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Tue 20 October 2020
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Sam Bright exposes the hostile environment hypocrisy of Priti Patel, who has in one week promised to learn from the Windrush scandal and threatened to imprison asylum seekers on a distant island

Asylum seekers. In the version of life constructed by the Home Office, these people are one of the greatest threats facing the UK in 2020.

Forget Coronavirus, an imminent economic catastrophe, or Russian interference in democracy. Forget even that markedly fewer asylum applications are now being made than in recent years. Vulnerable people bobbing across the Channel, risking their lives to flee war and seek sanctuary; this should be a principal concern of Her Majesty’s Government.

So, in recent days we have seen a flurry of leaks from Priti Patel’s department, pitching an array of new ideas for the detention of the world’s most desperate.

After consulting with former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the Government appears keen on the idea that asylum seekers should be confined to an offshore territory.

Abbott of course implemented a similar policy in his home country, overseeing the detention centre on Manus Island in northern Papua New Guinea. This policy led to the largest human rights payout in Australian legal history, after detainees successfully sued Abbott’s Government for $70 million plus costs. The legal representatives of the asylum seekers spelled out the systematic physical and sexual abuse they had suffered, including inadequate medical care, outbreaks of violence, high rates of suicide and self-harm.

Seemingly unperturbed by the prospect of a human rights catastrophe, Patel has ploughed on, with the leaks revealing policies she is or has been considering to “deal with” asylum seekers.

Idea 1

Detain asylum seekers on Ascension Island, a remote UK territory roughly 4,000 miles away from the British Isles, in the Atlantic Ocean.

Idea 2

Processing asylum seekers on disused ferries, that can house 1,400 people and cost roughly £6 million to purchase.

Idea 3

Moving asylum seekers to decommissioned oil platforms in the North Sea.

Idea 4

Attempting to deter dinghies from crossing the Channel by using pumps to generate waves in the water. Or by linking small boats together to form a barrier.

These policies create a clear image of the Home Office: a ruthless organisation willing to entertain extreme measures to punish people it considers “illegal” immigrants.

This depiction of Patel’s department is equally witnessed through its public statements, not just its half-baked policy leaks. The Home Office was recently forced to delete a tweet that took umbrage with “activist lawyers” for using the law to prevent asylum seekers from being deported, while Patel herself tweeted that “the British people” want Channel migrants to be returned to France.


Hostile Environment Hypocrisy

However, this fierce, anti-asylum rhetoric exists in a stark contrast to some of the department’s other work, seeking to rehabilitate the Home Office after the Windrush scandal.

In short, the Windrush scandal – exposed in 2018 – related to the wrongful detention and deportation of dozens of people from the UK, mainly to the Caribbean. These individuals had come to Britain before 1973 and didn’t need a passport or any documents to settle.

Without any proof of their right to reside in the UK, the Windrush Generation became victims of the Government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy – an expressed campaign from the Home Office to make life as difficult as possible for supposed illegal immigrants.

After a political scandal, leading to the resignation of Home Secretary Amber Rudd, the Government commissioned an independent report by Wendy Williams, a senior legal and justice official, to investigate the department’s failures and to make recommendations for future policy reforms.

This week, Patel presented her department’s response to the ‘Lessons Learned’ report, entitled ‘A Comprehensive Improvement Plan’. Within the plan, Patel details several commitments that are deeply at odds with her daily policies towards asylum seekers.

For example, her document pledges the Home Office will “[take] proper account of the complexity of citizens’ lives” in order to make the right decisions.

“When people interact with the department… they will receive a good customer experience rooted in respect, dignity and humanity,” the section continues.

“Respect” and “humanity” are certainly not words commonly-deployed to describe the Home Office, and especially not during its recent anti-asylum crusade.

Here are a few more sections from the report that seem to clash with the department’s public actions and policies.

“We will put in place systems and support to enable staff to make, evaluate and improve evidence-based policy that is thorough, rigorous and promotes equality.”

Dumping asylum seekers on an island 4,000 miles away can only ambitiously be described as “evidence-based”.

“We will work with experts from academia to develop a departmental UK history training programme for all Home Office staff. The programme will include content on Britain’s colonial history, the history of inward and outward migration to the UK, and the history of black Britons.”

The report also sets out the three new guiding “values” of the Home Office: collaboration, courage and compassion. The department seeks to be “honest, consistent and ethical, acting with humanity, care and sensitivity to build trust and confidence,” the document reads.

In this spirit, by 2021, the Home Office hopes to have established a board of young people, aged between 15 and 25, who have recently been through the immigration system. “We will learn from the experiences of this vulnerable group to ensure our services are working appropriately for all those who pass through our immigration system,” the Home Office says.

The report neglects to say that a large number of those bobbing across the Channel – that Patel has targeted with the full force of the state – are in this age bracket.

Priti Patel is trying to ride two horses at once. The Home Secretary is simultaneously seeking to atone for the historic crimes of the hostile environment, while spearheading a new campaign to hurriedly demonise and criminalise those legitimately seeking refuge in the UK.

As one of the leaders of the Brexit campaign, Patel knows how to get away with glaring contradictions and logic malfunctions. However, simultaneously apologising for the hostile environment while threatening to lock up asylum seekers on a prison island shows a different order of hypocrisy altogether.


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