“A hostile environment [for] irregular immigrants, is in effect, a hostile environment for all racial and ethnic communities and individuals in the UK,” asserted Tendayi Achiume, the UN Special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance, in the concluding remarks of her mission to the UK. Over the course of Achiume’s eleven-day mission, she met with a vast array of government and civil society groups across the United Kingdom, in order to assess the government’s handling of issues related to racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia.
The special rapporteur touched ground in the UK only two weeks after former Home Secretary Amber Rudd was replaced by Sajid Javid, as a result of the Windrush Scandal, in which it was revealed that thousands of Commonwealth citizens who migrated to the UK before 1973 have been made vulnerable to deportation because the documents that proved their legal status had been destroyed by the home office. The Windrush Scandal lead to public uproar, and an increased scrutiny of Home Department actions. Achiume’s preliminary findings have shed light on the tendency of the “Hostile Environment” policy to exacerbate discrimination against immigrants and minorities within the UK.
The “Hostile Environment” policy is a series of laws and administrative decisions, most notably the 2006-2016 Immigration Acts, under which landlords, schools, charities, the NHS, and other service providers have been endowed with the obligation to check their clients’ immigration status before allowing access to services. A 9 February 2018 Home Affairs Committee report asserts that the aim of such policies is to “mak[e] it so difficult to live unlawfully in the UK that those here illegally will leave and those seeking to come without permission will be deterred from doing so”. However, these policies have been widely criticised for being ineffective and wrought with legal uncertainty, while also fostering a culture of suspicion and hostility towards minorities and immigrants.
In addition to Achiume’s condemnation of the Hostile Environment policy, a number of charities and civil society groups have raised legal challenges to various home department actions under the “hostile environment” approach – the Migrant’s Rights Network is currently campaigning to subject the data-sharing agreement between the NHS and the Home Office to judicial review proceedings. Furthermore, a group of over 60 MPs submitted a letter to the Home Office in December 2017, in which they criticised the policies for their legal uncertainty, and tendency to instigate prejudice against immigrants and minorities. In addition, Hugh Muir, associate editor of The Guardian, likewise condemned the Windrush Scandal and hostile environment policies in a series of op-eds, calling them prime examples of institutionalised racism.
The Home Office’s decision to endow private citizens with the duty to enforce immigration policies has resulted in direct and indirect discrimination against immigrants and minorities throughout the UK. Achiume referenced a study which found that over half of surveyed landlords expressed a reluctance to rent to non-British tenants, and a University of Warwick study on the Home Office’s “go home” campaign which found that the UK’s general public tends to conflate immigrants regardless of legal status, as well as minorities, so that the discriminatory impact of the Hostile Environment policy is felt by all of the aforementioned groups.
Alongside the Hostile Environment policies, the UK has seen a “noticeable shift” in “the acceptability of explicit racial, ethnic, and religious intolerance” since the Brexit referendum, according to Achiume, and it has become more commonplace to hear the vilification of immigrants, ethnic minorities, and Muslims from the mouths of the political elite and mainstream media since the beginning of the “vote leave” campaigns. Furthermore, it was widely reported that there was a notable increase in hate crimes after the referendum. The combined effect of these events has created a United Kingdom that is less welcoming to newcomers and more dangerous for anyone who does not fit the “British” status quo. Such a trend could prove dangerous if not corrected, and Westminster need only to look at Northern Ireland 20 years ago for a reminder of the disastrous and tragic impact that the alienation and marginalisation of a minority group can have upon a society.
That being said, there is ample room for hope that the current situation in the UK will not take a turn for the worse. Achiume applauded the UK and its Race Disparity Audit (RDA), which sheds a light on the impact of various different policies on different ethnic groups across the country. She urged the government to apply these findings in order to create a systemic approach for eliminating disparities. She also urged an overhaul of the Hostile Environment policy, and the government opposition has already vowed to put an end to the Hostile Environment.
Additionally, the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission issued a 11 May response to the UN Rapporteur’s statement, in which the Commission urged the government to adopt a more rigorous approach to racial equality, beginning with setting specific equality objectives for public authorities. Moving forward, the government needs to strongly condemn instances of bigotry and hate speech among public officials and the media, in order to create an inclusive environment which celebrates Britain’s diversity as opposed to a hostile one.