‘Trapped in a tightening web’

Sophie Cartwright writes on the realities for those trapped by the hostile environment agenda

08 March 2019

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 matrix was described by policy makers as the hostile environment agenda. The phrase “compliance environment” is also sometimes used – this is hostility with the end of securing compliance, the argument goes. Following the Windrush scandal, in which the inhumanity of the hostile environment was exposed in a new way to the general public, this alternative terminology has been pushed. The underlying policy remains the same: to make life unbearable for those without immigration documents, including those refused asylum via a notoriously arbitrary system.

The hostile, or compliance, 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.

Recent 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.

A range of McCarthyite measures that oblige service providers and private individuals to report on the immigration status of those with whom they come into contact are caught in a tug of war. The DVLA must report on those applying for a driving license. Landlords are obliged to report on tenants – a move the High Court has recently declared unlawful. 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. 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 face of evidence that they are in dire need of international protection.


JRS UK accompanies, serves and advocates on behalf of refugees and those seeking asylum who find themselves trapped in this matrix of the hostile environment agenda. Sign up to receive regular e-updates from JRS UK to keep up to date with government policy changes and join us in advocating for refugees and asylum seekers in the UK.

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Jesuit Refugee Service UK
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