Author: Simon Usborne
For a doctor in Birmingham, it was the pregnant patient eating less to save money to cover an NHS bill. For a primary school teacher in an inner-city school, it was the moment he sat down with new parents for an uncomfortable conversation about their child’s nationality. For a London lecturer, it was the worry that A-level students were being put off university for fear of being deported. In banks, hospitals, lettings agencies, schools and lecture theatres, the government’s current immigration policy has effectively erected a border within, along which people delivering vital services are coming to terms with unwanted new powers.
Since the Windrush scandal erupted earlier this year, the government’s immigration policies have faced unprecedented scrutiny. For months we have learned about the effects on a generation wrongly classed as “illegal”. But if it looked like a sudden crisis for the government, it has been a daily reality for years for thousands of people on the frontline of the deterrent policies that Theresa May first described as a “hostile environment” in 2012, when she was home secretary. Last week, NHS doctor Neal Russell told how he treated a baby with complications that could have been avoided had the mother not been too frightened to attend antenatal appointments. He handed back a medal for his lifesaving work abroad because he did not want to accept an award from a government whose policies have created fear and mistrust in the health services.
This environment, recently rebranded as “compliant” rather than “hostile” by the Home Office, is complex and far reaching. Chastened by the backlash to the scandal, the Home Office says it has paused some policies. In July, it announced a three-month suspension of data sharing between HMRC, the DWP, the DVLA and the Home Office, but only for people over 30 (to protect the Windrush generation). Yet such actions barely touch the web of interwoven legislation, administrative policy and a default position of suspicion that is invisible to most of the public, but has been tightening for years. “The reality,” says Gracie Bradley of the human rights group Liberty, “is that unless people work in the affected professions or are subject to these measures, very few have any idea how deeply embedded they are. I think that’s why the government thinks it can potentially get away with calling it ‘compliant’ now.”
Before it became law two years ago, campaigners and lawyers had long warned that the impending 2016 Immigration Act would effectively outsource immigration control to the general population and lead to the kind of discriminatory mistakes that resulted in Windrush citizens being threatened with deportation. The law was the sequel to the 2014 Immigration Act, which also sought to tackle immigration in every corner of life. The 2016 act, when combined with other measures, amounts to a structural change in the way immigration enforcement is done in this country, Bradley says. “We have frontline workers who are really concerned about the way this facilitates discrimination.”
Dr Francesca Zanatta is a member of an institution that is legally required to perform immigration checks on behalf of the government – a university. The Italian academic in children’s rights at the University of East London says the hostile environment – of which she is now a part – “is like a disease, a virus”. “I see it as an infringement of the universal declaration of human rights which says everyone has a right to education,” she says.
International students are a large cohort in the government’s attempts to target illegal immigration and drive down net migration. It has become harder to apply to attend UK universities, and harder to work after graduation (international students are only allowed to work 20 hours a week). Students must undergo “credibility interviews” and those with visas must register with the police within a week of arriving.
The controls do not stop after enrolment. Universities must also subject international students to more rigorous attendance rules and periodic document checks. Failure to comply can result in the loss of the licence that allows institutions to admit international students, whose fees they increasingly rely on to balance the books. In 2015, the National Union of Students said these controls meant some universities were declining students who came from “high-risk” countries.
Zanatta says that while lecturers at her university don’t perform the checks themselves, many staff feel uncomfortable with the environment they create. She also fears the effects on some UK students. “Recently, I was approached by a secondary school student whose friend didn’t really have ID because they had arrived here aged three,” she says. “They asked what would I recommend. And I didn’t have an answer … People are very fearful of exposing themselves to the possibility of being deported.”
Luqman Onikosi has been fighting against deportation for years now. After getting a degree at Warwick University, the Nigerian student lost his visa when the worsening symptoms of hepatitis B, which he had lived with since 2009, meant he could no longer work at the Nigerian embassy in London. While he appealed to remain in Britain on physical and mental health grounds, he fundraised for the fees to study for a master’s at the University of Sussex. He argued that returning to Nigeria risked his health after two of his siblings had died there from the same condition.
Onikosi, now 38, was granted a temporary admission document normally given to asylum seekers, but in 2015, weeks before he was due to complete his MA in politics, the Home Office rejected his appeal. This meant the university had no legal choice but to revoke his student status. The government rejected a further application in January this year, insisting in a letter that Onikosi had a sufficient support network in Nigeria, where he could also be treated adequately. “You must leave the United Kingdom now, or you will be liable to be detained and removed,” the letter says.
