hostile environment

Could Coronavirus Boot the Hostile Environment Policy Out for Good?

Is the Hostile Environment Policy under threat due to Covid-19?

It goes without saying that the coronavirus crisis has turned the world upside down. But here in the UK, could it become a catalyst for change in the way the UK treats immigrants – particularly around the Tories decade-long hostile environment policy? 

Anti-migrant hostility has become particularly shrewd in just a handful of years. Jingoistic far-right groups have become motivated by a white supremacy mission that’s dressed up as concern for little England bursting at the seams and buckling under a dense population; a lie that the UK has become burdened by migration rather than buoyant.

hostile environment
The Hostile Environment, a book by Maya Goodfellow, highlights the many controversial measures the UK Government resorted to in order to restrict migration. [Image: Free Movement.]

These so-called patriots love to hark back to that ‘British spirt’ encapsulated by wartime while turning blind to the enormous role our EU and overseas partners played alongside Britons in the fight against the very fascism they now exhibit. The faces and names may have changed since the National Front of the mid-1970s, but the message that remains laden across banners and spoken by its frontmen remain the same: Britain is for the British; the country is for white people, and the rest must “leave”.  

Although former Prime Minister Theresa May didn’t start this culture war, as Home Secretary she fed and fuelled it

Although former Prime Minister Theresa May didn’t start this culture war, as Home Secretary she fed and fuelled it. Her ‘hostile environment’ policy has successfully been sewn into the fabric of modern British society, the blueprint to which is still utilised by the current government to make the UK as unwelcoming as possible to non-British and BAME people in the country. In the past decade, the policy has been responsible for British residents being unlawfully deported, unscrupulous behaviour by immigration and border staff, interrogative immigration raids and thousands unlawfully detained at a grave cost to the taxpayer as the Home Office forks out millions in compensation

Make no mistake, the hostile environment has come with a huge cost – both economic and human. Yet the Tories wear the objective like a badge of honour to coax and keep its demographic of voters. Brexit has only emboldened their position; the Government remains motivated to construct its fortress with barbed wire and an immigration plan to vastly reduce migrant numbers. 

However, as each stone is uncovered behind the brutal lengths the Home Office will stoop to in its mission, the British public wince. If there is ever a litmus test of humanity in the UK, the Windrush fiasco will serve as a stubborn, dark spot in the history books. 

Make no mistake, the hostile environment has come with a huge cost – both economic and human

Yet there are parallels to the Windrush generation and the current toiling of migrants working in frontline roles against the coronavirus crisis. While people were ushered in by boat from the Caribbean to rebuild the UK’s post-war economy out of the dust, migrants today are keeping the UK economy alive – and may similarly volunteer to help reconstruct Britain post-pandemic. Just last Thursday, the UK welcomed its first of a convoy of flights of Romanian fruit pickers – dubbed ‘rescuers’ by the very same far-right press that have demonised Europeans to suit their pro-Brexit agenda. 

Our Future Now activist group hijacked the tube with posters to raise awareness to the Windrush fiasco. [Image: Red Pepper.]

Still, there has been a notable change of heart within the general public – and even, perhaps in response, by the Conservative government.  

COVID-19 has thrust migrants into the spotlight. Far from the past few years of being deemed ‘low-skilled’ and unimportant, millions of essential key workers who are maintaining the survival of the UK right now originate from overseas. Approximately 23% of hospital staff – including 29% of doctors and 18% of nurses – 20% of agricultural staff, 40% of food production workers and 18% of care workers come from abroad. The general public are coming out every Thursday to clap out of appreciation for workers risking their lives on the frontline and are tuning in to the fact that millions are doing so far from their homes and families. 

If there is ever a litmus test of humanity in the UK, the Windrush fiasco will serve as a stubborn, dark spot in the history books

Albeit the promotion from ‘low-skilled’ to ‘crucial’ could have materialised into far better rewards, such as higher pay than Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s ‘care’ badge, there seems to be a small U-turn taking place within the Government’s ranks. 

Boris Johnson himself appears to be stepping out of tune with his colleagues consigned to the backbenches. Perhaps induced to an epiphany while fighting for his life against coronavirus, the Prime Minister emerged with heartfelt words for the NHS staff who “saved his life”, paying particular attention to the two New Zealand and Portuguese nurses who stayed by his bedside.

doctors are forced to act as border guards in hostile environment
NHS staff and landlords among others have all been reluctantly conscripted to act as ‘border guards’ and report migrants to the Home Office as part of the hostile environment policy. [Image: Novara Media.]

