You've Heard Of The Hostile Environment. But Did You Know About The Resistance?

Sarah Turnnidge
·Sarah Turnnidge
·10-min read

On Tuesday the UK’s immigration rules became even tougher. Despite charities describing the move as “vicious”, rough sleeping is now grounds for refusal or cancellation of permission to be in the UK – meaning homelessness itself could now result in deportation.

The chartered deportation flight to Jamaica on Wednesday also brought the Home Office to the top of the news agenda, with MPs, celebrities and Windrush campaigners urging the government to cancel the flight. Thirteen of the original 50 people due to be forcibly removed to Jamaica were on the flight on December 2.

But as the government intensifies the hostile environment, immigration laws and the rhetoric around undocumented migrants, groups opposing detention and deportation have stepped up their response – and it’s not just charities or “activist lawyers” who are doing so.

Minnie Rahman, public affairs and campaigns manager for the Joint Council of the Welfare of Immigrants told HuffPost UK: The hostile environment has been proven time and time again to cause racial discrimination, break equalities law and push people into destitution and exploitation, yet the government remains committed to it.

“Councils have been left with no other option but to announce non-compliance with this dangerous set of policies and other unfair immigration rules. Now, we must keep the pressure up and urge many more councils, charities and businesses to end their cooperation with the Home Office’s hostile environment.

“Everyone should be able to access the public safety net and services regardless of their immigration status.”

Here are the people vocally opposing the government’s hostile environment policies – and the organisations and corporations who uphold them.

Perhaps surprisingly, local government

As immigration rules changed on Tuesday, one London council made it clear that the new Home Office policies were not welcome.

Haringey councillor Emina Ibrahim said: “Many people sleeping rough have been exploited and faced unbelievable personal challenges.

“As a council we work tirelessly to help those sleeping rough get off the streets and to find safety and stability. We will not be collaborating with the Home Office on this rule.”

With the new rules only implemented on Tuesday, a spokesperson for Haringey Council said it was unclear what new duties the council would have in terms of reporting to the Home Office, but explained that it would continue to preserve its responsibilities around “safeguarding and equalities”, including for those sleeping rough.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “For a small minority of rough sleepers who refuse government and local authority support and repeatedly engage in persistent anti-social behaviour, the new immigration rules mean they could lose their right to be in the UK.” But the Home Office insists it wouldn’t actually deport anyone for this reason, even though there are provisions for the home secretary to order someone to be deported “for the public good” without having broken the law.

Haringey isn’t the only local authority that has openly opposed hostile environment policies. In 2019, encouraged by Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network (LRMN), Lewisham and Southwark councils removed Home Office staff embedded within the local authority amid fears they were preventing vulnerable people from accessing services.

As The Guardian reported at the time, embedded officials sit in on meetings between council workers and vulnerable migrant families – ensuring that the Home Office knows about every person who has registered for emergency help. They have previously been accused of encouraging undocumented migrants to leave the UK voluntarily and of providing problematic advice that could damage legitimate applications to remain in the country.

Despite some successes for the LRMN, campaigners with the group say the overall situation is the worst it has been in 10 years.

Rosario Guimba-Stewart, CEO of LRMN, told HuffPost UK: “The Covid-19 crisis has stripped away the last shreds of support for so many vulnerable people. To see the government’s lack of compassion in the last few weeks, as they introduced brutal immigration rules that ignore the human cost, is alarming.”

But the desperate situation is only strengthening the resolve of campaigners and case workers to tear down the policies they say worsen the problems faced by vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers.

Hera Lorandos, campaigns and communications officer for LRMN, said: “Together, we have resisted many hostile environment policies and plan to continue to do so.

“We’ve campaigned to remove Home Office staff embedded in local councils, introduce free school meals to all regardless of immigration status, scrap NHS charging in local hospitals and much more.

“Hostile environment policies harm our local communities. We are doing everything possible to protect our communities.”

Homelessness services

Two homeless men sleeping under a makeshift tent with festive decorations in Oxford, 2019.  (Photo: Sam Mellish via Getty Images)
Two homeless men sleeping under a makeshift tent with festive decorations in Oxford, 2019. (Photo: Sam Mellish via Getty Images)

In 2019 Oxford City Council passed a motion to declare itself an anti-racist city, part of which demanded tackling hostile environment policies.

Councillor Shaista Aziz, who put together the motion, works directly with homeless people in Oxford – largely women and children, many of whom are living with an insecure immigration status.

She said: “The hostile environment disproportionately impacts Black people and people of colour, and its impact is being felt by rough sleepers.

“The motion being passed basically means that across our council services, the council has pledged not to report anyone with insecure immigration status to the authorities when they come forward for any form of assistance.

“We’ve been explicitly clear that in any area of service, for example housing, an individual will not be reported to the authorities.”

Aziz said she had witnessed “incredibly desperate” situations in the course of her work, with many extremely vulnerable people – particularly single mothers with young children – terrified that simply asking for help could result in them being targeted my immigration enforcement.

This situation has been worsened by Covid-19, with research from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) showing that migrants were avoiding seeking healthcare due to fears of hostile environment policies.

