The Hostile Environment Immigration policy is intentionally cruel, inhumane and degrading. The breach of Public Sector Equality Duty is just the tip of the iceberg.

25 November 2020
Zrinka Bralo

The UK’s Hostile Environment immigration policy is unlawful, and is in breach of Public Sector Equality duty, says a report published today by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. 

To us, this is not news. Migrants and refugees have long felt the impact of the vicious system, the hateful and misleading public discourse, and hostile immigration policies. 

What does the report tell us? 

The report is an investigation into the damage done to the Windrush generation and it comes after the years of suffering, exposed by investigative journalists, as well as after the resignation of the then Home Secretary Amber Rudd in 2018 and another report into the systemic failure of the Windrush Scandal earlier in 2020. 

The EHRC is playing it safe and limiting its report to the Windrush Scandal – ignoring the hundreds of thousands of others at the sharp end of these policies. The report goes out of its way to repeatedly state that the Macpherson definition of institutional racism is not a ‘legal concept’, despite the fact that it led to the 2000 Race Relations (Amendment) Act, which extended protection of the law to the victims of discrimination by public bodies for the first time, and placed a duty on public bodies to promote equality of opportunity and good race relations.

Unsurprisingly, the framing of this report, as much of the government’s rhetoric is all about ‘unintended consequences’ of the Hostile Environment policy. The same defence we heard from the Home Secretary about ‘unintentional’ bullying of people she works with. 

On the page 18 the report states:

“This lack of understanding, which was compounded by limited levels of institutional memory, meant the department was ill-equipped to anticipate the implications of hostile environment policies for members of the Windrush generation who, as the Home Office now accepts, were entitled to be in the UK. Many were British citizens who were often unable to provide documents to prove this due to the specific historical circumstances in which they arrived in this country.”

It is well documented that as Home Secretary and Prime Minister Theresa May made a political capital out of Hostile Environment policy. In 2017 she promised to ‘tear up human rights’ so unintentionality is not going to work as a defence. 

Although, the EHRC report recognises that policies do not exists in vacuum, it fails to address the historical and political context and the impact of the Hostile Environment not only on all other groups of people persecuted by it, but also the impact and the damage it had on people and institutions who were forced, against their professional ethics, and against the equalities law, to deny life saving treatment or basic welfare support for people who could not prove their status. We know from our work on the Patients Not Passports campaign, from many healthcare workers organised in Docs Not Cops campaigning group, that many hospital trusts struggle with pressures to charge or not treat people, and in the process of checking their status many were forced to racial profiling of patients. 

The failure to assess and implement equality legislation in the implementation of the Hostile Environment immigraton policy, and subsequent mistreatment of the Windrush generation and of hundreds of thousands of others is not a failure of the system. It is the system. The clue is in the name. Hostility and equality can not exist in the same sentence in any decent society. 

Interestingly, in its report the EHRC ‘blames’ the lack of institutional memory for some of the ‘unintentional’ systemic failures. If we disregard for a moment the fact that there is an army of civil servants and lawyers working for the government, whose job is to check and recheck compliance, the Hostile Environment policy is the perfect example of the evolution of discriminatory and racist policies of the past. 

As far as memory goes, decades ago, it was Enoch Powell’s wet dream to deport citizens back to colonies they came from. As citizens. Or subjects. 

The so-called primary purpose rule, which was introduced in 1970’s to prevent ‘sham’ marriages, and was finally abolished in 1997, involved ‘virginity tests’ of incoming brides-to-be who had to endure a gynecological examination as some kind of perverted way of proving that the marriage is ‘genuine’. 

As virginity is no longer a commodity, the Hostile Environment policy of the new millenium keeps families separated through minimum income requirements, overseas English tests, expensive visa fees and conditions such as No Recourse to Public Funds. More than 60,000 people are denied the right to family life and 15,000 children are growing up without one parent.

In October 2020, the Patients Not Passports coalition launched the report on  “The International Struggle for Universal Healthcare” which highlights the history of passport checks and charges for healthcare within the NHS, which were first introduced nearly 40 years ago. 

The research into the 1980’s  No Pass Laws to Health! campaign by Dr Kathryn Medien, shows striking resemblance to today’s NHS charging policy which was introduced as a part of the Hostile Environment policy in the NHS. Her research reveals that this campaign, taking its name from the “pass law” system of Apartheid South Africa, argued that the charges “were racist both in intent and operation and are likely to result in the harassment of black patients and to deter them from using the National Health Service”. 

What next? 

If it is to be taken seriously, the Equality and Human Rights Commission must address the reality and context of the hostile environment in all its forms, outside the narrow scope of one government department and one scandal. The intentional hostility and disregard for equalities is there for everyone to see – in plane sight, frequently on twitter feed of the Home Office account. 

Meanwhile, migrants and refugees and allies have done the work for the EHRC and the government. Many respectable and trustworthy organisations, universities and journalists have compiled the evidence of a very intentional breach of human rights and equality duty. We have also come up with the roadmap for fair immigration policy based on principles of dignity, justice and welcome, which is intentionally in line with the Human Rights Act and Public Sector Equality Duty. 

We are calling on all NHS trusts, local authorities, faith institutions and other organisations charged with internal immigration enforcement to immediately abolish all Hostile Environment measures as it is in breach of Public Sector Equality Duty  as well as moral and ethical duty to treat all people in need with dignity and respect. 

Join us in building a movement for Fair Immigration, sign the Charter and invite us to your meetings, Zoom calls and actions for some radical solidarity – for dignity, for justice and for welcome.

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