Section 2 /
Witness to History

From Windrush to the NHS: the evolution of the ‘hostile environment’

May Bulman considers the cases that have made the Home Office’s immigration policy such a controversial issue

The Windrush scandal was one of a number to have hit the Home Office

At the start of this decade, the “hostile environment” didn’t exist. Several ministers, both Labour and Conservative, had bandied the term around as a potential strategy for reducing immigration, but it wasn’t in the public domain and nothing had taken effect. In the years that followed, however, a stream of policies were quietly formulated with the sole aim of making the UK a hostile place for undocumented immigrants. And ten years on, those two words have come to encapsulate the root cause behind a string of Home Office immigration scandals.

When I started in my role on the social affairs beat at The Independent in early 2017, criticism of the policy was bubbling under the surface. Charities and campaigners would make reference to it when commenting on stories about issues in the UK’s asylum and refugee policy, saying the problems were linked to a thing called the hostile environment. There had been warning signs, such as data-sharing agreements between the Home Office and both the Department for Health and the Department for Education allowing for information about patients and pupils to be shared for immigration enforcement purposes. These were concerning, but the true impact was yet to be seen.

It was in November of that year that it first came under real public scrutiny, when campaign group Migrants Rights Net (MRN) launched a legal challenge against the Home Office over its use of NHS patient data, with campaigners describing it as an “important step forward in the fight to dismantle the hostile environment policy”. A month later, human rights group Liberty launched a legal challenge against the department’s decision to collect data on school pupils’ nationality and country of birth. Both challenges ultimately succeeded in forcing the government into a climb-down.

From this point, criticism of the hostile environment became more widespread. The Home Affairs Select Committee published a report in January 2018 which deemed the policies “unclear and, in some instances, too open to interpretation and inadvertent error”. It stated that too many people had been threatened with deportation based on “inaccurate and untested” information, causing distress to those involved and “undermining the credibility of the whole system”.

British-born Mohamed Bangoura was unable to be reunited with his mother after a holiday (Hawa Keita)

The issue came to a head in April 2018 when the Windrush scandal came to light, leading to Amber Rudd’s resignation as home secretary. It exposed that hundreds of elderly immigrants invited to the UK in the Sixties and Seventies – predominantly of Caribbean origin – had been barred from working, refused access to government services and welfare benefits and, in the worst cases, been detained and deported in error.

As someone who had already been reporting frequently on people being wrongly threatened with deportation or denied their basic rights, the Windrush fiasco and the awful experiences of those affected didn’t come as a huge surprise to me. But what it did do was confirm that all of those individual cases I had reported on were part of a much wider problem.

Looking back now, there were a number of Home Office scandals I wrote about in 2017 that were – although I didn’t necessarily acknowledge it in my reporting at the time – undoubtedly rooted in the policy. For example, when it emerged that thousands of asylum seekers and migrants were being wrongly denied emergency NHS healthcare on the grounds that they did not provide identification documents. In retrospect, that was clearly the result of doctors and nurses being obliged to check patients’ immigration status before treating them – a key branch of the hostile environment measures.

The Grenfell Tower tragedy also highlighted flaws in the hostile measures. An amnesty announced by the Home Office after the blaze offered undocumented immigrants who survived the chance to claim a 12-month period of limited leave to remain in the UK with access to state support and assistance, but this was dubbed “meaningless” after it emerged a minuscule number had come forward, presumably for fear of deportation after the year was up.

I reported that a victim of a violent robbery had been threatened with prosecution and deportation when she reported the crime to the police

And then there were the numerous deportation threats. In December 2017, I revealed that Afghan national Hafizzulah Husseinkhel, who had worked as an interpreter for the British army for two years, had been threatened with deportation, prompting public outrage. In October of that year I reported on the case of an American man whose disabled British wife of seven years was reliant on him to provide her care being ordered to leave the country or be deported. Two months earlier, I reported that a victim of a violent robbery had been threatened with prosecution and deportation when she reported the crime to the police.

After Windrush, these stories became even more frequent. There was a clear shift in willingness among people wrongly targeted by the hostile measures, whether they fit into the Windrush category or not, to speak out to the media. In one case, Yvonne Williams, the 59-year-old daughter of a Windrush generation immigrant, was served with a removal order despite her whole family being in Britain. In another, six-year-old Mohamed Bangoura, a British child, was blocked from re-entering the country following a holiday with relatives in Belgium. Both cases, among many others, got reversed when we wrote about them.

Scrutinising and reporting on the hostile environment as the breadth and impact of it emerged in the latter half of this decade was both invigorating and depressing. Invigorating because it was often only once cases had been reported in the media that the Home Office would reverse decisions. Depressing because of the sheer number of desperate people I met and spoke to, all frightened and emotionally damaged after being wrongly swept up in this clearly flawed system.