assessments made at every turn to establish whether they are the illegal immigrants we keep hearing about…

This is the reality of the ‘hostile environment’ that currently exists for migrants. It is a terrain of hidden crevices where one foot put wrong can send the individual into a world of uncertainty which can only be challenged by further rounds of legal representation, form-filling, evidence gathering, the payment of extortionately expensive fees and, if you are lucky, the opportunity to state your case before an independent immigration tribunal.

The Immigration Bill going through Parliament has to be condemned for the precise reason that it will make things worse, not just for the ‘illegals’, but for the much larger group of legal migrants who are already anxious that they might make an inadvertent slip and find themselves in a whole new world of insecurity.

The opportunity to ramp up the pressures on migrants will come from the increased involvement of yet more third parties – private landlords, bank staff, people issuing driving licences – in the business of checking immigration status. The facts that there will be many mistakes is an absolute certainty: the immigration officials now charged with this job make mistakes which run into the tens of thousands each year, so how can we expect a better standard of performance from other authorities even less well-equipped to properly interpret the immigration rules as they apply to individuals?

Perhaps the worst aspect of the Bill is the proposal to drastically reduce appeal rights against Home Office decisions on immigration applications. Poor decision-making is widespread amongst the immigration authorities, but at least those who can afford a decent solicitor to make their case against incompetence know that they currently have good chances of success. The latest figures show that up to 50% of appeals against Home Office decisions are supported by judges of the independent appeal authorities.

Will the Bill provide the government with the means to deter the types of immigrants who live outside the rules? We doubt it. The deterrence of illegal migration depends heavily on there being a common belief that the rules as they stand embody basic principles of justice, and that it is in the interests of the vast majority, including those subject to the rules, to uphold them.

The danger is that, with changes such as those in the Bill, the connections with fairness and justice are severed so that ever more migrants come to believe that the rules, rather than providing them with security, are intended to withhold precisely this from them and in its place offer a ‘hostile environment’. In this case we can be confident that more and more immigrants will steel themselves against such laws and their unfair effects, and learn instead how they might build resilience and survivability into the business of living and getting by in Britain.

If politicians are careless enough to allow that to happen, then rather than achieving better immigration management, we can expect instead to find ourselves living in an era of escalating loss of any semblance of control.

Read original story here.

This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.

*Don Flynn, the MRN Director, leads the organisation’s strategic development and coordinates MRN’s policy and project work. He is a regular and sought-after speaker at conferences, seminars and lectures on behalf of MRN.

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