A new report shows the hostile environment is unlawful, but it's more than a technical oversight - it's the deliberate racism of the state and it must be resisted
Theresa May’s vow, as Home Secretary in 2012, to ‘create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants’ kicked off a devastating and inhuman series of policies, that culminated in the Windrush Scandal. Immigration enforcement was outsourced to landlords, banks, doctors and employers, who were now charged with carrying out ID checks and reporting those who lacked adequate documentation.
In the following years, thousands were illegally deported and denied access to healthcare, benefits and housing. While now rebranded as ‘the compliant environment’ in a politically expedient move from the government, the hostile environment is still very much in effect and still ruining peoples’ lives. As for the Windrush victims, most are still awaiting compensation.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission has now found that the Home Office acted unlawfully when implementing the ‘hostile environment’ policy. In a report published Wednesday, the Commission concluded that the Home Office had failed to comply with its Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) under the Equality Act of 2010.
In the words of the earlier ‘Windrush Lessons Learned’ review, it was “foreseeable and avoidable” that such measures would be used to target all ethnic minorities, regardless of immigration status.
As the report reveals, the Home Office was warned repeatedly that these policies were discriminatory. But these warnings were “repeatedly ignored, dismissed, or their severity disregarded at crucial points of policy development, particularly where they were seen as a barrier to implementing hostile environment policies in a highly-politicised environment” (p. 65).
“The political objective of reducing immigration (including irregular immigration) resulted in Home Office staff developing far-reaching measures for doing so, without sufficient consideration of the implications this might have for equality” (p. 58).
This was not simply an oversight. Dehumanisation and discrimination are built into the very concept of the ‘hostile environment’. For the Tories, the purpose of the policy was twofold: to divert growing anger at their austerity policies and to undercut the rise of far-right rivals like Ukip by appropriating their unabashedly dehumanising and racist ideology.
It is therefore not just that the government ignored equality implications in order to reduce immigration, but that the ultimate political objective of appearing tough on immigration necessitated the discriminatory treatment of migrants.
The lives of migrants and ethnic minorities are routinely exploited and endangered for the political gain of those in power in this way. This is not recognised in the EHRC report, which is only able to recommend a set of vague rectifications that rely heavily on the government’s good will, such as the recommendation for the Home Office to ‘prioritise and act early’ on its Equality Act duties.
The ability of the EHRC to act as a credible enforcer of equality legislation should absolutely be questioned and it would be a mistake to view this as just a limit in the ability of the bureaucracy to reign in the political zeal of the government. The establishment relies on its ability to scapegoat migrants for its actions.
A fundamental function of the state is to maintain the stability of the capitalist order by dividing the working class against itself. This cannot be legislated away. Anti-immigrant rhetoric perpetrated by the state has historically been at the heart of the development of racist ideology and how it is fostered in British society.
In order to move beyond it, we need to counter the divisive politics of those in power with a politics built on the unity and solidarity of all oppressed people.
The Windrush scandal has in fact not ended. On 2 December, in the middle of a pandemic, the Home Office plans to deport around 50 people to Jamaica, many of whom have lived in Britain for most of their lives.
Unless we resist, the use of ethnic minorities as political bargaining chips will only get worse. This exposure of the government’s disregard for the law is welcome, but any true anti-racism must come from the streets.