The Hostile Environment: an expensive own goal?

What a week to be a migrant living in the UK. First, we heard that the UK Home Office has for the past few years been operating a ‘hostile environment’—a policy of deliberately making the UK tough for illegal migrants so as to make it unbearable to live. Landlords, nurses, teachers and public servants and private sector workers all became de facto border guards tasked with reporting ‘illegal immigrants’. A natural consequence of this policy was the maligning of black Caribbean British individuals who came to this country in the 1970s as part of the ‘Windrush’ generation—a group of people legally permitted to move here as part of the post second world war efforts to rebuild the country. Despite their best efforts to contribute to this country over the years, they found themselves caught up in a deliberate if pernicious ‘hostile environment’ where those who hadn’t applied for passports or whose documents did not check out not only could not receive public services but also lost jobs, healthcare and faced deportation. The episode has been declared a ‘national shame’.

But whilst the hostile environment has been justified on account of the fact that it was allegedly aimed at illegal immigrants, what it has achieved—and what any sinister arguments that classifies people as ‘illegal’ achieves—is the delegitimisation of genuine human experiences of minority people, turning anyone who looks different from the majority into a suspected illegal immigrant. According to a document by the human rights organisation Liberty, ‘new offences mean undocumented migrants find themselves criminalised for doing what they must to survive—in some cases simply for working or even driving.’

What is ironic about the government’s efforts in creating the hostile environment is that it simultaneously fails to successfully tackle illegal immigration (it simply drives immigrants underground, making their lives vulnerable to exploitation) and makes life difficult for the very people who are instrumental to preventing illegal immigration by developing their homelands. Given the focus of this blog is on sub-Saharan Africa and specifically southern Africa, what is the impact of the UK’s hostile environment on migrants from those regions?

£9,551 for the route to citizenship

According to a House of Lords Committee report, UK ‘Citizenship policy has been incoherent, unfocused, and too often subject to short term, short lived initiatives.’ This path to citizenship itself is too expensive and full of hurdles that even British born UK citizens would struggle with. The report highlights that in London ‘long-term residents, including children and young people who wish to get to citizenship currently pay £993 (plus £500 immigration health surcharge) four times over a ten-year period, before applying for indefinite leave to remain costing £2,297, and thereafter the cost of citizenship is £1,282. This totals £9,551 per person for the route to citizenship on top of any legal fees.’ By contrast, the Home Office spends less than £400 in processing a citizenship application.

Such a high cost prompted the House of Lords Committee to conclude that ‘It is inequitable that the Government should seek to make excessive profits out of those seeking naturalisation.’ The Times picked up on this report stating that the cost of citizenship is now £1330 and the fee for registering a child stands at £1,012.

Shot in the foot?

For immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa this is an extortionate cost. And for the UK government, it is counter to its objectives of aiming to reduce immigration by promoting development in sub-Saharan Africa. This is because migrants contribute more to the development of their home countries in sending remittances—this blog has previously reported that remittances sent back to immigrant countries account for more investment than the total of Western development aid or foreign direct investment. The UK government’s hostile environment therefore runs counter to its international development agenda. If developing regions such as sub-Saharan Africa is instrumental to reducing illegal immigration to Europe, then those already here who are instrumental to developing their homelands and therefore cutting down immigration should be empowered rather than declared hostile. The hostile environment only means more money to be spent on international development and loss of reputation for the UK as a safe haven.

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