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lunar house

Lunar House in Croydon, location of the Home Office asylum screening unit where many refugees’ hopes of being allowed to stay in the UK are dashed (photo: Bindmans LLP).

Windrush scandal exposes Home Office truths

The furore over the hostile treatment of the Windrush generation by the Home Office, and the subsequent resignation of local MP Amber Rudd as Home Secretary, has revealed a brutal government attitude towards immigrants which has aroused widespread repugnance. Further light is thrown on the matter in this first of a two-part report by Felicity Laurence, convener of the Hastings Community of Sanctuary, whose varied work on the ground with refugees over many years has given her plentiful insight into what it means to be at the sharp end of Home Office practice.

At the recent national City of Sanctuary conference in Newcastle in mid-May, I met ‘Patrick’, who had been tortured in his home country, and then after some difficult years of the asylum process here, was picked up without warning and detained in one of our detention centres. He had committed no crime, and as someone who could show evidence of torture, legally should have been exempt from detention in any case.

He was held without any knowledge of how long he would be detained, and after several months, released without explanation or apology and sent to somewhere new so that he lost the friends and support he had slowly built up as well.

‘Patrick’ told me that this experience of detention was the worst he had suffered – worse than the original torture. He is a qualified professional in a field calling for recruitment here, but he is not permitted to work, and his life slips away day by day as the process goes on.

Boy behind fence 300

Refugees trying to get to the UK also face a hostile environment in France (image from Sue Clayton’s film Calais Children: A Case to Answer).

This shamefully typical story from the Home Office frontline echoes directly the numerous personal accounts in a recent report from the organisation Refugee Action, whose title indicates clearly enough its concluding view: Waiting in the Dark: How the Asylum System Dehumanises, Disempowers and Damages.

They might have added ‘and destroys’ in view of the report a few days ago by Amelia Gentleman – the investigative journalist who brought to light the Windrush injustices – of the suicides of four Eritrean teenagers (one last month) who had finally made it to the UK after immense trauma, and then were driven to despair by the unbearable uncertainty about their future.

Business as usual

Despite the extensive media coverage and widespread outrage at the treatment of the Windrush citizens, many remain homeless, jobless, penniless and sick, and for them and thousands of other people mired in Home Office processes, it is still this same miserable, dehumanising ‘business as usual’.

Nonetheless, there is a whiff of change. The requirements of schools to pass on to the Home Office data about children, and of banks to carry out immigration checks on bank accounts, have been suspended in recent weeks; likewise, the ‘memorandum of understanding’, whereby the Home Office could request patient data from the NHS in order to check someone’s immigration status, is now withdrawn, and it may request patient data only in cases involving a conviction or investigation for a serious crime.

The Home Office is under scrutiny as never before, and many of us really don’t like what we see.

But any possibility of real change and a ‘re-humanising’ needs a fundamental reconceptualising of the entire ‘arena’ of Home Office practice, and of the very language that informs the increasing callousness of its ‘hostile environment’.

Theresa May and the ‘hostile environment’

This term was first used in this context by the Labour Home Secretary Alan Johnson (Home Secretary 2009-10), reflecting what was already in fact long-established Home Office culture. But it was his successor, Theresa May, who picked up this idea and ran with it, introducing an extensive array of unprecedently harsh policies within the 2014 Immigration Act, to make the environment ‘really hostile’.

The debate of that bill focused around the notion of ‘illegal immigration’; only a few voices called out the implicit vilification of immigrants in general and indeed predicted what has come to pass – the draconian application of the resulting Home Office powers of detention, enforcement, surveillance and removal that have led to Windrush, and also to countless other deep injustices for people seeking to remain or seek refuge here.

Groups such as the Community of Sanctuary try to provide a supportive environment for refugees.

Groups such as the Community of Sanctuary try to provide a supportive environment for refugees.

We may never know the extent to which Amber Rudd concurred with May’s version of the ‘hostile environment’; as Home Secretary, of course, Rudd stands responsible for all that took place on her watch. However, as pointed out by Hastings council leader Peter Chowney, a change of Home Secretary does nothing to change Home Office policy: only irresistible and sustained public pressure will compel Rudd’s successor to reject his toxic legacy.

‘Hostile environment’ is a term deriving from the language of rodent eradication and it carries something of the savageness of the cleansing rhetoric of the regime in 1930-40s Germany – where Jewish people and other ‘deviants’ from society were conceived as ‘lice’, so that removing them could be argued as a virtuous act of cleanliness.  The question posed not long ago by a refugee – ‘Why should we have to hide away like a rat?’ – is telling in its unwitting insight.

Voices of condemnation

The former head of the Civil Service, Lord Kerslake, was not shy in suggesting a similar analogy when he commented that, “Some Ministers were deeply unhappy [with the hostile environment] and saw this as almost reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the way it’s working” (BBC News 19 April). This condemnation has been echoed in recent weeks in public declarations by many prominent and respected citizens.

