‘Hostile environment’ has fostered racist practices across society, says IPPR

By agency reporter
September 9, 2020

The "devastating" impacts and failings of the government’s hostile environment policies show "systemic flaws" in the approach to immigration enforcement, according to a major study conducted by the IPPR think tank.

The report finds that the approach has failed to achieve its own stated objectives, whilst also inflicting undue suffering and having what its authors call "poisonous impacts" on society.

The cluster of policies are intended to encourage people living in the UK without immigration status to leave voluntarily by making it harder for them to get jobs, rent property, open bank accounts, and access welfare and other vital public services.

However, IPPR analysis of government data reveals that the number of voluntary returns which were independent of Home Office involvement has fallen considerably since 2014, when most of the policies were introduced. Around 12,000 more people without immigration status were independently voluntarily leaving the UK in 2012 than they were in 2018.

The report argues that inflicting significant hardship is inherent in the design of the approach. When implemented, the policies push people into poverty, facilitate discrimination against minority ethnic groups, erroneously impact those with legal status as with those of the Windrush generation, and risk public health and safety, according to IPPR.

The report emphasises that the hostile environment impacts far beyond just the targeted individuals. IPPR argues the policy has penetrated right across society and fostered racist practices by requiring ordinary, untrained citizens to police the measures. Employers, landlords, hospital workers and many other frontline workers are expected to carry out immigration checks, and in some cases share information with the Home Office, according to IPPR.

This shift of responsibility from officials to citizens can facilitate discrimination against people from minority ethnic backgrounds by leading to new forms of racial profiling, IPPR says.

The government has recently disassociated itself from the term ‘hostile environment’, opting now to call it the ‘compliant environment’, but IPPR’s review reveals that most policies that caused the Windrush scandal are still in place. The Home Office is in a state of ‘policy paralysis’ – in principle committed to the objectives of the hostile environment approach, but increasingly uncomfortable about its practical implications, according to the report.

Some of the key failings and damaging consequences of the hostile environment highlighted by the report include:

  • Work: Racial profiling of illegal work penalty investigations, targeting businesses owned by people of certain nationalities that officials “believed to be removable”. New analysis by IPPR of Home Office data reveals that in the last quarter of available data, around half of all fines for illegal employment of workers were levied on South Asian or Chinese restaurants and takeaways.
  • Renting: New forms of discrimination have been introduced to the private rental sector by the ‘right to rent’ scheme in England. A survey of more than 100 landlords in 2017 found around half were now less likely to consider letting to foreign nationals who originated outside the EU.
  • Welfare People without immigration status have been forced into destitution by restrictions on their access to benefits. There is evidence of malnutrition, cramped and substandard accommodation, and mental ill-health among undocumented migrant families unable to access public funds. The consequences of this were highlighted last month (August) by the death of young mother Mercy Baguma in Glasgow.
  • Healthcare: Charges for healthcare have deterred people from seeking treatment. One person interviewed said: “I was afraid to go to the hospital because I thought if I keep going, there will be more bills, but I still needed care from the hospital…I was told debt collectors would come to my house.” IPPR warns that COVID-19 is heightening the impact of the hostile environment. In one reported case, a cleaner originally from the Philippines and without immigration status died from the virus at home due to fears over coming forward for treatment.
  • Crime: Victims and witnesses of crimes are afraid to go to the police for help, because their immigration data can be passed on to the Home Office. In a recent study of 50 migrant women survivors of domestic violence in London, a quarter of respondents said that fears over deportation were a factor in deterring them from coming forward.

Although the Windrush Lessons Learned Review avoided describing the Home office as institutionally racist, people affected by the policy who were interviewed for this report argue otherwise. One said: “The hostile environment is rooted in institutionalised racism”. Another argued: “The hostile environment enables people to use prejudices and discrimination in a way that denies people from access to services.”

In light of the failings identified in the report, IPPR is calling for a fundamental reform of the Home Office and a complete reset of the UK’s approach towards undocumented migrants. In the next stage of the review, IPPR will propose reforms to the current system.

Amreen Qureshi, IPPR North Researcher and the report's lead author, said: “The hostile environment is a policy based on ideology, not evidence. Our report finds that it has forced people into destitution without encouraging them to leave the UK, highlighting both its poisonous impacts and its ineffectiveness. It doesn’t work for the Home Office, it doesn’t work for people without immigration status, and it doesn’t work for our society.

“Yet this policy continues to be implemented at the cost of human rights, human dignity and human life. Deep reform is called for, and this should start at the Home Office.”

Marley Morris, IPPR Associate Director who leads the think tank's work on migration policy and is a co-author, said: “Our review of the government’s hostile environment measures finds that it has endangered public health and safety, fostered racism and discrimination, and mistakenly affected many with legal permission to be in the UK – including of course many in the Windrush generation. Yet there is little evidence that this excessive policy is working on its own terms.

“We welcome the Home Secretary’s recent announcement that she will review the hostile environment measures individually and collectively in light of the Windrush scandal, and we urge her to consider fundamental reforms to immigration enforcement to address the inequities and injustices within the system.”

* Read Access Denied: The human impact of the hostile environment here

* Institute of Public Policy Research https://www.ippr.org/

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