April has been a month of turbulence for the Home Office. The aftermath of the Windrush exposé has shaken British politics to its core. But it's now that Amber Rudd faces the biggest challenge of her role as home secretary to date, after admitting that her department had internal regional targets to remove illegalised people from the country – some from the Windrush generation who were already British subjects.
By setting targets, the intricacies of people's histories are erased, and humans are reduced to statistics. For those applying for asylum, it means details of persecution are overlooked in favour of increasing removals.
For many immigrants, and anyone working on issues around immigration, the admission that targets existed should come as no surprise. The push toward reducing net migration was a key objective under David Cameron's Conservative government, driven by Theresa May during her time as home secretary. It provided a platform for bypassing the rights of immigrants. Everyday aspects of migration have now become illegal activities – from renting homes to having the right to work, the civil liberties of immigrants have been gradually eroded.
The criminalisation of immigration hit boiling point with the introduction of the Immigration Act 2014, which deleted a clause mentioned in previous legislation that protected long-term British residents from deportation. The Act contained a package of measures aimed at "maximising" voluntary returns through the creation of a very hostile environment for individuals. It was a deliberate erosion of the rights of ethnic and racial minorities.
One consequence of this has been a monumental increase in the annual target of these so-called "voluntary" returns, from 7,200 in 2014-15 to 12,000 in 2015-16, detailed in a report by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration. The immigration minister chaired weekly meetings on performance against targets across the whole system.
Nevertheless, when Rudd was questioned on these targets by the Home Affairs Select Committee on April 25, she confidently stated "we don't have targets for removals". Less than 24 hours later, she admitted to the use of targets, and the calls for her resignation got louder. She has since pledged to get rid of any removal targets.
A culture of callousness
The use of targets has been well documented in the asylum system, with serious and damaging consequences for people seeking refugee status. In 2017, an asylum case worker wrote an anonymous letter to The Guardian stating that, initial training for caseworkers involved establishing "credibility" – largely around ways to explain disbelief of applicants' stories and write letters of refusal to applicants. This was combined with productivity targets attached to "end decisions". In February 2018, three former caseworkers and whistleblowers described the target culture, which encouraged biased interviews with those seeking asylum and "cut-and-paste" refusal decisions.
The complex experiences of individuals fleeing torture, sexual violence and various other forms of trauma and threats – many of whom face physical and mental distress – are disbelieved and discredited to meet a callous target culture. Credibility is a vague constant in refusal letters where small details – such as minor inconsistencies in the use of language – are used to undermine the validity of applicant's claims. To give just one example, a case we saw argued that credibility was in part undermined because the applicant confused "father" with "stepfather". The applicant had known him since she was two years old. It's an easy mistake in a second language, but one which builds a picture of someone who can be doubted.
When people seek asylum they are expected to give details of persecution in their first interview – something that can be very difficult for survivors of violence or trauma to do. From our experiences of working with people seeking asylum, it is clear that anyone who discloses experiences of violence, or who state that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, in any later interviews are often disbelieved and their "credibility" is reduced. People are silenced from the outset, making refusals a staple diet of Britain's treatment of refugees.
The death of compassion
The human consequences of target cultures, inaccurate asylum case reviews and "cut-and-paste" refusals are a constant presence in the asylum system. Take the example below: a letter sent by the Home Office to an organisation which has been working with a man seeking asylum, who has attempted suicide four times. Rather than show compassion, the letter – a copy of which was passed to us anonymously – shows a drive to deport at any cost, passing responsibility to the already stretched adult social services.
This was the second letter the organisation received, because the first had the wrong file attached. Subsequently, so did the second. Only on the third occasion was the correct information included.
What we have here is human error, a consequence of structural failures which have let targets triumph over accuracy. It's not the first either of us has seen, but this letter tells us something deeper about Home Office approaches to people seeking asylum: they do not care if this man attempts suicide. Like the evidence that the Home Office were escalating deportations of women on hunger strike in Yarl's Wood, it tells us that the Home Office's compassion for the lives of migrants has itself died.
Under the UNHCR's Refugee Convention, all applications for asylum should be considered on an individual basis and relate to one of five forms of persecution. As such, the very existence of a culture of deportation targets is a fundamental contradiction to the rights of refugees – and the rights of migrants more broadly.
Neither of us is surprised by either the Windrush expose nor the admission of deportation targets – but everyone should be. The hostile environment is a deeply racialised process, with serious human costs. It is not accidental, nor does it operate in a vacuum. That means we can change it.