From Go Home Vans to Rwanda Asylum Deal: A Decade of the Hostile Environment. A Lecture by Author Kamila Shamsie

The following lecture was delivered in London by Kamila Shamsie on 16 June 2022, as a part of the Solidarity Knows No Borders Week of Action against the Hostile Environment immigration policy. Photo credit: Sophie Le Roux

In 2001, the Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah published ‘By the Sea’, the story of  Saleh Omar, a man who arrives at Gatwick Airport as a refugee. The border official he speaks to says his parents, too, came to Britain as refugees ‘but my parents are European, they have a right, they’re part of the family.’ He goes on to say, ‘You don’t belong here. . and we don’t want you here. We’ll make life hard on you, make you suffer indignities, perhaps even commit violence  on you.’  Omar is far from unaffected by this diatribe, but he carries within him an important piece of knowledge that allows him a sense of relief: he knows that by the British government’s own rules he is entitled to asylum, and though the official might spew racist language he will have no option in the end but to stamp Omar’s passport and allow him through. As indeed he does.

I’ve read the novel twice, twenty years apart. The behaviour of the official becomes no less appalling but, even so, I read the Gatwick scene very differently the second time round. In Priti Patel’s Britain, I was struck by how fortunate Omar was to encounter laws that are better than the people whose work it is to enforce them.  Reading further on in the novel, I found myself thinking how doubly fortunate Omar was to be sent to a place which, in his judgement, was rather melodramatically named a ‘detention centre’ —  there were no locked gates or guards, nothing but a lack of money and options to keep people from going elsewhere. 

‘Fortunate’ is a very strange word to think about a man subject to racist abuse, sent to live in a freezing cold camp with hardly any amenities, deprived of his money and papers on arrival. 

That ‘fortunate’ remains, nonetheless, the word I think about Omar is the consequence of many years of UK policy towards its refugees, and other migrants.

This year, the year of the Rwanda Asylum Plan, we mark ten years since Theresa May as Home Secretary introduced the Hostile Environment policy.  It’s important to remember she wasn’t the first to use that expression — in 2007, Tony Blair’s immigration minister Liam Byrne introduced penalties for employers of as they call them ‘illegal immigrants’and said, ‘What we are proposing here will, I think, flush illegal migrants out. We are trying to create a much more hostile environment in this country if you are here illegally.’ In a February 2010 Home Office document — still under a Labour government — also used the phrase. Labour isn’t without culpability here  for its use of the phrase ‘hostile environment’ and metaphors such as ‘flush out’ in relation to people living in the UK, but while Labour used the phrase ‘hostile environment’ in relation to policy, There May turned it into the white-hot star around which policy revolved. ‘The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants’  May said in 2012. Hostile wasn’t enough. Really Hostile was what May was aiming for. Soon after, the coalition government created the Hostile Environment Working Group which included twelve government departments including the Minister of State for Care Services, the Minister of State for Schools, and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health. Children, the sick, the vulnerable, were all among those for whom May wanted to create a really hostile environment.

Let’s pause for a moment to remind ourselves that the Hostile Environment turned schools, universities and the NHS  into arms of the UK Borders Agency  (now called ICE – Immigration and Customs enforcement) by requiring them to collect information on migrant status and share it with the Home Office. What does it do to the fabric of British society if the NHS is required to pass on information to a Home Office as part of a Hostile Environment policy? What kind of country asks its doctors to spy for the government?   A cruel one, for starters. A country prepared for the possibility that people in need of medical help wouldn’t seek it because they didn’t trust their doctors to ‘first do no harm’. The cruelty was not incidental, let alone accidental. On the contrary, cruelty towards those who couldn’t prove legally valid immigration status became a cornerstone of UK policy.   That cruelty continues, even while the phrase ‘Hostile Environment’ has been officially dropped, and those of us who are consumed by outrage at the most headline-grabbing new iterations of it rarely notice how much of the cruelty has become normalised to the point that we can read Omar Saleh’s story and think the word ‘fortunate’. 

