Hostile environment

Warm words on Windrush aren’t enough

Posted by Nadia O'Mara on 29 Jun 2020

There has been a lot talk about the injustice of the Windrush scandal in recent weeks. But we are still a long way off seeing words matched with meaningful action.

Last week, for the third time since it’s introduction in 2018, the UK observed Windrush Day and marked the 72nd anniversary of when the ship Empire Windrush docked in the UK from the Caribbean. Aboard were hundreds of people who came here as citizens to help rebuild our nation after the devastation of war. Since then, they and their descendants have done just that.

Yet despite this, over the past few years we have seen the news filled with story after story of how the UK Government has detained and deported these very people despite their legal right to be here, the lives they have built, and the family, friends and communities they would leave behind. The failures ran deep – and the scandal lifted the lid on the inhumanity of the Government’s hostile environment policies which caused it.

In response to this great injustice a review was launched into the lessons the Government must learn. Last week on the day after Windrush Day the Home Secretary committed to adopting all 30 of the recommendations it made – which included another review, this time into the entire hostile environment. The announcement was a welcome step forward from a Government which has for too long failed to take the Windrush scandal seriously or respond appropriately. But a review will not be enough to stop another scandal happening. Only ending the hostile environment can do that.

Stories like that of Anthony Bryan are not the result of a few failures or bad decisions, they are Britain’s immigration system working exactly as it is designed to.

Windrush was not an anomaly. Stories like that of Anthony Bryan, who was unlawfully detained by the Home Office and threatened with deportation to Jamaica despite having not been there in 50 years, and whose story was told in the recent BBC drama Sitting in Limbo, are not the result of a few failures or bad decisions. They are Britain’s immigration system working exactly as it is designed to.

Since its introduction by the coalition Government in 2010, the hostile environment’s aim has been to push undocumented migrants in the UK to leave – and deter others from coming – by blocking access to public services and pushing them into destitution. The cruel effects of this are felt far beyond the policies’ stated targets. It sows discrimination against people of colour and perceived to be foreign, including those with secure immigration status and British citizens – as Windrush demonstrated.

The Windrush scandal fully exposed why it is impossible to operate a hostile environment which doesn’t result in human rights abuses. As a first step towards redemption the Government must make sure Windrush citizens are quickly paid the full compensation they are owed. But full redemption will only be achieved by ending the hostile environment for everyone.

The Windrush scandal fully exposed why it is impossible to operate a hostile environment which doesn’t result in human rights abuses.

While the Government had warm words last week, we only need to look as far as the current Immigration Bill to see how deep its commitment to righting the wrongs of Windrush run. Dismantling the hostile environment is one key way to do this – but far from taking that chance, the Immigration Bill expands it. The same Home Secretary who yesterday promised “scrupulous” evaluation of the hostile environment was just weeks ago speaking in equally warm words about “ending free movement for all” with the new Bill. This would expand the reach of the hostile environment to millions more people.

If Windrush revealed the inhumanity of the hostile environment, the coronavirus pandemic has set it in stone. Right now everyone should be able to access help and support, not only for their own safety but also for the sake of public health. But hostile environment data-sharing is still leaving migrants too afraid to go to the NHS in case their details are passed to immigration enforcement and they are detained or deported as a result.

Meanwhile rules which make migrants pay for healthcare and block them from accessing vital help are still in place. The Government claims to have waived the NHS surcharge for migrant carers, but many have had to pay since the announcement, and don’t know when they will be reimbursed. Meanwhile, other migrant key workers stacking shelves in supermarkets or driving buses still face huge costs. Meanwhile rules called ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ block many migrants from accessing welfare benefits if they are sick or self-isolating.

The Government could use this Bill as an opportunity to correct the mistakes of its past, to learn the lessons of the pandemic, and to ensure there’s no repeat of Windrush. Ending the hostile environment is one key way to do that. MPs have the chance to redesign the immigration system so that humanity, dignity and respect sit at its core. But they must choose to take it.

If you want to demand change use our quick and easy tool to email your MP today and ask them to end the hostile environment. It takes just a couple of minutes.

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