There is a new Home Secretary in the aftermath of the crisis for the Windrush-era citizens. This should be an opportunity to fix a deeply, deeply broken immigration system. As Sajid Javid takes over, it is vital to be clear that the problems that led to the Windrush crisis were systemic ones: it is issues of policy, not personal leadership style or professional competence, that require urgent transformation. If the government response ends with replacing the Home Secretary, the rot of the hostile environment, and the wider context that enabled it, will continue to spread.
The systemic nature of the problem is abundantly clear from the letter that proved fatal to Amber Rudd, confirming that she was committed to enforced removal targets she had previously claimed to be unaware of. She was writing to the Prime Minister (and her predecessor as Home Secretary) to explain the structures she was putting in place from the perspective of shared “first principles”, those that the Home Office had long pursued. Furthermore, the Prime Minister presumably received this letter, and the planned removal targets went ahead, evidently with her approval; that’s the point. That’s why this letter is relevant to the Windrush-era citizens. It’s not because Amber Rudd personally supported removal targets – though she did – but because the government was committed to a policy of enforced removal targets, to which Windrush-era citizens fell victim.
Amber Rudd’s letter does give insight into the mind-set that fostered the policy, and the wider framework in which it is set – and can therefore help us work out what needs to change. Disturbingly, it reveals not only that removal has been an overriding priority for the Home Office, but that it is pursued without reference to other concerns, and whilst actively trying to circumvent any procedures that might bring those other concerns into view.
This approach is evident in the aim that Rudd intends to centralise, in line with previously agreed principles: “arresting, detaining, and forcibly removing illegal migrants.” There is no question here of examining migrants’ cases, histories, or lives. They are subject to arrest, detention and forcible removal simply for not having documents, and thus being dubbed “illegal”. The Windrush scandal has clearly revealed this to be a slippery category, the boundaries of which can shift as suddenly and arbitrarily as the swipe of a pen.
An even more egregious disregard for fair processes is found in the observation that “Clearly, the resumption of Detained Fast Track would be of significant help” in increasing the number of enforced removals. Let’s pause to remember what detained fast track was. It was a system by which asylum cases thought to be uncomplicated (normally easy to refuse) were rushed through in six weeks, during which claimants were detained. It was, and remains, suspended because the courts ruled that it didn’t allow a fair consideration of cases.
The government was forced to suspend detained fast track, but it has proceeded with other measures to make asylum and immigration cases as hard to fight as possible. Recent cuts in legal aid mean that, although asylum cases remain eligible, fewer legal aid solicitors offer asylum advice; consequently, those that do often don’t have time to devote rigorous attention to each case. The gruelling poverty and related social exclusion that those seeking asylum are forced to endure also make it hard to fight a case. Gathering documentary evidence from another continent, phoning your lawyer, travelling to appointments – all of these things cost money. Even when waiting for an initial decision, people are barred from working and must live off £37.75 a week; those initially refused are quickly left destitute. Since March 2015, fresh asylum claims must be lodged in person in Liverpool. This might be a prohibitively tall order if you have no money and live hundreds of miles away. Fundamentally the assessment system itself is pervaded by a notorious culture of disbelief.
It is telling that the former Home Secretary did not defend the fast-track system’s capacity to deliver justice in her letter – she wanted it reinstated merely because it would further the aim of removal. And indeed, her observation is accurate: rushing through people’s asylum cases without pausing to really consider the individual circumstances in sufficient detail would help to increase enforced removals. It would also add to the number of broken human lives. These are simply not a consideration. They are not a consideration because removing migrants without up to date documentation is considered an end in itself – and in fact one that trumps all others, to the extent that it is legitimate to shift the goal posts on documentation in order to achieve it.
If the Home Office is to learn the lessons of Windrush, it must cease to pursue removal as an end in itself. This will involve abandoning removal targets. But if it wants to do this in more than name, and to replace its aim of removing all who fall under an ever-widening circle of suspicion with an aim of assessing cases fairly, root and branch policy change is urgently needed.