To understand this normalisation better, it’s instructive to go back to 2013 and the government sponsored billboards on the sides of vans, with the message “In the UK Illegally? Go Home or Face Arrest.”The vans were part of a peculiarly named  Operation Vaken which, in the language of government, existed to ‘test whether different communications could encourage any increases in voluntary departures.’  When reports of the vans first become public there was a heartening singularity of voice condemning the Home Office for its use of language so closely associated with the National Front and the far-right. Government reports refer to the vans as ‘Ad Vans’ but to the British public they were, from the start, ‘Go Home’ vans. The stench behind that phrase was never going to be something the government could sanitise. The billboards were pulled after a few weeks, with Theresa May saying ‘it was too much of a blunt instrument’.  The ‘Go Home’ vans were seen as failure and a humiliation for the government, in general, and Theresa May in particular.

But a closer looks reveals something different. The earliest criticism of the vans focussed on the racist language which aligned the government with the violence of the far right in the 70’s and 80’s.  But within a few months, when the government released its first report on the Vaken Policy, media outlets started to report the failure of the policy in terms of the numbers of people — eleven —  who had self-deported as a result of the vans. Phrases such as ‘only eleven people’ and ‘just eleven people’ implicitly bought into the government’s own reasoning that more deportations means greater success.  As soon as you say ‘only eleven’ you have set aside the argument that it was the campaign itself that was absolutely rotten, regardless of whether it achieved its own aims or not.  The opposition was loud in leading the charge to shift the argument.  Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, dismissed the vans as ‘a gimmick’ which is a very different thing to hammering a government for using the language of the National Front —  (incidentally, she used the word again yesterday about the Rwanda Asylum Plan — ). Cooper went on to say ‘”It was a disgraceful personal error of judgement by Theresa May — she signed off the vans, the slogans and the funding. . .’ 

The Home Office must have cheered to hear funding mentioned, given that its own report had figures ready to claim the total cost of Operation Vaken was £9740, and the savings incurred by the Vaken-related ‘voluntary removal’ rather than ‘forced removals’ was approximately £830,000.  Cooper then said ‘At the same time the number of people who were refused entry and then deported has fallen by 46.4%, its clear this is a government is failing on the fundamentals of illegal immigration.”.  Yvette Cooper and Labour could have taken the outcry against the Go Home vans as occasion to attack the language of hostility and racism that the government was using against migrants, but instead they stepped up the rhetoric that equated a rise in deportation figures with success. 

What the media didn’t tell us about the ‘only eleven’ or ‘just eleven’ who had self-deported as a result of the Go Home vans was their names, their stories, the circumstances in which they came to England and the reason they left. ‘Self-deportation’ wasn’t really a story anyone was interested in; it wasn’t even a phrase that was used about the eleven, with its implication of a human being so beaten down that they take it upon themselves to do the work of the hostile environment rather than endure another day living within it. Instead far more anodyne language such as ‘leaving Britain’ was used — as in the headline in The Independent that said “Controversial ‘go home’ vans persuaded just 11 illegal immigrants to leave Britain.”

Six years later Amelia Gentleman reported the story of Jocelyn John, legally arrived in Britain aged 4 from Grenada, who lost the passport with the ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’ stamp that proved her status.

A lost passport shouldn’t be anything more than a minor inconvenience, but in  Jocelyn John’s case it lead to her being classified an illegal immigrant in 2014 and threatened with deportation in letter after letter from the Home Office, despite the 75 pages of evidence she’d gathered to prove she’d spent a lifetime in the UK. She lived for a further two years within the Hostile Environment, unable to work or use public services, until the terror of being shackled and deported, and the desperation of being in debt, turned her to self-deportation. She described herself as ‘suicidal.’ 

The eventual outcry about the stories that came to be known as the Windrush Scandal meant that Jocelyn John was finally able to return to the UK and given the right to a passport.  I use the phrase ‘came to be known as the Windrush Scandal’ because ‘Scandal’ is far too mild a term to use about what happened. People lost their homes, were separated from their families, became suicidal, were bankrupted, placed in detention and stripped of all dignity, died far away from home.  The Home Office doesn’t pull its punches; its critics shouldn’t either.  Windrush Atrocity is closer to the mark.

