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
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.
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.