The MP David Lammy castigates an immigration policy “designed to dehumanise, demonise and victimise” with a “toxic, anti-immigrant rhetoric,” and “pernicious cruelty” – also a charge made by Amnesty. Others lambast its “calculated inhumanity” and the accompanying incompetence. The director of Liberty refers to governmental immigration policy as “fostering division and sanctioning discrimination.”

Against Borders for Children campaigns against the Home Office for schools to pass on data on refugee children - this is still happening though the provision is supposed to be suspended.

Against Borders for Children campaigns against the Home Office for schools to pass on data on refugee children – this is still happening though the provision is supposed to be suspended.

The hostile environment approach builds upon a specific vocabulary which legitimises its intentions. Its terms – ‘force’, ‘forcibly remove’, ‘enforcement’, ‘detention’, ‘bogus’, ‘removability’ – carry not only an inherent violence, but also make it ever more ‘normal’ for society at large to embrace the fundamentally negative narrative of immigration being enacted in this policy.

Central to this is the term ‘illegal immigrant’; so firmly attached is the adjective here, that the supposedly neutral term ‘immigrant’ has acquired over time its own taint of undesirability. It is now scarcely possible to speak of an immigrant without some lurking connotation of probable illegality, so that ‘immigrant’ itself becomes a pejorative term.

False dichotomy

Having this phrase so deeply welded into the story allows very easily the separation of the victims of Home Office behaviour into those who ‘don’t deserve’ it, and those who (it is falsely presumed) probably do; on the one hand, the Windrush people and the others now fearfully awaiting (or indeed already undergoing) their turn for the Windrush treatment – the Chilean refugees welcomed here in the 1970s, the people given sanctuary after their expulsion from Uganda, and thousands of others who grew up here, were even born here, but who find themselves undocumented and therefore extremely vulnerable; and on the other hand, those who somehow are ‘undeserving’ – those who are applying for asylum, about whom so often a negative assumption is made.

However, as pointed out by Professor Raj Bhopal, professor of Public Health at Edinburgh university, a person cannot be ‘illegal’ – only an action can. If we wish to talk about someone who cannot remain here legally, he suggests instead the term ‘irregular migrant’, defined as: ‘A person who, owing to unauthorized entry, breach of a condition of entry, failure to gain asylum, or the expiry of his or her visa, lacks legal authorisation to reside in the country where they find themselves.’

Image of young refugee from Sue Clayton's film Calais Children: A Case to Answer.

Image of a young refugee from Sue Clayton’s film Calais Children: A Case to Answer.

This offers a far more dispassionate understanding of why someone might be deemed to be here illegally. This is not simply a matter of semantic pedantry – saying someone is ‘illegal’ is dehumanising. It feeds powerfully into the mythology of probable unlawfulness, and even likely criminality, that sustains people’s fears about immigration.

Amnesty’s director of Refugee and Migrant Rights, Steve Valdez-Symonds, is clear about the malign effects of this language and the vilification of the ‘illegal immigrant’; and also, damningly, that these effects “have not mattered to those responsible for setting policy and have not mattered for those carrying it out.” He is succinct: “Stop saying ‘illegal’ immigrants.”

In terms of underlying intention and this language so integral to its realisation, the current move in the Home Office to re-brand – to ditch the offending ‘hostile’ bit and replace this with ‘compliant’ – is a chimera. ‘Compliance’ still embeds force and threat, and indeed encourages the unabated continuation of what Amnesty describes as the ‘elaborate system of immigration controls to be enforced by employers, landlords, hospitals, banks and others’.

It offers nothing of the radical change in language or approach needed for the humane Home Office policy which so many are now demanding.


In Part 2, the writer will explore the notion of compliance, its misleading implication of a ‘softer’ approach, and some ways in which people are starting to question their acquiescence with the Home Office agenda of immigration enforcement.

For an up-to-date and detailed account of how the asylum system currently works, see Refugee Action’s report Waiting in the Dark.

For a further collective overview of various issues and responses surrounding this topic, see these contributions by Amnesty, David Lammy and The Underworld.

Felicity Laurence is currently writing a book on themes of empathy in our responses to the current crisis of borders and the refugees contained within and beyond them.




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Posted 19:58 Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018 In: Politics

1 Comment

  1. Ms.Doubtfire

    This article encompasses far more than the Windrush issues and I feel this is very misleading. The heading to the article suggests it is about the Windrush scandal.

    The Windrush scandal has nothing to do with Amber Rudd – it is all to do with maladministration by whichever government was in power at the time of the so called Windrush immigration. Those who travelled from the West Indies at that time were issued with British Passports. There was never any indication that at some point many decades later, they would be declared as illegal immigrants. The issuance of a British passport was sufficient to lead these people to believe that this gave them every right to be in this country, These people were never illegal immigrants and it is quite wrong to categorise them as such. To hear that some elderly and infirm residents of this country are now trapped in the Caribbean having visited family is totally unacceptable.

    Surely the 2014 Immigration Act was never intended to disenfranchise the West Indians who came to this country in the 40’s and 50’s and I think we have to separate the Windrush scandal from the current immigration problems which this government seems unable to manage in an acceptable and humanitarian way.

    Comment by Ms.Doubtfire — Friday, Jun 22, 2018 @ 20:10

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