Since 2012, it has been the aim of government immigration policy to create and uphold a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants coming into the UK. Theresa May herself used this term to describe the policies she and the Home Office were putting in place: “the aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.”
It’s a policy that has created increasingly difficult living conditions for all migrants coming to the UK, many who have already made long journeys to escape unthinkable situations. A recent report conducted by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in September 2020 found that the hostile environment policy has actually failed its main objective of increasing voluntary returns, and that it does not appear to be working for anyone: for migrants, for the Home Office, or for the wider public.” They also found it fostered racism, pushed people into destitution and wrongly targeted people living in the UK legally.
It’s a framework of policies with the goal of making immigration into this country as difficult as possible, in order to prevent people making the journey in the first place. This hostile environment has only strengthened over the years, with the increasingly restricted ‘safe’ routes, restrictions on the ability to work, and the widening of the Home Office’s remit into schools, hospitals and housing.
The extension of the Home Office’s power into other institutions, especially when it comes to access to data, cuts migrants off from accessing key public services, such as the NHS and the police, leading to people becoming isolated. It pushes people into unsafe working conditions, poor quality housing and dangerous situations.
It’s also what led to the Windrush Scandal, in 2017, where it emerged that hundreds of Commonwealth citizens had been wrongly detained, deported and denied their legal rights.
Home Secretary Priti Patel has attempted to push through a number of policies that would embolden the hostile environment in her time at the Home Office. In January, she tried to cut the current sentencing term required for the deportation of migrants from 12 months to 6 months. This policy isn’t particularly necessary because there are already mechanisms in place to deport people who persistently cause harm and receive shorter sentences. This would simply make automatic deportation easier, meaning that migrants convicted of minor offences, like the possession of cannabis, could be deported.
The government’s current immigration system is already restrictive and far reaching in its effects, but in late March the Home Office published plans for the overhaul of the current immigration system in their ‘New Plan for Immigration’. It’s mainly related to changes in the asylum process and people who enter the UK ‘illegally’, with the “intention to build a fair but firm asylum and illegal migration system.”
‘Safe and legal arrivals’ are rewarded and those entering ‘illegally’ punished
These changes would likely affect the majority of refugees and asylum seekers coming to the UK. Under the new plans, the method in which a person enters the country will now have an impact on their claim, effectively creating a two-tier system. Only people arriving via an ‘official’ route will ever be given the right to settle in the UK.
Those arriving via ‘official’ routes could be given indefinite leave to remain, rather than what they would be given now, which is five years’ temporary permission and then indefinite leave to remain after that. But those arriving via ‘illegal’ routes would face fewer rights than they have now.
Anyone arriving in the UK via a safe third country, like France, would have their asylum claim refused and they’d be returned to the EU or the developed country they came through. Legislation would also be changed so that people can be removed despite having a pending claim with the Home Office.
The proposed plan would also mean refugees and asylum seekers who entered the country illegally, but had their application accepted, would now be regularly reassessed for removal. This will create an insecure immigration status which could have even further implications for employment, housing and wellbeing. There would also be limited rights to family reunion and access to benefits.
‘Streamlining’ asylum claims and appeals
The plan also includes a number of new elements to how asylum claims and appeals are processed and heard by the courts in an attempt to simplify the process according to the Home Office. The New Plan report details that the Home Office is “seeing repeated unmeritorious claims” and that “justice is being delayed”. In the current system, if an asylum claim is rejected anywhere in the process, that person has an automatic right to appeal. They can also call for a judicial review of a Home Office decision.
Two main features for the system are proposed, the ‘one-stop’ process and the ‘good faith’ requirement. The ‘one-stop’ process would require people to raise any and all protection-related issues upfront and have them all considered together in one court hearing. This would include grounds for asylum, human rights or a victim of modern slavery referral. The ‘good faith’ requirement would expect migrants to “act in good faith at all times”, and where they do not, then this could negatively impact their asylum claim.
In response to the New Plan, civil liberties advocacy group Liberty states that these new elements to the asylum claims system place the blame on claimants and ignore the fact that migrants have the right to challenge incorrect and harmful decisions.
They note that the ‘good faith’ requirement implies that asylum seekers are inherently deceitful and that they’re intentionally frustrating their own removal. This is especially the case when you look at how victims of modern slavery and trafficking would have to disclose their status in the first instance, because of the ‘one-stop’ process, otherwise they would be viewed as acting dishonestly.
A large number of migrant rights organisations have publicly voiced their concerns regarding this reform to the current immigration system. Last month, a group of Sheffield-based organisations sent an open letter to MPs opposing these proposed changes, calling them ‘inhumane’ and ‘unworkable’.
The New Plan for Immigration proposal is currently in the public feedback phase, where the feedback submitted is now being analysed.