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Hostile environment for asylum seekers – a look at neighbouring Ireland

Photo Credit: Mustak Ahmed

Can I see your passport? The man across the little window at the ticket booking counter asked me as I was taking out some cash to buy a return ticket for an inter-city travel in a Middle-eastern country. This was new to me. Having lived in the UK for a good number of years, I was not accustomed to presenting a passport on demand except at the airport. But things have changed at home over the years. In traditional sense, passports are for international travel. But it seems that the document has been given a new job role in the hostile environment created for ‘illegal immigrants’ – to prove their right to access basic needs.

The hostile environment is the combined effect of rules brought in place to make it so difficult for individuals without permission to stay in the UK that they either do not try to come here at the first place or leave voluntarily if they have already overstayed in the UK. The rules were clearly brought into force in a bid to fulfil the Conservative manifesto promise of reducing net migration to the UK to tens of thousands.

In her days as Home Secretary, Teresa May first used the phrase ‘hostile environment’ in the context of immigration in a 2012 interview with the Telegraph. The newspaper quoted her as saying:

The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration … What we don’t want is a situation where people think that they can come here and overstay because they’re able to access everything they need.

Subsequently, a host of proposals became law via the Immigration Act 2014, and were further cemented or expanded through Immigration Act 2016. These measures include restrictions on access to work, housing, health care and bank accounts. The rules also deprived individuals from holding a driving license which affected the ability of some (for example, minicab drivers) to work. According to Liberty, the Department for Education had initially required schools to collect the nationality and country of birth of children aged between 5 and 19 through the school census. The data-sharing arrangement between the Department of Education and Home Offce was only amended to remove nationality from the process in October 2016, after parents and campaigners raised concerns.

In its early days of conception, the plans were condemned by a former minister of Liberal Democrats, Sarah Teather as “unworkable, unjust, and nakedly political“.

Illegal entry and overstaying have been criminal offences since the Immigration Act 1971. As The Migration Observatory documents, the period between 1999 and 2009 witnessed the fastest and largest expansion of the list of immigration crimes since 1905. From 1999 to 2009 new legislation created 84 new immigration offences, more than double the number of offences that had been created since 1905. Recent laws, particularly the Immigration Act 2016, added further five different crimes and modified other, existing offences. The new host of rules merely shifts the responsibility of enforcing border controls from the state actors to private individuals and entities – people who are not trained to do the job and are likely to discriminate rather than get penalised through civil penalties and/or imprisonment, for breach of rules.

The recent Windrush scandal is a good case in point. Windrush generation are the people (and the children of) who arrived in the UK between 1948 and 1971 from Caribbean countries to address the post-war labour shortages. The reference comes from the ship MV Empire Windrush. Commonwealth citizens already living in the UK were granted Indefinite Leave to Remain in the 1971 Immigration Act. Many people never applied for travel documents as they never travelled outside the UK. At the time of

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enactment of the 1971 Act, the Home Office did not issue any document to confirm the status of the Windrush arrivals, who would have never realised that just a little over 45 years down the road, they will be asked to prove they are in the UK legally. To make things worse, the Home Office destroyed the landing cards belonging to Windrush migrants in 2010. As a by-product of the hostile environment, those without documents are now being told they need to prove their right to continue working, get treatment from the NHS – or even to remain in the UK.


A case from Ireland

Although there is no officially endorsed policy of hostile environment in the Republic of Ireland, I came across a Facebook post about a comparable ‘sad ending to a wonderful day’. The incident followed the ‘Celebration of world music and cultures of Cork’ held on 16 June, where a group of the royal Burundian drummers performed. After the event, the group was refused to stay overnight in Sheila’s Hostel where they had been reserved rooms by a friend. The receptionist asked for their passports which, as asylum seekers they did not have. Asylum seekers in Ireland (like most other places) are issued with a social services card which shows their photo and Personal Public Service number. The citizen information website says that the ‘identity is fully authenticated when [the card] is issued so you do not have to give the same information to multiple organisations’. Yet the hostel refused to let the performers stay and the band of drummers were accommodated by the kind organiser of the event, Roos Demol. Roos spoke to other guests of the hostel, who were English tourists, and was told that they were (as expected) never asked for a passport.

The inclusion office of Cork City has started a project to become a city of sanctuary, where all migrants, refugees and asylum seekers will feel safe and welcomed. I am part of the advocacy subgroup of this movement and in our first meeting last Saturday, the most pressing issue for the asylum seekers was the fact that they have no ID. Not only does it exclude them from anything where a passport is required, it also dehumanises them. We can’t be called a city of sanctuary if we lock people in open prisons and deny them any form of identification.

Roos Demol

One of the drummers and a co-organiser of the event who was refused service by the hostel is Norbert Nkengurutse. He is an engineer by profession and has been involved in a project with Roos Demol named International Community Dynamics. Talking about his plight as an asylum seeker, Norbert said that although he is involved in various organisations and comes from a very dangerous situation in Burundi, he has been waiting for over 30 months to be recognised as a refugee.

Photo Credit: Mustak Ahmed

He has been interviewed by the officials five times so far and every time he is asked the same questions (probably to establish credibility?) about the very traumatising events in his life. This long wait with a restrictive right to work and the constant re-traumatising by the officials amounts to mental torture. All Norbert and others in similar situation want is to be safe and bring their families to safety in Ireland.

For those on the receiving end of the endorsed or otherwise environment across the British Isles, everyday life can be a nightmare, especially where the person on the other end cares less about discriminating or is simply ignorant of the rules.

In the British context, the language used to define “harassment” at section 26 of the Equality Act 2010 has a stark resemblance but with a complete opposite practical effect:

(1) A person (A) harasses another (B) if—

(a) A engages in unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic [e.g. race/nationality], and

(b) the conduct has the purpose or effect of—

(ii) creating a intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for B.


It is genuinely astonishing that one piece of legislation prohibits creating hostile environment but at the same time the government ministers stay determined to create hostile environment which has statistically led to a wider risk of discrimination against legal foreign nationals and settled ethnic minorities.

The Irish equality legislation is also based on the principle that everyone has an equal right to participate in the society. Ireland-based human rights campaigner, Tehmina Kazi told ZaakbarLaw:

In the Irish context, hostels and other forms of accommodation are covered by the Equal Status Acts 2000 to 2015.  These prohibit discrimination in the provision of goods or services, including accommodation, in the nine grounds mentioned in Irish equality legislation.  One of these grounds – race – includes ‘race, colour, nationality or ethnic or national origins.’  Irish service providers need to be careful that their policies do not cause discrimination against service users on any of these grounds, whether said discrimination was intentional or unintentional.

Some five years down the road, the description of the whole regime by Sarah Teather proves to be true. It is unworkable because lay people are not trained to police our borders. It is unjust because it makes the already vulnerable classes of society even more vulnerable. And finally, it is politically naked because it condones in practice what it condemns at law.

About the author

Zahid Akbar

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