But even before the PM fell ill, in his announcement to the nation Johnson subtly nodded his approval to put Thatcherism to bed: “One thing I think the coronavirus crisis has already proved is that there really is such a thing as society”, he said to a shocked nation who haven’t long forgotten Thatcher’s announcement in the late 1980s that declared the opposite.

Further still, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has appeared like a breath of fresh air – but is knocking staunch Tories for six. Despite tough warnings from Theresa May, Sunak crushed austerity with the flick of a pen – at least temporarily – in the emergency coronavirus Budget plan. As each week crawls by for the nation, Sunak pops up on our televisions with yet another package to splash the cash. Inevitably and in true Tory brand, payments are excessively late and there are still margins for improvements, but Sunak is a far cry from his predecessors and quite unlike any Conservative chancellor the UK has seen in a generation.  

Priti Patel remains a tenacious defender of her vision and still intends on pushing through the immigration measures by the end of the year

Even Conservative MP Steve Double addressed Parliament to call on the Home Secretary to re-think the post-Brexit immigration plan and the hostile environment policy. Double finds that COVID-19 has “taught us” that “low skilled” workers “are actually pretty crucial to the smooth running of our country”. And he isn’t the only one to make a dizzying pivot: Dominic Raab has since tipped his hat to these workers, saying “I think you’ve certainly made us all think long and hard about who the ‘key workers’ are in our lives.” 

lack of help for carers
Hancock’s ‘care badge’ has been ridiculed online as a slap in the face to the sector. [Image: The Independent.]

However, Priti Patel remains a tenacious defender of her vision and still intends on pushing through the immigration measures by the end of the year. Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, has criticised the approach, claiming that the “last few weeks have been a stark reminder, not that one should be needed, of the incredibly important contribution frontline workers make in our communities.” 

On the surface, it certainly appears the Conservatives might be entering some kind of existential crisis

He continued: “Workers like nurses, carers, supermarket staff and refuse collectors are playing a vital role in saving lives and keeping our country running, often at risk to themselves. It will be a slap in the face to many of these workers to see themselves classed as low skilled and unwelcome in Britain.” 

Yet Patel remains at odds with the rest of her party. On Friday, it emerged senior Tory ministers may be plotting to overturn her immigration bill during its second reading when Parliament reconvenes on 21 April. According to POLITICO, ministers feel hedging in the stringent immigration proposals during this time of crisis is not “quite right”. 

hostile environment sees less rescue missions at sea
A man holds a sign that reads ‘Ferries not Frontex’ as it emerges EU governments join forces to withdrawal rescue operations and replace it with technology to monitor refugee movement rather than rescue those who fall into peril in their journey. [Image: Mika Baumeister.]

Indeed, on the surface, it certainly appears the Conservatives might be entering some kind of existential crisis; perhaps being acutely tuned in to the ruthless and non-discriminatory nature of the disease has made them think twice about how they treat their fellow human beings. There is a hope that the Coronavirus crisis is re-aligning the Government’s malevolent moral compass that has strayed into the sinister over the years, but this is likely premature and overly optimistic thinking.

There is a hope that the Coronavirus crisis is re-aligning the Government’s malevolent moral compass that has strayed into the sinister over the years, but this is likely premature and overly optimistic thinking

Rather than a sudden change of heart, the Tories could be piling on the praise for migrants to push them into the firing line of the virus. The Government, as demonstrated by years of malice and xenophobia at its core under the hostile environment, it frequently sees migrants as expendable. Consider that it would rather invest millions into Frontex and drone operations to watch people drown than rescue ships to save refugees trapped at sea.

With this in mind, it wouldn’t be a stretch for the Government to sacrifice migrants while shielding Britons from the brunt of the infection and the inevitable economic fallout. It would certainly be far less shocking for the Government to reel in workers to rebuild Britain to spit them back out again post-pandemic that it would be to adapt to a new vein of thinking. The life and wellbeing of migrants may just become collateral in the whole COVID-19 affair.

Evidently, the hostile environment policy hasn’t quite come to the abrupt end that we’ve all been hoping for.

Written by
Olivia Bridge