The Hostile Environment
The Hostile Environment
Bethan Lant, a Project lead from Praxis, writes about the creation of a hostile environment for migrants and refugees.
In November 2017 Praxis, a Partner organisation of the Frontline Network, ran an event for frontline workers highlighting changes in regulations around access to healthcare. We explained that primary care services, essentially non-hospital services, used to be free for everyone, but new regulations meant certain migrants would now have to pay for certain community-based health services, including community mental health services and substance abuse services.
These new regulations were yet another measure in a raft of policies collectively termed “the hostile environment”. This phrase, coined by the Government, means the deliberate creation of an environment where certain migrants will be unable to access key services. The aim is to make it more difficult for migrants who have no immigration status (undocumented migrants, sometimes wrongly called “illegal migrants”) to live in the UK, persuading them to leave the country. Hostile environment measures create a series of internal immigration checks, making other services act as arms of immigration enforcement.
Identifying immigration status can be very tricky – I am an immigration adviser of 16 years and I still come across documents I am unfamiliar with. Most of these initiatives are therefore backed up by Home Office checking services which should help those with less understanding of immigration law identify whether a person is eligible for services. But it is never that simple.
Home Office records are patchy - in many cases it is not possible to find records of immigration decisions taken before the 1990s. Confusion is rife. On several occasions we have requested copies of Home Office records and we have been sent records of different people with similar names and dates of birth. And the Home Office can make mistakes. Following recent restrictions on who could open a bank account, banks were required to check on the immigration status of those opening new accounts, and subsequent checks found that, of those cases where the Home Office stated a person was not entitled to open a bank account, 10% were incorrect.
So we are left with a system where people unfamiliar with immigration law are making decisions regarding access to services, backed up by a Government body, which can – and does – make mistakes.
There is a separate argument to be had over the ethics and morality of denying anyone access to mental health services and/or shelter based solely on whether they have the right paperwork/documents. Even if it were effective as a way of getting people to leave the UK (and I have seen no evidence of this), can it ever be right to deny people basic medical care?
Even if you took the line it was legitimate to deny those without papers support, they are not the only ones affected by these new measures. Frontline workers working with homeless clients know it is difficult for clients to keep the correct ID/paperwork/documents. If those clients also have a mental health or substance abuse problem, it is even harder to keep the right documents. So even those with a legal right to be in the UK struggle to prove it.
There are more and more stories about people wrongfully being denied access to services either because they lack the correct paperwork or because they look or sound “foreign”. The consequences of these barriers to accessing services are very worrying. A hostile environment increases the risk of harm to individuals, and the impact on vulnerable migrants and homeless clients will be high.