No conversation about the Hostile Environment can fail to mention the Windrush Atrocity, even if by another name, which made it clear that the ‘illegal immigrants’ allegedly targeted by the Home Office could mean ‘anyone who can’t produce the required documentation even if they’ve lived in Britain their whole lives, have families here, and no other country to claim as their own.’  Or it could even mean ‘anyone who produces more than sufficient documentation to prove their legal status but still gets turned down by a system that seeks any excuse — or any pretence of an excuse —  to reject them’. But — returning to the matter of normalisation — when we attack the Hostile Environment by talking only about the Windrush Atrocity we are already allowing May and subsequent Home Secretaries to get away with too much.  The deep-rooted problem with the Hostile Environment policy isn’t that it sometimes swept up those who really did have a legal claim to Britishness. Just as the ‘Go Home’ vans wouldn’t have been okay if more people had self-deported, so the Hostile Environment wouldn’t have been okay if people such as Jocelyn John hadn’t been caught up in it. Cruelty towards other people as a cornerstone of government policy — that is the deep rooted problem with the Hostile Environment.  The issue isn’t that those other people are sometimes the children of the Windrush generation, are sometimes children, are something fleeing torture, are sometimes doing immense good for the community at large — the issue is that those other people are people. Surely the minimum we should be able to expect of our government is an acknowledgement of human dignity.

And now we have the ‘thwarted but not yet defeated’ removals to Rwanda. The government has learnt a little bit from the Windrush Atrocity. It’s aware that those being threatened with removal to Rwanda might find ways to have their stories told and turn out to be the kinds of people most Britons doesn’t want deported. For instance, the Iranian ex-police commander who refused to  shoot protestors in Iran during an anti-government protest, was sentenced to five years imprisonment by a military court and fled the country while out on bail. He was detained on arrival in the UK and, rather than having his case for asylum heard, was given a notice of removal to Rwanda.

The government doesn’t want to have to explain why someone like that isn’t even having his case for asylum considered.  So it keeps repeating the point that its real target is the ‘evil’ of people smuggling. Those who seek asylum through legal routes won’t be removed to Rwanda, the government claims.

The outrage and the normalisation — this is the pattern we need to break. The  outrage has been around the Rwanda removals; the normalisation in process now is the one that divides asylum seekers into two tiers: those who enter by ‘safe and legal’ routes and all others, who are categorised as brought over by people-smugglers. On 14 June, the day of the first planned flight to Rwanda, Liz Truss hit back at the bishops and archbishops who had denounced the plan as immoral by saying, ‘the people who are immoral in this case are the people traffickers trading in human misery. Those people need to suggest an alternative policy that will work.’    What Liz Truss and every other UK government minister fails to mention is that there are no safe and legal routes for asylum seekers. Even those allowed in from Ukraine have come via an expansion of the ‘family reunion’ route rather than under an asylum  scheme.  There is no shortage of people suggesting an alternative policy that will sideline human-smugglers; the bishops and archbishops, no friends of human-trafficking, re-stated it bluntly: ‘To reduce dangerous journeys to the UK we need safe routes.’  But why would you introduce safe routes if cruelty remains the cornerstone of your policy?

Is it too much to hope that criticism of the Rwanda Asylum Deal will continue to focus on immorality, cruelty and the breach of international obligations and law, with an increased focus on the need for safe routes, and that if any flights do one day take off we won’t wake up weeks or months later to headlines telling us that the number of refugees arriving in small boats or lorries have increased or decreased, thereby implicitly accepting those figures as a measure of success.

*

When I hear the phrase ‘Hostile Environment’ I often find myself thinking about a man whose name wasn’t John.  I met this man via the project Refugee Tales which pairs up writers with people who’ve had experience of the the UK’s asylum system. I listened to his story, which I then went on to write about, but it was made clear to me from the start that I wasn’t to use the name of the county from which he’d escaped. He’d been tortured and imprisoned in that country, and didn’t want the government from which he’d escaped to return its attention to him.  But he did want me to use his name, his first name. This was a matter of importance to him, a way of claiming his own story.  But just before the story went to press, he had a request.  Could I change his name to John?  I thought perhaps he was concerned that even his first name would be enough for the government he’d fled to recognise him, but it turned out that there was another reason. His asylum claim had been accepted in the UK, but he had had to re-apply every three years for a period of fifteen years before he could become eligible for Indefinite Leave to Remain. 

