Be realistic – demand the impossible – let’s end the hostile environment for all.

“The Hostile environment paved the way for the Rwanda Bill. That’s why we have to end the hostile environment for all.” writes Migrants Organise CEO, Zrinka Bralo.

The 1968 French students’ uprising motto –  “Be realistic – demand impossible” – best sums up the demand for migrant justice in 2024. It may sound radical, but it is not.

It perfectly summarises the chasm between the reality of people trying to survive and belligerent elites who operate with impunity. Just look at the one week of political scandals in the Westminster bubble, let alone a month. Beyond racism, corruption, and islamophobia, there is a complete collapse of any framework of governance, democracy and humanity. 

There are many examples of this complete meltdown, but the most illustrative example is the inhumane Rwanda deportation plan. In December 2023 the government lost the legal argument in its ‘flagship’  policy to deport people who seek sanctuary and protection from the UK to Rwanda. The highest court in the land- the Supreme Court-  rightfully found the Rwanda deportation plan to be illegal. 

In response to the ruling, the hyper-privileged mindset of the current political elites were deployed immediately, and like in some banana republic, the proposal of a new law was immediately announced to ‘fix the problem’ and bypass the Supreme Court. The British government, having already spent £300 million on the project, and now, too close to the general election,  are still desperately trying to make it look like it is a workable plan. 

The government’s ‘problem’ here is the reality that the Supreme Court is clear that Rwanda is not a safe country for refugees, so our government goes about it to make a new law that says it is. Our institutions and representatives (elected and unelected) engaged in a surreal ping-pong argument about it while aware of the reality that this is all part of the desperate political survival strategy of inept political leadership. Vulnerable people, human rights, the law, the lawyers and judges as ‘other’ disobedient ‘elites’ are all collateral damage in that survival. And we all know that elections are coming in the next six months! 

But the desperation to stay in power has no price. £5.4 billion has been spent upholding  oppressive and hostile measures to make the government look ‘in control of our borders’. The money is given to for-profit companies to oppress and humiliate vulnerable people. And like the Rwanda Bill, this is all meant to stop people from coming here. 

This is at the time we have  all been told that there is  no money for anything, after the previous short-lived administration crashed the economy  – when school meals were cut,  when people died in cold homes, when it is impossible to find a home, when all our waters are polluted by water companies, when millions of people rely on food banks, the list goes on.

All these injustices have been normalised and are the consequence of the same structure – extractive disaster capitalism. For that self-serving, privileged mindset, it is impossible to be accountable, let alone to think or serve the needs of the rest of society. 

In these times, civil society’s job is to be realistic and demand the de-normalisation of oppressive systems and cultures. No matter how safe Rwanda the country is, the UK has a responsibility to provide protection for those who need it. Deporting people thousands of miles away can never be the answer.

It is not our job to tinker around the edges of hostility but to exercise the power of imagination in the face of disillusionment, which results from the relentless assault on our dignity, our freedom and our wellbeing. 

In fact, the starting point in ending the hostile environment is not even imagining new and better. The starting point is to restore the rights that have been taken away in order to appease the myth of the migrants taking jobs, houses, welfare and so forth. 

Only thirty years ago, people who came to seek protection or join their family or to study or work would just go about their daily lives and struggles like the rest of us. I know because I was one of them. It was hard to be a refugee and to be refused protection in the middle of genocide happening in my country, and I will bear the scars of that experience for the rest of my life. But compared to the hostile environment now, my experience was an easy ride. I was able to work and study, had a right to appeal, and had good, free legal advice. I was able to see a doctor when I needed one, and if I needed welfare support, I would have been able to access it.

I survived and managed to rebuild my life. Thirty years later, when I campaign for all of that to be restored first so that other people can survive, I am labelled as ‘radical’, even by my peers who should know better. I don’t want to destroy my ‘radical’ credentials, but on a more pragmatic level, only the end of the system that was labelled by its designer as “the hostile environment” will do. 

This may seem impossible for those who designed it, but it is very realistic for those who experience it. And it is worth remembering that this hostile system, like all systems, is not ‘natural’ but made, and therefore can be re-made. 

The impact of the Hostile Environment immigration policy has been well documented. It ushered racial profiling and border enforcement into all aspects of everyday life and almost irreparably damaged our public service and the fabric of our society. This egregious policy has pushed the boundaries and allowed for other breaches of human rights and democracy. It propped up many political careers and made billions for lucrative enforcement companies masquerading as support systems for vulnerable people. Its unravelling started with the Windrush Scandal, which is still ongoing, and it is only the tip of the iceberg or the most egregious abuse of fundamental human rights, international and domestic law, democracy and human dignity. 

As civil society, we must demand that the hostile environment ends in its entirety. Our issue-focused campaigns are the building blocks of awareness raising, but unless all our single-issue demands are punctuated by the demand for deeper structural change of the root causes, all our efforts are in vain and might even backfire with unintended negative consequences. 

We, the organisers, campaigners, caseworkers, and advocates, have the power to speak out where many of our people are invisible or silenced by the hostile environment. We do not have the power or legitimacy to settle on their behalf for concessions for one group of people just because we think this is what is realistic in the current configuration of power. We are responsible for growing our power in solidarity to make a meaningful change. And as Nelson Mandela said, “it always seems impossible until it is done”!

What needs to be done? What can be done?  It does feel daunting as we are all exhausted by the daily barrage of hostilities. That is why we must organise in solidarity; we must build a joined-up movement that will unite all our efforts, issues and campaigns. 

One of my favourite organising parables is the tale of babies in the river. There are many versions of it. In short, when we see a baby floating down the river, we all instinctively jump in to rescue the baby. And then more babies start coming down the stream. We quickly organise more people to come and help rescue babies. We sort out the food and care for the babies, but the number of babies floating down the river only seemed to increase. At some point, somebody needs to go up the stream and see who is throwing the babies into the water and, crucially, to stop it. That is the best metaphor for our work; we need to support people to survive, people who are denied healthcare, made homeless, and banned from earning a living. All these egregious policies have one source – the hostile environment policy. So we need to organise and work in solidarity to liberate time and effort to go up the stream to stop it. 

This is a massive job, not just for migrant justice campaigners and organisers but for all of us. 

If you are a trade union member, you need to demand accountability from your employers, especially if you work in public service. Start by asking how and why is the hostile environment in your workplace? We know that at least 25 local authorities embedded the Home Office enforcement staff in their various services and, in some cases, at their own expense. We also know that many local authorities ended this practice once there was a pushback from the community. Their excuses that this was ‘the law’ were easily dissolved in the face of their local organised electorate. 

As Mariame Kaba said: “I’m on a 500-year clock right now. I’m right here knowing that we’ve got a hell of a long time before we’re going to see the end. Right now, all we’re doing is building the conditions that will allow the thing to happen.”

Today, and every day, in your workplace, in your school, in your community, in your place of worship, start organising. Be realistic. Demand the impossible!