By Aminah Hashmi, BA Politics and International Relations
We remember the Windrush scandal as the moment when the consequences of the ‘hostile environment’ immigration policies of the Tory government were pushed to the headlines in 2017.
If you don’t remember, the scandal revolved around the Home Office mislabelling people as “illegal,” with particular attention to the Windrush generation, although the policies impacted a wider range of people. This happened following the Home Office’s demands on the Windrush generation to prove they had lived in the UK since before 1973 and account for an official document for every year, even as the Home Office destroyed their records. In placing this impossible burden of proof on people who had at this point been living in the UK for decades, the media reported on hundreds of people who were labelled ‘illegal’ and denied access to basic public services, detained, and deported. The resulting attention led to the Home Office scrambling to defend themselves, presenting the incident as a one-off accident and promising to do better.
Six years on, the Home Office hasn’t learned the fundamental lessons of the scandal and has continued and expanded on the ‘hostile environment’—now changed in name only to the ‘compliance environment’. In expansion, the Home Office has exacerbated inequalities and narrowed paths to legal immigration, leaving people to face the vulnerabilities of being without documentation. As people today continue to suffer because of these policies, it should not take another Windrush-size scandal to provoke the fight against Home Office-inflicted injustice.
Efforts for Reform: Tick the boxes on paper only
Following the scandal, the Home Office promised to conduct a review of the scandal and undergo ‘Comprehensive Reform’. A key part of this was the conduct of an independent review by Wendy Williams who assessed the causes of the scandal and gave specific recommendations on how to improve. Williams returned twice to check on the progress of the review and consider the extent to which the department was addressing its issues. As part of this response, the transformation directorate unit of the Home Office took on the responsibility to implement the reform recommendations and fulfil the promises of the 2017 apologies. In William’s 2022 review, the Home Office consistently declared it had met the requirements of the recommendation, even as they remained completely or partially unfulfilled. Of the 30 recommendations, only eight had been satisfied, even with the (at times excessive) understanding Williams gives to the long-term nature of institutional change. Now, Suella Braverman’s Home Office has doubled down on the insistence to move beyond promises of reform, quietly retiring the transformation directorate charged with implementing reform and expanding on the hostile environment policies that never really went away.
The Hostile Environment: Then and Now
When Theresa May introduced the term ‘hostile environment’ in 2012, it was clear that injustice was not an unintended side-effect but the intended design of the policies. In pursuing anti-immigrant rhetoric, she pushed to make life impossible to the extent that people would be forced to leave, with every policy aiming to strangle down the number of migrants without any consideration of the humanitarian impact—even as the Home Office acknowledged that “the vast majority of undocumented people have done, and will do, nothing wrong.” Today, those policies not only remain in place but have been expanded.
Let’s look at the visa application process, the mundane but necessary aspect of acquiring ‘legal’ status that is often ignored but is the foundation on which the other hostile measures are enacted. How much would you expect it to cost for someone to apply for a settlement visa (ILR), which removes the term limit of staying but is the step before citizenship? Considering that it costs the Home Office £650 to process, it might come as a surprise that the fee is £2,885 per application, and there is no refund should the Home Office refuse. The profit made from visa fees has increased from £72 million in 2003/4 to £2,200 million in 2022/23. The high cost of this application follows countless applications for temporary visas that have the added cost of an ‘immigration health surcharge’—the extra payment for the NHS that most migrants pay twice through taxation. In addition, the prolonged waiting times for processing during which applicants’ passports are held hostage, the cost of legal support fees that are essential in the face of inaccessible application processes, and the multiplication of these costs for families.
Those who cannot afford to pay these fees risk losing the most fundamental rights – the right to work and rent a home. People of colour are disproportionately the ones most at risk. That the Home Office has dramatically increased fees during a debilitating cost of living crisis is indicative of the lack of humanitarian concern the institution has and the blatant abandonment of reform efforts.
What can you do?
In defending and expanding the hostile environment legislation, the Home Office is heading towards a repeat of a scandal the size of Windrush. This should be of great concern to politicians who helm anti-immigration rhetoric, as public opinion polls have shown a softening on issues of immigration and an increased dissatisfaction and weight given to the cost of living and the state of the NHS. Politicians rarely change without being forced to, however. Charities and legal groups such as the JCWI and We Belong are already doing the daily work of supporting the most vulnerable, lobbying for parliamentary change, and challenging the legality of unjust legislation. The politicians who endorse anti-immigration rhetoric that underlies the violence of the hostile environment rely on the public’s short-term memory and use false security fears to stoke the ‘Us vs. Them’ division. The Windrush scandal exposed the falsehood of that binary and publicised its consequences. Supporting the organisations fighting unjust legislation, contacting your local MP, and publicising the backtracking of reform initiatives are ways to demonstrate we remember Windrush and continue to demand Home Office reform.