Oxford councillors co-signed a JCWI letter to home secretary Priti Patel raising their concerns about this, writing: “We are proud that hostile environment policies have no place in Oxford.”

They continued: “We have written to the Home Office and our hospital trusts, asking them to take the steps needed to help break down the barriers which prevent some of our residents from seeking help, accessing public services and being safe.”

Under hostile environment policies, councils cannot legally extend the same support to people with no recourse to public funds (NRPF) as they would to a legal resident. But under the government’s “Everyone In” scheme at the start of the pandemic, all rough sleepers – including those classed as NRPF – were supposed to be offered accommodation.

While this move was a welcome response to the threat of Covid-19, Aziz and other campaigners are calling on the government to remove NRPF completely to allow support to reach the most vulnerable.

Aziz said: “I think it’s only right and proper that as a city, though we have to work within the law, we are saying that we are here to help people and not to check their immigration status.

“NRPF absolutely has to go if we are to keep people alive and safe, not just through a pandemic but generally as well.”

Medical workers

Medical staff protesting against the NHS' upfront charging policies, introduced as part of the hostile environment in 2017.  (Photo: Medact )
Medical staff protesting against the NHS' upfront charging policies, introduced as part of the hostile environment in 2017. (Photo: Medact )

Upfront charging for people with uncertain immigration status who seek NHS care has been in force since 2017, specifically as part of the Home Office’s hostile environment.

Despite reports from bodies such as the British Medical Association warning about the devastating impact of the policy, it has remained in force – with medical professionals bound by law to charge individuals without the correct immigration status.

A number of groups under the umbrella Patients Not Passports campaign have spoken out against the policy, describing it as “unworkable” and highlighting the lack of evidence that it saves the NHS any money – instead potentially putting increased pressure on emergency services as a result of delayed treatment.

James Skinner, a campaigner for Medact, worked as a nurse for the NHS until 2018, when he says it became clear hostile environment policies were stopping him doing the work he had set out to do.

He said: “A lot of people don’t know about charging policies at all, as with most of the hostile environment it kind of operates in the shadows but really impacts the most marginalised groups.

“As we went around speaking to healthcare workers and community groups about what the policies are we found that people were obviously outraged and shocked, and the energy against it was huge.

“Very quickly we set up groups around the country, many of which focus on their own NHS trust trying to push the trust to come out against the charging policy.

“We believe that NHS trusts ultimately have a responsibility to their patients and to their staff to be working for a policy that is not forcing staff to break their code of medical ethics or to do things they disagree with.”

Airline staff

Fifteen activists were arrested in March 2017 after blocking a chartered deportation flight. (Photo: Kristian Buus via Getty Images)
Fifteen activists were arrested in March 2017 after blocking a chartered deportation flight. (Photo: Kristian Buus via Getty Images)

As seen in recent days with the much-criticised chartered deportation flight to Jamaica, resistance to Home Office policies exists right up to the moment of removal from the UK.

While activists such as the Stansted 15, who were convicted of terror-related charges after blocking a chartered flight in March 2017, have vocally opposed deportations, airline staff themselves have also expressed their concerns with facilitating flights.

In 2019 HuffPost UK revealed that airline workers with a number of companies were on the verge of refusing to take part in the “abhorrent and dysfunctional” practice of deporting immigrants on the Home Office’s behalf.

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants (LGSM) have been instrumental in the campaign to urge airlines to stop facilitating deportations, with Virgin Airlines stating in 2018 that it would stop doing so after LGSM pointed out that the company’s sponsorship of London Pride conflicted with its work with the Home Office.

While the pandemic has complicated the situation for airline workers, LGSM say their campaign to stop airlines from facilitating deportations continues.

LGSM spokesperson Sam Bjorn told HuffPost UK: “I think Black Lives Matter has been huge in raising people’s awareness generally of racism in the UK, of racist state violence, and I’m really, really glad to see that the explicit connection was made between the immigration system and state violence against Black people.”

They added: “We are in the early stages of working out a way to produce a charter that can be shared with airlines and they could be asked to sign, which would state that they won’t be complicit in deportations going forward.”

Elsewhere

Just as hostile environment policies are interwoven with many different areas of public support, so are forms of resistance.

As the JCWI pointed out, many organisations and even individuals such as landlords may not want report people to immigration enforcement but are required to do so by law under policies such as right-to-rent checks.

Some groups of campaigners have successfully campaigned for policy changes. Against Borders for Children, for example, fought for two years to oppose nationality and country-of-birth data collection in schools across England – a battle that was won in June 2018.

Grassroots organisations such as the Anti Raids Network also work to challenge immigration raids in homes and workplaces – both physically obstructing raids and mobilising in other practical ways such as giving out legal information in different languages.

As Bjorn explains, the many faces of the hostile environment policies mean that the resistance against them continues to be fought on many fronts.

They said: “Because the hostile environment is so embedded in so many different institutions, so many parts of society, the presence of the border regime is everywhere.

“I think it’s really important to think about it holistically, and challenge it and the corporations that facilitate these policies at every level.”

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.