It was stirring that in her resignation speech Theresa May paid tribute to Sir Nicholas Winton, our very own “British Schindler” who rescued hundreds of child refugees from the Nazis. But it was also galling. Because if there is one thing May will be remembered for beyond Brexit, it is the toxic “hostile environment” that destroyed the lives and families of so many migrants up and down this country.
As the longest serving home secretary in modern times, May fought doggedly to stop child refugees reaching our shores from Europe. Invoking Sir Nicholas during her valedictory address was therefore “quite wrong, and a bit of an abuse”, as our patron Lord Dubs, who was saved himself by Sir Nicholas’ kindertransport operation, points out.
This cruelty towards lone child refugees was just the tip of the iceberg of May’s deep obsession with keeping immigrants out of Britain. Her notorious “go home” vans achieved next to nothing, except the stoking of hatred and fear in communities and a reputation for May as the handmaiden to far-right extremists. Doctors and landlords resented her measures to forcibly conscript them into her immigration enforcement machine.
May also damaged the Home Office, perhaps beyond repair. Its credibility in operating a fair and effective immigration system is in tatters since the Windrush scandal. Her successor as home secretary, Amber Rudd, put her finger on it when she said the Home Office “sometimes loses sight of the individual”. Rudd paid for this honesty with her job in circumstances that left a strong impression that the department had become a law unto itself.
It was not just the Windrush generation who suffered from this institutional rot fostered by May. Inhumanity pervades every corner of the immigration system. Sajid Javid, the current home secretary, announced a review to ensure that this injustice “doesn’t happen to any other group”. But as I and 35 other human rights, refugee and faith leaders, including former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, told him via an open letter last year, this is happening every day to people seeking safety here from persecution.
Every year Freedom from Torture helps many hundreds of people who have survived torture to heal and rebuild their lives in the UK. We watch in despair as survivors are accused by the Home Office of lying, even when they present voluminous medical evidence prepared by our specialist doctors in accordance with international standards set out in the Istanbul Protocol. Too often this evidence is rejected on spurious bases, including referring to the view of case workers, who have no medical qualifications, on complex forensic matters. In recent years this has even included speculation that asylum seekers are having scars inflicted purposefully in order to fabricate asylum claims, an approach that was blown out of the water recently by the Supreme Court. In the very worst cases, according to a recent whistleblower, the Home Office does not even look at our reports but instead shoves them in cupboards in the rush to bundle people on planes.
So much of this dreadful practice is traceable to the policies and tone set by Theresa May. Her insistence that net migration had to be brought down to “tens of thousands” sent the Home Office into a frenzy of refusing applications and detaining and removing countless people with a clear entitlement to remain in this country.
It is just as well that May has vacated Number 10 before Wendy Williams releases her report into the “lessons learned” from the Windrush debacle. Now that she is gone, Javid, or whoever replaces him as home secretary, will be freer to support those in the Home Office who understand how badly things have gone. They will hopefully drive the much-needed root and branch reform that is the only way to excise her ghost from the corridors and deliver an immigration system that is fair and compassionate, in the spirit of true heroes like Sir Nicholas.
Sonya Sceats is the CEO of Freedom from Torture, which provides therapy and support for survivors of torture
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