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Torture survivors and the Hostile Environment – how the Windrush scandal exposed the darkest corners of immigration policy

Written by
Freedom from Torture
Date of Publication:
08 May 2018

In Britain and worldwide people have been watching with horror as the Windrush scandal impacted on an ever growing number of people. A relentless stream of stories have emerged of people, mainly elderly Caribbean-born, who have been detained, threatened with deportation, refused healthcare, bank accounts, been made homeless and denied the right to work.

Sound familiar? The scandal has provided a window into the murky depths of British immigration policy and, in particular, a set of policy decisions made in 2012 by the then Home Secretary Theresa May to ensure a 'Hostile Environment' aimed at supporting a drive to reduce net migration figures.

Everyday life would be made as difficult, costly and challenging as possible for incomers to Britain in order to discourage people from making the journey, to settle or to encourage them to leave.

Responsibility for assessing entitlement to basic necessities such as housing, bank accounts, healthcare, and education has been passed to ordinary citizens: landlords, bank clerks, teachers, healthcare workers are all now seen by the government as outposts of immigration control, required to assess immigration status and to provide or refuse services based on these assessments or pass the information on to government agencies.

Ostensibly, the target for this policy is those individuals who have no right to be in the UK. The reality, as Windrush has shown, is that this policy is such a blunt instrument that almost anyone whose status is not easily demonstrable to be watertight can fall foul of the Hostile Environment with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Here at Freedom from Torture, we see the consequences of Hostile Environment policies daily. Torture survivors already struggling with the aftermath of their appalling experiences report being detained, denied access to healthcare, being threatened with deportation, problems accessing housing and opening bank accounts and general confusion as to what rights they have.

Legally, those still awaiting a decision on their asylum claim and those who have received a positive decision and have been given permission to stay, should not be targeted by any kind of government policy designed to boost removals.

In practice, it is impossible to expect hospital workers, landlords, teachers and so on to understand the complex web of entitlements of all the different types of immigration status, not to mention the individuals themselves swept up a complex and unfamiliar system. Torture survivors end up among those caught up in a policy rooted in and driven by, as per its name, hostility.

The result has meant torture survivors being wrongly detained, wrongly charged for healthcare or refused services, struggling to access education or get a job once they have been given the right to stay.

And it has other effects too: our Proving Torture work has shown that an explicit policy that views all incomers to the UK with suspicion impacts on the way asylum applications are dealt with, as torture survivors are not believed and forced to provide ever-increasing documentation to prove they need safety here.

Recently we learned that the Home Office now includes information on ways of returning to their country in the confirmation letter they send to new asylum applicants as they start their process of claiming asylum. This creates and underlines the assumption that people should not be here unless and until they are able to absolutely prove they are entitled to be.

Confidence in the asylum and immigration system among the public is low. Far from reassuring people, Hostile Environment policies only serve to further embed mistrust both in newcomers to this country and the system itself.

With Amber Rudd's departure as Home Secretary, it is time to rethink the way we approach and manage migration, including asylum, to restore confidence and humanity in the system in all corners of our diverse society.