“Education is supposed to be based on merit, not privilege, but the hostile environment has changed that,” says Onikosi, who is challenging the decision. Prevented from working by his immigration status, he relies on a network of supporters. He volunteers and is helping other migrant students in Brighton. “I came here to legally study and have done everything right,” he says. “To be categorised as an illegal immigrant affects everything about your existence. You no longer belong to society.”
Irial Eno, 28, a junior doctor in the West Midlands and part of Docs Not Cops, a group campaigning against the “border in the NHS”, says the hostile environment policies are “a complete contradiction of everything we signed up to do”. The group argues that billing some migrants for care, sharing their data with the Home Office and imposing strict document checks in GP surgeries and hospitals, as required by the 2014 law, undermines the core principles of the health service, erodes trust in doctors and puts patients at risk.
In May, the Home Office suspended the agreement that required the NHS to pass data belonging to suspected undocumented migrants to the Home Office. Liberty had argued that the agreement risked putting people off seeking urgent care, and welcomed the change (although it noted it was “worryingly vague”, as data sharing will still happen in cases involving unspecified “serious criminality”). Eno fears it will take more than this to restore trust. “It will be hard to convince people who have been betrayed by the NHS, or heard stories of betrayal, that the NHS is back on their side,” she says.
The doctor fears that charging migrants is already having the same effect. Since April 2015, non-EU patients without a visa have been charged in hospitals at 150% of the cost of the care they receive. (Those with visas longer than six months are charged £200 a year to cover any treatment, a fee that will soon double.) Undocumented migrants, or those unable to show their status, have been wrongly denied urgent healthcare, including radiation therapy for cancer, and refused registration at GP surgeries (urgent care, A&E and GP care cannot be denied under the law).
At a general practice in Birmingham, Eno says she met a heavily pregnant undocumented woman from Eritrea who was terrified she would be charged for giving birth. She was right – charges can easily climb above £5,000 for maternity care for non-EU citizens – but she was not aware that some urgent care, including maternity care, cannot be refused if a bill cannot be paid. “She had been hardly eating or buying clothes for her enlarging body to save this pitiful amount,” the doctor recalls. “She was really afraid that she would be forced to give birth at home alone.”
Doctors themselves do not wield chip and pin machines, but Eno resents the weight that the hostile environment can add to clinical decision-making. “It’s just so undermining to feel complicit with this and to know that some of our patients are getting letters demanding payment in a way that makes them feel unwelcome in healthcare,” she says.
It is an unsettling feeling for frontline workers, this sense that decisions – and human error – can have life-changing effects on vulnerable people. Lidia Estévez Picón works at a central-London homelessness charity, The Connection at St Martin’s, and says the hostile environment is contributing to homelessness. “We’ve had clients who have indefinite leave to remain but have lost jobs after employment checks because they did not have the right documents,” she says. “It is also more difficult to help them out of homelessness because they need the ID to rent a home and to claim benefits, but applications for that ID can take months.”
Picón says concerns about access to healthcare are common, but that outreach workers are limited because offering immigration advice without formal training is a crime. The new immigration laws have also effectively made it an offence for citizens of the European Economic Area to be homeless: rough sleepers were deemed to be abusing their rights of residence under EU free movement laws, regardless of individual circumstances, or whether the same laws had, in fact, contributed to their homelessness.
The Home Office even worked with local authorities and some homelessness charities on joint patrols (although not The Connection at St Martin’s, Picón says) to locate and deport people, until the high court ruled the policy was unlawful last December. By then, the laws had already damaged trust. Like Zanatta, Picón, who is Spanish and arrived in the UK in 2013, is also working amid uncertainty about her own status. “I’m not affected in the same way, but when you see what is potentially going to happen after Brexit, you don’t want to become one more victim of the system,” she says.
One Nigerian woman in her 50s, who prefers not to be named, was homeless for a time during her own struggle in Britain’s hostile environment. She arrived legally in the UK in 2004 but fell out with her sister, with whom she was living. Later, she lost her passport – and finally developed severe respiratory and kidney problems. The Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network applied on her behalf for leave to remain, but the charity says a rejection letter was sent to an old address. “I was told to leave the country and I lost my benefits and a mobility scooter,” the woman says by phone, between puffs on the oxygen mask she must have with her at all times.
Without benefits, the woman could not pay her council rent. “It was hell,” she says. “I couldn’t do anything because I had no papers, no leave. It was cruel; I need to eat and I need my medication.” A year later, in 2016, the charity successfully secured leave for her to remain, due to exceptional circumstances, and she now has healthcare and a place to live. Andrew Jordan, a manager at the Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network, accepts that benefits might have been stopped under such circumstances before the hostile environment. “But, in our experience, to do it to somebody with such severe health problems would not have happened,” he says.
