Too little has changed since 'Windrush', despite the promises of Tory politicians – Maya Goodfellow exclusive

“The Conservatives have not committed to ending the hostile environment but instead seem determined to defend it at all costs”

Maya Goodfellow

We spoke to Maya Goodfellow, author of Hostile Environment – How Immigrants Became Scapegoats about her book, the key issues it raises and how the upcoming General Election offers the chance of an end to the Tories’ ‘hostile environment.’

Q: Your book looks at the ‘hostile environment’ that has been created towards migrants. What do you think were the key reasons behind this?

The demonisation and scapegoating of migrants is at the heart of the UK’s hostile environment.

We should recognise, understand and end the hostile environment that was brought in under Home Secretary Theresa May and the Coalition Government through the Immigration Act 2014 and Immigration Act 2016. However, one of the key arguments of the book is we need to also better understand the UK’s history and recognise this country did not simply become a hostile environment overnight or with these acts – that it has, in different ways, been a hostile environment for particular groups of migrants or people perceived as migrants for decades. 

In Hostile Environment, I track the history of the UK’s immigration legislation and rhetoric – exploring the racism embedded within and how this is related to the country’s colonial history. In doing so, I find that anti-immigration arguments we hear now, namely that immigration is bad for the economy and bad for ‘British culture, were commonplace throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties. Even though many of the people perceived to be immigrants came to the UK from colonies and former colonies as citizens. These anti-immigration arguments were also present at the turn of the 1900s, when virulent antisemitism resulted in one of the first pieces of modern immigration legislation, the Aliens Act 1905, which was directed at Jewish people fleeing pogroms. This history, as well as the existing nature of the debate, shows it is the racialisation, dehumanisation and stigmatisation of migrants that has paved the way for a UK government to proudly call its package of policies the ‘hostile environment.’

Q: Recently, some senior Tories have said or implied that ‘hostile environment’ is either over or going to end under their watch. Do you think there is any truth in this?

Since the so-called Windrush scandal, campaigners have made some important gains when trying to end parts of the hostile environment. For example, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants successful challenged the Government’s ‘right to rent’ policy, which turns landlords into border guards by making them check the immigration status of prospective tenants. The High Court ruled the policy was incompatible with human rights law as it produced discrimination on the grounds of nationality and ethnicity, but the Government said it was going to look at challenging this decision.

Too little has changed since the so-called Windrush scandal, despite the promises of many Conservative politicians that the ‘debate’ would change and people would be treated more humanely. The hostile environment – rebranded the compliant environment by the Government – largely remains in place. The Conservatives have not committed to ending the hostile environment but instead seem determined to defend it at all costs. This means people are still being denied access to basic services they need to live – from healthcare to housing.

Q: Do you think that this election gives us a chance to end the hostile environment?

The Labour Party have said they will end the hostile environment, which means there’s a real chance this election to put an end to this callous package of policies altogether. This would make a significant and positive difference to the lives of many people in the UK. In terms of the broader hostility towards migrants, refugees and people perceived as the ‘other’, there needs to be a fundamental shift in debate and policy. This would mean recognising that it’s anti-immigration politics, not immigration, that is the real problem in the UK.

Q: Labour’s policy in this area has shifted dramatically since the ‘immigration mugs’ – what do you think of the new manifesto in this area ?

It’s important to recognise how different Labour’s 2019 manifesto is from previous elections, including in 2015 when the party promised ‘controls on immigration’ and 2010 when there was a section of the manifesto called ‘Crime and Immigration’. 

There’s some very positive things in the Labour manifesto, including pledges to “resume rescue missions in the Mediterranean, co-operate with the French authorities to put an end to the horrific camps, and establish safe and legal routes for asylum seekers”. Some of the other commitments Labour have made include ending indefinite detention, closing down Yarl’s Wood and Brook House detention centres, reviewing the whole detention estate and bringing back better rights for domestic workers – which were undermined by the Coalition Government.

Unlike in 2017, Labour have not pledged to end free movement. Instead, in part due to activists organising on this issue and passing a particularly positive motion at Labour Party conference this year, the party’s language has softened and they have promised to keep free movement if they UK remains in the EU and try to protect free movement rights if Brexit goes ahead. This matters not only to protect free movement but also to level up the rights for non-EU migrants, all scenarios thus far suggest ending free movement will mean levelling down EU migrant rights. The former route, of levelling up, is the more hopeful and positive direction of travel.

Labour could still more consistently and vocally challenge anti-immigration narratives and move away from talking about immigration as only ever tied to the economy. There’s a risk with doing this that you continue to reproduce dehumanising narratives about who is seen to contribute and who isn’t. In addition, there’s an implicit suggestion that there’s a relationship between low pay and migration as reference to ‘undercutting’ is in the migration section. People who move to the UK and are classed as ‘migrants’ need to be seen not as additional to, but as a crucial part of the struggle for a better world.

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