Sue Lukes

A Hostile Environment

Sue Lukes
A Hostile Environment

MIGRANTS NOW LIVE IN A “HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT”, deliberately created by our government to deal with unwanted migration. The words were first used by Theresa May in 2012, when she was Home Secretary, and soon afterwards a Hostile Environment Working Group was set up. That generated legislation in 2014 and 2016, but it also underpins all sorts of tactics and approaches.

So, for example, deportations of EU citizens are at their highest since records began, with 5,301 EU nationals removed during the year ending June 2017, an increase of 20% on the previous 12 months. The number of EU citizens detained has increased sixfold since 2009. For the last couple of years, the Home Office has been deporting EU citizens found sleeping rough, even if they were working, even though European rules and UK law does not allow it. It stopped only when the courts finally intervened last December. The government knew it was illegal - it has not appealed the ruling.

More disturbingly, some major homelessness charities co-operated with identifying migrants for deportation and they were also repeatedly told that it was illegal as well as unethical, but preferred to go along with government in displaying hostility to people who had every right to be here.

The Home Office gets the details of 1,500 children a week given it by the Department of Education by agreement. What do parents do who fear they may be traced by this? They take their children out of school. The Department of Health has just been told to stop sharing people’s details with the Home Office. Why? Because it is an abuse of our rights to privacy, because it is a risk to public health, and most importantly, because it discourages vulnerable people from seeking treatment and leaves them in pain, in danger or dying.

This year 70 million bank accounts will be checked against Home Office databases and closed if the Home Office says the holders have no right to be in the UK. This is the same Home Office which in 2013 organised text messages to be sent to thousands of people telling them they were illegally in the UK and must go home. Many were sent to people with leave to remain, British citizens, indeed several British activists who had challenged the Home Offices policies. Was that a coincidence? Or the actions of a ministry that seeks to hide the fact that it is out of control by saying that it just makes mistakes?

Now there are a raft of cases that seem to show that the Home Office is targeting older and vulnerable people who have been legally settled for decades, who came to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, worked, paid taxes, had families, who have full legal rights to live here, but who have lost their documents. Some have been detained. All have been threatened with deportation. The hostile environment has reached our grandparents, uncles, neighbours.

In 2014 a law was passed that prohibited landlords from renting to anyone who does not have a “right to rent”, which is defined by immigration status. So a whole group of people were created who had no right to live anywhere. In 2016 the law was amended: now the Home Office can send a notice to the landlord saying the tenant is a disqualified occupier, and the landlord must then evict them or face criminal charges and possible imprisonment. Tenancy law has been rewritten to remove security of tenure from “disqualified occupiers” including those who may have lived there since before 1989.

So irrespective of the tenancy agreement you signed, the deposit you paid, the years you have lived there, if the Home Secretary decides that you no longer have the “right to rent” you lose all your tenancy rights and your landlord can evict you with 28 days notice and no court order or protection. Otherwise the landlord is committing a criminal offence.

When this bill was first discussed in Parliament, many thought it would lead to discrimination, and it has - not just against migrants but against black British people too. We thought it would lead to homelessness and it has. We were astonished that the government wanted to interfere so comprehensively with tenancy rights. These laws are now being challenged in the courts. But of course, the courts and the laws used to protect people’s rights are also under systematic attack from some politicians and journalists.

In April 1939, Nazi Germany passed new housing laws, preventing a Jew from invoking the protection of the tenancy laws, allowing a lease to be dissolved, where only one of the parties to it was a Jew, by the other party at any time within the legal term of giving notice, notwithstanding that the lease was signed for a specified time, or that the stipulated time of giving notice was longer than that fixed by law.

Our government is so set on creating a hostile environment that it has created Nuremberg laws to use against migrants.

In Germany, in the 1930s, a European democracy went bad little by little. There were violence and hate crimes, people were blamed and laws were passed - laws to exclude, to make the majority feel safer, to identify some people as different and less entitled to basic rights. And here in Britain some of that is happening too.

But we are not rushing headlong into fascism. There are those who want that, and those who seem happy to enable it, but there are also some terrific and maybe surprising things happening. A Manchester University professor analysed the results from several recent opinion surveys. People are routinely asked how important immigration is to them (because when they do see it as important in the UK it usually means they vote for anti-migrant parties). The share of the electorate spontaneously naming immigration as a top priority has fallen continuously since the Brexit vote. It is now at its lowest level since the financial crisis in 2008–9 and, if the fall continues, it will soon be at its lowest level since before 2004.

Other survey questions ask whether people think that immigration has a positive or negative effect, economically and culturally. There is a big, sustained jump in the share of positive responses.

Immigration optimists now significantly outnumber pessimists on the economic measure, while on the cultural measure optimists and pessimists are now balanced. Before Brexit, pessimists were the larger group on both measures. This shift in attitudes seems to be occurring across the political and social spectrum, and has largely happened with no comment from politicians, activists or the media. Why?

There is a parallel here with the ‘Corbyn phenomenon’ and also a connection. Across Europe and in the UK, cities, NGOs and volunteers have patiently worked to get people to work together across perceived boundaries to create better cities where we all feel welcome. The City of Sanctuary movement in the UK is one example.

Initiatives are often cheap and effective. One city mayor encouraged city centre shops to put up signs saying “You are welcome to practise your language skills here”. Result: migrants feel welcome in a hitherto largely unexplored centre, their language learning improves and so does their employability and integration; shops get more custom, everyone interacts. This is patient, quiet work, and maybe it is beginning to show up in the statistics. So in that sense, it is like the ‘Corbyn effect’: lots of people working to create a majority for hope and a better future.

But, of course, the change in attitudes to migrants may also be part of the ‘Corbyn effect’ - not so much because Corbyn and the shadow cabinet have been consistent in their commitment to anti-racism and in solidarity with migrants - although they have - but because people who are hopeful and active don’t need scapegoats.

If there is blame to be apportioned, Corbyn’s Labour is pretty clear. The blame for the destruction of our communities, the driving down of wages and our working conditions and the failure to keep us all safe and healthy does not lie with migrants, who suffer along with us.

It lies with the 1%, with the Carillions, the Virgin companies, the Capitas, the Lendleases and with the politicians and media who enable their looting of our resources. Responses to questions about their impact on our economic and cultural lives would be interesting.


Islington North CLP