Landlords have become one of the largest quasi-border forces under the new laws. The 2014 Immigration Act required them to check the immigration status of new tenants, and the 2016 law made it a crime in England to rent to anyone not eligible for housing – with a maximum punishment of five years in prison. “We really disliked the principle of effectively being made border guards,” says Chris Norris, a landlord and director of policy at the National Landlords Association.
Of particular concern was the requirement for repeat checks for some tenants. “We try hard to get our members to keep the relationship friendly, but I’m not sure there is any way to be upbeat when you are going to someone’s home and asking them to demonstrate why you shouldn’t ask the court to evict them,” says Norris, who was also concerned about the safety of landlords asking for papers.
The laws may also be compelling landlords to play it safe, effectively discriminating against some would-be tenants. A survey by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants found that 51% of landlords would be less likely to consider letting to foreign nationals, while a mystery shopping exercise showed that a British minority ethnic tenant without a passport was 14% less likely to receive a positive response from a landlord than a white British applicant without a passport. Norris shares this concern. “We aren’t hearing stories about racial discrimination, but we are hearing about rational business decisions to go with the easiest candidate,” he says.
What Norris calls “administrative expediency” also affects access to bank accounts, without which renting becomes a near impossibility. Under pressure, the home secretary, Sajid Javid, told the home affairs select committee in May that he had instructed banks to suspend checks on the status of new applicants and existing customers, “until I am more comfortable that we have it right”. Until then, banks were required to run names against a Home Office database of illegal immigrants and deny access in cases that matched. Mistakes were common (in a sample of 169 new bank account refusals, 17 applicants (10%) should not have been listed as disqualified), yet Home Office guidance told banks that, even if a customer could provide supporting evidence, “the default position should be to refuse the application” anyway.
The reach of the hostile environment has been almost limitless. Employers face fines or raids for failing to check the immigration status of workers. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency has powers to refuse and revoke driving licences, which for many migrants can be vital ID for accessing other services. A new offence of “driving when unlawfully in the UK” is still to come into force, giving enforcement officers additional powers to stop and search suspected illegal migrants.
One headteacher in a school in Essex has highlighted that children in his school are being denied access to free meals because their parents’ immigration status affords them “no recourse to public funds”. An inner-city primary school teacher, who prefers not to be named, says immigration laws have compromised his relationship with pupils. As part of the official school census, schools were required, from 2016, to ask parents and children for their nationalities and countries of birth, and submit the data to the Department for Education, which in turn had an agreement to share it with the Home Office. The policy created confusion and discomfort in classrooms, leading to fears that parents might stop sending children to school, and was scrapped after a campaign. In a now familiar refrain, Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said that “schools shouldn’t be used for border control”.
“As a teacher, you often do things that people might not necessarily think is a teacher’s job, but this felt different,” the primary school teacher says. “I felt very uncomfortable asking five- and six-year-olds about their immigration status.” Last month, it emerged that the Home Office still requires schools to share the addresses of suspected child illegal immigrants.
Where the Home Office has not yet paused parts of its hostile environment, its response to criticisms of the still wide-ranging laws is generally the same: these are laws, passed by parliament, that protect Britain. “The system was put in place to deter illegal immigration and to prevent people who didn’t have the right to be in the country to access public services,” the prime minister’s spokesperson said in April at the height of the Windrush scandal. “It’s in the country’s interests to have a secure immigration system in relation to these cases.”
But those responsibilities sit uneasily with many of the people whom the government now requires to assist it. And while mistakes are so common, and the stakes for migrants so high, campaigners are calling not only for a return to the drawing board, but a change in the tone. “I hope that it might be a blessing in disguise, to overhaul the way the Home Office works,” Onikosi says. “But it’s also like the Windrush migrants are ‘worthy’ migrants and other migrants who are somehow not worthy still have to prove themselves.”
“People still imagine that illegal immigration is someone sneaking in on the back of a lorry, determined to live the life of an outlaw,” says Bradley, who also points to the high costs of visas and legal support as yet further obstacles. (The cost of an indefinite leave to remain application went up £92 last month to £2,389, for example, while cuts in legal aid have vastly reduced access to legal counsel.) But very often “the reality is that it’s people who come here with permission who are unable to retain their status”, she says. Processing errors, lost or stolen documents and slow decision-making can all leave people vulnerable. “In a fairer system, with decisions made right the first time and people not priced out of justice or citizenship, far fewer migrants would become undocumented in the first place.”