Painful reality of the hostile environment

Sophie Cartwright writes on the realities and impact of the hostile environment agenda.

16 February 2018

Those struggling to gain recognition as refugees must live in painfully difficult circumstances. Asylum seekers are barred from working and, after an initial asylum claim is refused, the very basic government support they have to live on is cut off. Many of those who have fled here for safety are made destitute, pushed into homelessness, and left with no way to meet their basic needs.

I say made destitute because this is not an accident. Were the vast human suffering to which many refugees are subjected in the UK a consequence of negligence, avoidable ignorance or incompetence, that would be bad enough. It would be worse still if it arose simply from a misguided attempt at money-saving, in which it was decided that these people did not matter and were not worth the minimal resources it might take to support them.  The reality is even darker than that. The destitution of ‘refused asylum seekers’ is a deliberate aim of government policy. There is a matrix of still-unfolding policy and legal measures that make it ever more difficult for undocumented migrants to meet their basic needs and criminalise many day-to-day activities for them. This is described by policy makers as the hostile environment agenda.

The hostile environment operates on several levels, so that undocumented migrants are increasingly trapped in a tightening web. On the one hand, it bars them from accessing the very things they need to survive. On the other, it seeks to exert maximal and unaccountable control over them: policies render it harder and harder for undocumented to gain recognition as refugees and hold out the continual threat of detention and removal into danger.

New legislation around NHS charging offers a good example. Those without formal residency status are charged for some NHS care. As of Autumn 2017, charging for non-urgent care – which could still be life-saving care – is upfront. This means that if you don’t pay, you don’t get treated. For someone with no source of income, this could turn out to be a death sentence. At the same time, unpaid bills for any urgent care are counted against attempts to regularise immigration status. Someone left destitute as they seek recognition as a refugee is left between a rock and a hard place if they have the misfortune to need medical care. This is particularly disturbing when one considers that extended destitution itself puts a massive strain on health.

Healthcare providers are also supposed to report their patients to the Home Office – a policy that is currently the subject of a tug of war. This is one of a range of McCarthyite measures that obliges service providers and private individuals to report on the immigration status of those with whom they come into contact. Banks must report on their clients, landlords on their tenants, and the DVLA on those applying for a driving license. Concurrently, a wide-range of activities are now considered criminal acts if, and only if, performed by undocumented migrants. It is now a criminal offence to work or drive without immigration documents. It is illegal for a private landlord to rent to someone without documents, and perhaps even to let that person live in privately rented accommodation as a friend or family member of tenants. More and more, there is nowhere for undocumented migrants to turn. It is hard for someone without immigration status to keep living whilst keeping on the right side of a set of arbitrary laws. And if they should be forced onto the wrong side of them, their chances of being granted leave to remain plummet – even in the facing of evidence that they are in dire need of international protection.

The hostile environment agenda is felt by the refugees that JRS UK accompanies, serves and advocates on behalf of.  Sign-up to receive JRS UK e-news updates to keep up to date with government policy changes and join us in advocating for refugees and asylum seekers in the UK – the subscription box is at the bottom of this page.

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Jesuit Refugee Service UK
The Hurtado Jesuit Centre
2 Chandler Street, London E1W 2QT

020 7488 7310

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