The government has no intention of ending the hostile environment – as an immigration lawyer, this is how I know

Britain cannot continue holding itself as a liberal, rights-respecting country while forcing migrants to navigate this cruel, rights-infringing system, writes Stephen Tawiah

Friday 01 May 2020 11:17 BST
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An asylum seeker receives emergency food at a Red Cross centre in east London, 23 April, 2020
An asylum seeker receives emergency food at a Red Cross centre in east London, 23 April, 2020 (EPA-EFE)

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Last week, the Court of Appeal reached a decision that would probably leave most people scratching their heads. It certainly left lawyers like me scratching theirs. The Court was tasked with deciding whether a key plank of the “hostile environment” – the “right to rent” scheme – is unlawful on the basis that it causes landlords to indirectly discriminate against black people, ethnic minorities and migrants in the housing market. In short, the Court ruled: it does cause discrimination, but the scheme is justified. It left me wondering: what is it going to take to bring down the hostile environment?

The right to rent scheme, laid out in sections 20-37 of the Immigration Act 2014, requires landlords to check the immigration status of current and prospective tenants, failure to do so can lead to a fine or imprisonment. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), the organisation which brought the challenge to this policy, has confirmed that it will seek to appeal the judgment in the Supreme Court. I hope the Supreme Court will overturn this decision.

You only have to spend five minutes in any immigration tribunal in the UK to see how bad the hostile environment is. An assumption that many tend to make is that its ambit ceases at the doors of our courtrooms. Courts are looked upon as bastions of fairness and justice. A place where the little man can contend with the giant on a level playing field. In reality, the hostile environment is the only playing field available to some.

For instance, one of its key pillars is the “culture of disbelief”. Migrants have to prove every aspect of their life in the UK. Required to provide copious amounts of documents in court, their word is never enough. As such, a defining theme of the hostile environment is how it drives people underground. Migrants are scared to interact with public services like the NHS because it could lead to the ultimate consequence: removal from the UK. If you’re targeted by the hostile environment, it comes at you from all angles.

Hypocrisy is at the heart of this policy. Politicians talk tough on ending “low-skilled” migration for purely political ends, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. But it turns out “low-skilled” actually means “key worker”. These are the people critical to keeping this country on its feet; and we all know it. Why else would British farmers fly in fruit and veg pickers from Romania on charter flights? Why would Boris Johnson praise immigrant NHS workers for standing by his bedside “when things could have gone either way”?

Despite this, the government continues to charge ahead with the hostile environment. And it has had a devastating effect. Asylum seekers, scared about engaging with the NHS due to the potential implications for their status in the UK, have died after contracting Covid-19. A fellow lawyer told me about one of her clients who literally had to be forced into hospital when his body clearly could no longer cope with the virus. He is currently recovering. It saddens me to know that his biggest concern at this time will not be his health, it’s his immigration status.

The lockdown is forcing some of the most vulnerable to make decisions no one should have to. It is also helping the Home Office to divert attention away from its failures. The “Byzantine” procedures of the hostile environment act like tripwires and have left vulnerable destitute asylum seekers desperate for support from the Home Office, at the height of the pandemic. This disgraceful situation isn’t getting the necessary scrutiny and attention as the lockdown continues to dominate the headlines. Immigration lawyers are all too aware that the rights of people who come to this country are at greatest risk in times of upheaval.

Though I’d been aware of it, the hypocrisy of this system became clearer to me during my annual Christmas visit to Ghana last year. I bumped into a childhood friend that I hadn’t seen for more than 10 years. We both grew up in Tottenham and played football for the same local Sunday league team. Sadly, he wasn’t just in Ghana for a visit. He had actually been deported there from the UK two years prior following a period in prison. He couldn’t understand how he was removed from the country he moved to as a young child. Britain was his home. He said that if you’re not a British citizen and commit a crime they doubly punish you: prison and deportation. I guess the hostile environment thinks that crime is alien to British culture. I would love to introduce it to Britain’s imperial past.

Steve Double asks the Home Secretary to consider review of her new immigration policy

Britain cannot continue holding itself out as a liberal, rights-respecting country and then force migrants to navigate this cruel, rights-infringing system. There is more than enough evidence of the inhumane and discriminatory character of this system. The latest is the Wendy Williams’ Windrush Lessons Learned review, which calls out the Home Office for showing “ignorance and thoughtlessness” on the issues of race, and for the expansion of the hostile environment done with “complete disregard for the Windrush generation”. This review, along with the over 1000 cases yet to be considered, should not be buried. How will people like me ever be fully British, when Britain makes the lives of people, like my childhood friend, so unbearable for political gain?

The truth is that in a coronavirus and post-Brexit age, Britain can no longer afford to treat people who settle in this country in such a degrading manner. As we are now seeing due to this pandemic, these are the people who keep this country going. The hypocrisy needs to end. The first step to doing so is to end the hostile environment; for good.

Stephen Tawiah is a barrister at 10 Kings Bench Walk. He practices immigration, civil and family law

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