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Thu 22 October 2020
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The Home Secretary’s recent actions suggest that her department is nowhere close to dismantling the ‘Hostile Environment’

In 2017, the Government considered forcing school nurses to deny treatment to migrant children if they were not entitled to free NHS care.

The plans, which were part of new health charging rules that were introduced that year, were slammed by charities who said that that policy would turn the nurses into border guards.

That same year, a woman who reported being kidnapped and raped to the police was herself arrested over her immigration status while still inside the sexual assault clinic she had been taken to to be checked over. 

At the time, a whole package of new rules had been brought in as part of Theresa May’s determination to create a “hostile environment” for undocumented migrants. Warning after warning of the harm these policies would cause were ignored.

Then the Windrush Scandal hit in 2018.

It emerged that dozens of people from the UK – who had spent almost their entire lives in the country – had been subject to wrongful detention and deportation, mainly to the Caribbean. These individuals had come to Britain before 1973 and didn’t need a passport or any documents to settle. But, without any proof of their right to reside in the UK, the Windrush Generation fell victim to the Government’s Hostile Environment.

Although initially dismissive of the cases being raised, pressure grew and the Government finally had to respond, with ministers promising that lessons would be learned. 

Indeed, as recently as July, the Home Secretary Priti Patel promised a review of the Hostile Environment following the scandal. In a statement in the House of Commons, she said: “We are consulting external experts, community organisations and the very people the Home Office has failed in the past… we are embracing the need to change our culture across the board.”

Yet, we now know that her plan to reform the UK’s asylum policy included looking at options which emulate the island policy adopted by countries such as Australia. The poor conditions and human rights abuses in the camps operated in Papua New Guinea and Nauru have led to the deaths of at least 12 people in the past eight years. 

A similarly shocking proposal was to revive prison ships – not used in nearly 15 years in the UK. It is an idea described by the former civil servant Sir David Normington as both expensive and difficult to do in practice.

Patel’s recent considerations hardly seem like the actions of a Government department that has recognised its failings and is committed to people avoiding similar hardship in the future.


Attacking ‘Do-Gooders’

Instead, the sabre-rattling from the Home Office raises the possibility of a new wave of anti-immigration policies beyond the Hostile Environment created by Theresa May. 

Papers show that these policies, including immigration checks in housing, are likely to be in place until at least 2022.

A recent report by the Institution for Public Policy Research outlined the longer-term effects of the Hostile Environment, including increased racial profiling across employment and welfare, deterring people from healthcare and reporting crimes, and a higher risk of destitution. 

Minnie Rahman, campaign manager at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, told Byline Times that Priti Patel’s behaviour shows how far the Home Secretary is from learning the lessons of the Windrush Scandal and building the “compassionate” Home Office she claimed she would.

“Priti Patel recently said the current asylum system is broken – and we agree,” Rahman said. “Recently we’ve seen vulnerable asylum seekers deported to Spain where they’ve faced destitution, we’ve seen child asylum seekers held in detention facilities and we’ve seen Patel exploring cruel and farcical ways to ship people claiming asylum thousands of miles away.

“Instead of dreaming up diabolical ways to deter vulnerable people from seeking sanctuary, Priti Patel would do well to listen to the evidence and radically reform our immigration system. This means implementing policy-making based on evidence and the rule of law; an overhaul of Home Office systems and training to eradicate racism; and more safe and legal routes for those claiming asylum, so that people do not risk death in their quest to reach safety.”

The Home Office has also decided to attack the legal professionals representing asylum seekers. Patel’s recent comments at the Conservative Party Conference – which sounded like they could have been spoken by US President Donald Trump – have been widely criticised. 

“As for those defending the broken system – the traffickers, the do-gooders, the leftie lawyers, the Labour Party – they are defending the indefensible,” she said – as if lawyers and the Opposition are in the same category as human traffickers.

On the issue of the asylum seekers themselves, she described a scenario in which people were “shopping around” for where to claim asylum. 

Sonia Lenegan, legal director at the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, told Byline Times that Patel’s choice of language undermines any promises made about lessons being learned.

“Using terms such as ‘abuse’ and ‘shopping around’ towards those people legitimately seeking protection from the UK, and attacking the lawyers doing their best to ensure that people can access their rights, completely undermines anything that the Home Office says about having learned any lessons from the Windrush scandal,” she said.

“The Home Office has said that they are leading a programme of major cultural change which will be led by Permanent Secretaries starting in January 2021. However it is difficult to see where this new approach is going to come from given the rhetoric that has been used by the Home Secretary and supported by the Prime Minister.”

With harmful ideas and rhetoric being vocalised by the Home Office, it is clear why those working alongside immigrants and asylum seekers have little faith that things will improve. If this is a department truly determined to overhaul its culture, where is the evidence of this?

Talk is easy but proper change takes commitment and a real understanding of how things have gone wrong – neither of which have been shown by Priti Patel’s recent actions. 


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