Responding to the hostile environment policy

CTBI’s Churches’ Refugee Network met last week and among a number of other topics, the attendees discussed the UK government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy and the recent U-turn on the deportation of the Windrush generation. Revd Fleur Houston – author of the book You Shall Love the Stranger as Yourself (Biblical Challenges in the Contemporary World) – penned this response which reflects the views of the wider Churches’ Refugee Network.

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Faced with the recent harrowing stories of individuals living in the UK for decades who are British in all but legal status, we welcome the government’s determination to resolve this situation “with urgency and purpose”.

However, the groundswell of public disquiet over the unjust treatment of the Windrush generation and those who came from other parts of the Commonwealth should not be allowed to mask the wider implications of the ‘hostile environment’ created by successive UK governments and fostered by the incremental inequities of the Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016.

The impact of these has been devastating, not just for those who suffer from a lack of immigration status, but also for society as a whole. It is wrong to try to manage the crisis simplistically by dividing the Windrush generation from so-called ‘illegals’ (a term which encompasses many who have been wrongly judged ‘illegal’).

  • How are landlords support to check on the immigration status of those who are seeking accommodation. Few have the expertise to assess the variety of documents, other than a British passport, which prove entitlement. Threatened with heavy fines, landlords may undertake damaging racial or ethnic profiling, potentially discriminating against those who do have citizenship but whose appearance puts them at risk.
  • The cruelly inhumane family reunion clauses put severe strain on the family life of many British citizens and those who are settled in the UK. The income bar effectively prevents many spouses and children from joining their families. For elderly relatives, this is virtually impossible. These clauses privilege those who are better-off against many who are lower paid.
  • The immigration and nationality fees, already extortionate, have recently been raised in many categories by double the rate of inflation. The health surcharge has doubled and the charge for UK settlement applications continues to rise. These are severe disincentives to employers who may wish to hire staff from outside the EEA. There is a gross disparity between these rates and the actual cost of the services involved: people are being exploited for financial reasons.
  • The evisceration of appeal rights shows a trend to coercive justice where certain groups of people are disproportionally affected. Those who seek asylum in the UK suffer from cutbacks in legal provision. Yet without sound legal advice and without legal aid, few can negotiate the system.
  • Wrongly described as ‘illegals’ owing to a lack of documentation, refugees are frequently accused of being ‘bogus’. Decisions by Immigration Tribunals are regularly based on an assessment of credibility by the adjudicator. The subjectivity of this approach is all too evident: around 50% of initial refusals are overturned on appeal but there are costs, human and financial.
  • Although the sharing of NHS data with the Home Office as a check on immigration status has now been suspended, employers, bank staff and the DVLA are compelled to seek evidence of an applicant’s immigration status before granting services.
  • Those who have exhausted their rights of appeal but are unable – either because of fear or lack of documentation – to return to their country of origin remain here, destitute, unable to work, with no home or food. Some only survive in the shadow economy.

Migration is here to stay. Migrants are part of our shared humanity: where they are treated with inhumanity, we are all demeaned. We understand that God has a special concern for the alien and stranger, those who come among us as brothers and sisters with the right to dignity and respect.

As representatives of the Christian churches in the UK, we are called to resist inhumanity and injustice and in the interests of a fairer and more equal society, we call for an independent commission to review immigration policy and practice.

The matter is urgent. Exit from the European Union will produce an unmanageable workload of applications from the three million EU citizens remaining in the UK, many of whom will face similar difficulties.