Report from “Fight NOT Flight”: SPBC inaugural panel event on the Hostile Environment

By Surabhi Vanalia 

The UCL Student Pro Bono Committee held its first termly panel event on 21st November 2019, with a focus on recent and previous immigration policies which make up the ‘Hostile Environment’. This refers to laws and policies which make it difficult for migrants without secure leave to remain to reside in the UK.

Our panel was chaired by Isabel de Leon, and included three expert speakers. Frances Webber, Vice-Chair of the Institute of Race Relations, is a former barrister with in-depth knowledge in immigration, refugee, and human rights law; Simon Cox, a barrister and Associate Tenant at Doughty Street Chambers, is currently employed as a migration lawyer at the Open Society’s justice initiative; and Akram Salhab, Advocacy and Campaigns Officer for Migrants Organise, currently leading their Patients not Passports initiative – advocating for migrants facing charges for using NHS services.

History of the Hostile Environment

Simon began by giving us an introduction on the evolution of the ‘hostile environment’, starting with a rich description of current policies by tracing their roots to their colonial past:

Until the Second World War, London was at the heart of a global empire that drew legitimacy from the fact that everyone was a British subject. There was free movement to the UK formally and legally until the countries under the Empire got independence. That was the position of the UK, a global hub for trade and movement.”

This changed following decolonisation midway through the 20th century when hostile policies began emerging from all ends of the political spectrum. Political parties began exploiting xenophobic panics about migrants from the colonies moving to the UK to their advantage. This colonial hangover resurfaced in the Windrush Scandal in 2017.

Frances elaborated on this history, explaining the intensification of deterrent policies from the late 90s onwards under the New Labour government, including denial of asylum support for people who had not claimed asylum straight away. However, hostile immigration policies reached a nadir after Theresa May became Home Secretary, which caused a quantum shift provoking increased organised resistance by migrant communities and others as a consequence.

Simon’s presentation further explored how hostile immigration has become an overarching, totemic, policy objective, subsuming many, if not all aspects of life for migrants. Akram added that it is important to remember that there are very active migrant communities in this country presently fighting back against such policies. A subversive tactic employed by those in favour of hostile environment policies is to ensure that migrant livelihoods and contributions are not visible in British history.

You can find resources on the history of BAME and other migrant communities, and the impact of hostile environment policies on the Institute of Race Relations website.

Immigration Policing

A consistent theme highlighted by our speakers is the involuntary conscription of civil society into policing migrants. Frances listed examples of numerous services to which access is contingent on proof of immigration status. This included access to basic services such as healthcare, as doctors have to check nationality before they are able to provide treatment. Additionally, landlords are unable to let properties to individuals without conducting immigration checks, universities are having to monitor their students as part of the Prevent agenda, and employers face sanctions should they fail to check the immigration status of their employees.

Moreover, Frances explained that the effect of these policies is that they not only attack undocumented migrants, but also make life difficult for migrants who reside legally to continue doing so. Many migrants are forced into illegal or exploitative work to support themselves and their families, particularly as renewing their immigration status is disproportionately costly. Another ongoing example of the onerous effects of these policies can be found in the provisions for domestic workers, who fought for decades to have their worker status recognised as independent from their employer, only to have it reversed in 2012. Domestic workers are once again tied to their employers and face the threat of exploitation.

Simon’s presentation additionally explored data sharing policies which require the police to record the nationality and ethnicity of both witnesses and suspects and share this data with the Home Office if they think they are not citizens. Simon posited that this negates the police’s primary duty to protect the public from serious harm (contravening Articles 2,3,4 of the Human Rights Act 1998), as these policies deter migrant victims of serious crimes from reporting criminal acts committed against them, such as women in abusive relationships, or workers in exploitative employment. There have been anecdotal reports of police turning away victims if they cannot prove their immigration status. Furthermore, last year, the government introduced a rule in the criminal courts for judges to enquire into the nationality of defendants on trial. Simon commented that “this data is not relevant to the trial, it doesn’t matter what your citizenship is, it is simply a way of demonstrating that nationality matters even when it legally doesn’t.”

Hostile environment policies additionally affect single women in particular, as they often undertake exploitative work for survival after leaving an abusive relationship. Frances recommended looking at the judgment of the PPT, as there is a specific section on gender and migration, which examines the multiple discriminations that migrant women face: as women, as migrants, and as workers.

Political and social implications

Frances noted that policies which treat certain people as unwanted, result in violence. This is amplified by the right-wing tabloid press, demonstrated through the increase of violence and hate crimes against minority communities during and after Brexit referendum.

Simon reflected that while immigration appears to be this all-encompassing political object, that’s not actually how people view it in society. Public servants rarely say that it is more important than basic rights and services. He emphasised that political pressure is vital in ensuring that reform of the hostile environment can become the primary objective of any elected government.

“The law’s durability depends on politics, and politics depends on political pressure and organising. Everyone needs to be conscious that there is not only an altruistic interest in looking at the welfare of migrants; every member of society actually has a vested interest. For instance, migrants who are ill should be treated to prevent spread of infection; crimes should be allowed to be reported in the interest of public safety.”

Akram added that mobilising political pressure often starts through grassroots campaigns. “It is really important to make these stories visible to the public, to make everyone aware that there are real people living these lives, but this is very difficult, as no one wants to come out and say that they are undocumented.” Reflecting on his campaign currently, Akram commented:

Inevitably we have to face the fact that the reason why migrants are being scapegoated is because people can do this with impunity.”

Using the excuse of health tourism, migrant access to healthcare is deterred through NHS charging, even though it amounts to 0.3% of total NHS expenditure. Akram gave an example of an asylum seeker he encountered when gathering testimonies for his campaign:

“I’m reminded of a young man who accrued debt of £7000 due to a blood condition which led to him having a stroke, left him paralysed, and was in intensive care for a few weeks. He initially avoided having any treatment for his condition due to the charging, which led to his stroke. The finance department in hospital said that they could not put a plate on his head because it was chargeable. It is a bizarre and dangerous situation where clinical initiative is conflicting with financial considerations.”

What can we, as students or aspiring lawyers, do in our capacity to counter the policies of the hostile environment?

Akram emphasised the need to move away from simply raising awareness of noxious hostile environment policies in favour of working with other organisations and professions to mobilise against these policies, determining that this is an area in which students can be especially helpful. Furthermore, as many students progress to become practicing lawyers, their expertise in matters of human rights and public law can prove to be instrumental:

We have seen the weakening of human rights and equalities act and an over strengthening of hostile environment policies. In this case, lawyers can be particularly useful in changing the policy.”

Simon believes that the best way is to start working through pro bono such as with organisations like Migrants Organise, to identify areas where legal rights are very clear or where they are unclear and need strengthening.

Finally, Simon agreed with Akram that organised resistance against policies of the Hostile Environment are the best way forward:

All these campaigns are not necessarily saying that there should be open borders, just to keep it out of hospitals, and keep it out of schools. Doctors and teachers do not want to police people before treating or teaching them.”


It was a pleasure hearing the panellists’ thought-provoking insight into this complicated and overlooked aspect of law and policy. We are extremely grateful for their attendance at UCL.

We hope this encourages more students to explore pro-bono opportunities, either through campaigning or casework which assist migrants. Lastly, we would like to thank our Events Officers, Shreya Chakraborty and Claudia Chen, and support from the Centre for Access to Justice for making this event possible.

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