Creating a ‘hostile environment’: Theresa May’s Immigration Record
As Theresa May continues to use the rights of European nationals’ as a bargaining chip in her Brexit negotiations, it is worth taking a moment to consider her record as Home Secretary, and her long history of discriminating against migrants in the UK. Simon Crowther on Theresa May’s immigration record. This article was published July 12, 2017.
Theresa May’s disdain for migrants has never been a secret; it’s something she’s made abundantly clear both in her public statements and her policies. Her aspiration for the UK to be a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigrants was first announced in an interview with the Telegraph in 2012. What followed over her subsequent years as Home Secretary was a string of policies restricting access to healthcare, bank accounts, rented accommodation and the regulation of marriage.
In practice these measures don’t just affect those in the UK without legal status – they have created an environment where it is acceptable to check where someone is from before providing them with a vital service. Inevitably they also create an environment where as a landlord the easiest path is to discriminate and look for a future tenant with an unambiguously British name. The consequences of falling foul of these provisions are harsh. A landlord could face a prison sentence of up to five years if they rent premises to a person who does not have legal status in the UK.
In 2013 May’s Home Office launched the ‘go home vans’ , mobile billboards on the back of vans reading ‘In the UK illegally? GO HOME OR FACE ARREST.’ The public outcry was significant, and ultimately the vans only circulated for a month – resulting in just 11 people leaving the UK. However they were part of a broader initiative, Operation Vaken, which saw adverts placed in minority ethnic newspapers, and posters in places of worship. Again, the impact of such measures is on the migrant community generally – the Home Office’s own evaluation of the operation goes so far as to note concerns that the campaign resulted in community tensions.
Use of immigration detention powers also increased during May’s time at the Home Office, with the number of people entering detention rising from 27,089 in 2011 to 32,164 in 2016. In theory immigration detention powers are only to be used where there is a realistic prospect that the Home Office are going to remove a person from the UK. Yet by 2016 only 45% of those leaving detention were removed from the UK, either forcibly or voluntarily. What this shows is that detention is being used as a tool to make life harder for migrants, even when ultimately they are not going to be removed from the UK and so their detention serves no legitimate purpose.
Finally, May has cracked down on access to justice for migrants. Home Office decision-making is notoriously bad. Most recent statistics show that of the Home Office immigration decisions that are appealed, four in ten are overturned by immigration judges. One can only imagine the uproar that would ensue if four in ten people charged by the police turned out to be not guilty, and it is important to remember that unlike those accused of a crime migrants refused status by the Home Office do not even automatically get a hearing. They have to find a lawyer and lodge an appeal, often at huge personal expense. It is in this context that May attempted to increase the fees to access immigration tribunals by a factor of five, which would have meant it would cost up to £800 to bring an immigration appeal, and that’s before you include the cost of a lawyer. Luckily a U-turn was announced after a public outcry. She also implemented measures that meant certain migrants could be deported before they had appealed, with their appeal to be heard after they had left the UK. These measures were recently found to be unlawful by the Supreme Court.
What has developed is a system in which poor Home Office decision making is compounded by restrictions on the right of appeal and a deliberate effort to foster a climate of intolerance in which service providers, such as landlords, are forced to become agents of immigration control. In this context May’s willingness to callously use peoples residency rights as a bargaining chip in EU negotiations can hardly be considered surprising.