When he told me about his experiences of going through the UK’s asylum system he’d merely recounted facts — the closest he came to using critical language was: ‘The system is a bit. . .I don’t understand it.’  Now he was afraid that his words might be reason enough for his next application to be rejected.  I think often about the man whose name isn’t John, and how I couldn’t place his name in his own story because of the Hostile Environment.  

Then I think of myself and how fortunate I’ve been in my own life and path to UK citizenship. I was never an asylum seeker; I was never under threat of detention; I came to the UK on a visa for ‘writers, artists and composers’ and, despite a nasty 12 hours when I discovered that category had been discontinued, was easily able to switch to a Tier 1 visa;  the immigration official who granted my first visa extension was not just human but kind in dealing with an administrative error regarding my initial visa and, later, responded to an email query with a ps to say he’d heard me on Radio 4 and I ‘sounded great’. But despite all this, until I became a citizen I didn’t write fiction set in contemporary Britain because the nature of my fiction is such that it can’t help but enter the realm of politics and, like the man whose name isn’t John, I was afraid that my words might annoy or even irritate the wrong person and my visa extension or citizenship application might be denied. I entered the UK as a resident in 2007, so these concerns of mine pre-dated Theresa May’s Hostile Environment policy — again, let’s remind ourselves, she didn’t start that feeling of precariousness around migrant status, she merely blew it up to new proportions. Once I had my passport, in 2013, I thought, now I can write freely.

But only weeks after I became a citizen I read an interview in which Theresa May signalled her intention to vastly increase the use of citizenship-stripping powers, and to also expand the pool of Britons against who those powers could be used.   We were a year into the Hostile Environment and I thought then how foolish it would be to think anyone could be certain of the trajectory citizenship-stripping might take in the next few years. And now we’re in the age of Priti Patel that almost makes you want use the word ‘fortunate’ for those who entered the country during the age of Theresa May —  and Clause 9 of the Nationality and Borders Act makes it possible for the government to strip people of citizenship without informing them.  As a migrant — or even as a child of a migrant — you don’t have to have entered the country illegally, or been detained, or had your asylum claim refused or been issued threatening letters by the Home Office to feel that you might never be entirely and unequivocally secure in your right to go on living in Britain. There are moments, and writing this essay has been among them, when I feel the Hostile Environment inside me as a kernel of fear that never goes away. 

I’m grateful for that kernel of fear. It brings with it a sense of injustice, a desire for change, a search for people who’ll stand with you. It allows you to cheer on the victories, because there are victories all the time.  Just this week we’ve had the relief of that first Rwanda flight staying grounded, thanks not only to the ECHR but also all the lawyers and campaigners whose work lead to that judgment. But that is not a lone victory by any mean. Detained Fast Track, the system that gave asylum seekers only 7 days to appeal their case, was ruled unlawful in 2015.

In 2018, schools stopped collecting information about students’ nationalities and place of birth and NHS Digital announced it had stopped sharing data with the Home Office.  Last month, the government announced that under 18’s who are looked after by a local authority will no longer have to pay the £1,012 fee for registration as British citizens, and any child under 18 can apply for a fee waiver.  That new rule went into force today — just think of it, all those under 18’s being looked after by a local authority who today were able to apply for a regularisation of their status that they couldn’t afford yesterday.  And there’s more. Activists have blocked deportations and deportation flights. Lawyers, often working with organisations that oppose the Hostile Environment, have secured release orders for so many of those in detention.  Those who thought they were alone have discovered they are not alone; those who thought they had no claim to rights have discovered their rights. Those rights lead to housing, to welfare benefits, to community care: I’m talking specifically about the work of Migrants Organise here — and I want to take a moment to acknowledge its core ethos, which is in its name: Migrants Organise. We don’t need to be saved, we need to come together. 

Behind all the victories I’ve mentioned there are campaigners and organisations and activists.  Let no one refer to any of their victories as ‘small victories’. Each one of them transforms lives.

I’d like to give the last words to Adrienne Rich:

What would it mean to live
in a city whose people were changing
each other’s despair into hope? –

You yourself must change it. –
what would it feel like to know
your country was changing? –
You yourself must change it. –
Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange
what would it mean to stand on the first
page of the end of despair?


Photo credit: Sophie Le Roux

Migrants Organise is a platform where migrants, refugees connect, build common ground, organise for dignity and justice for all.

Join us to build the movement for migrant justice.