Event on 20 June 2022: Status Now Refugee Week event: How do we campaign against the hostile environment?
Updated 14 July 2022: Report of Status Now Refugee Week event: The Hostile Environment – How do we hold the Government to account? Report of a roundtable discussion
Status Now Network organised a roundtable discussion event during the course of Refugee Week at the end of June. The theme of the discussion was holding the Government to account for its hostile environment policies.
Contributors to the discussion included Zoe Bantleman of the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, Julius-Cezar MacQuarie, organiser of the Night Workers Charter, Francesca Humi of Kanlungan, and Loraine Mponela, chair of Status Now.
Participants considered how the Government’s hostile environment policies continued to operate today, five years after the revelations of the Windrush generation scandal, and what campaigning work needed to be undertaken to continue to challenge their corrosive effects on the rights of migrant and refugee people.
The report of the discussion can be read here…
Report of Status Now Refugee Week event: The Hostile Environment – How do we hold the Government to account? Report of a roundtable discussion
Status Now Network (SNN) took up the invitation to organise an event during the course of this year’s Refugee Week and set up a roundtable discussion on the current state of the resistance to hostile environment immigration policies.
With an audience for the discussion physical present in the central London office of Migrant Voice and others joining by Zoom link, the discussion was chaired by SNN reference group member Don Flynn. The discussants were Loraine Mponela, of the Coventry refugee support group CARAG, Mariam Yusuf of the Manchester-based organisation WAST, academic and activist researcher Leah Bassel, the legal director of ILPA, Zoe Bantleman, Grainne McMahon of RAPAR, Francesca Humi of the Filipino community organisation Kanlungan, and Julius-Cezar MacQuarie, organiser of the Night Workers Charter.
The first item for discussion was the current state of hostile environment policies: is this still the best way to describe the way the government is attempting to manage migration?
Miriam Yusuf spoke from her knowledge of how the asylum system works. The experiences of the group of women asylum seekers she worked with in Manchester was that the hostile environment created anxiety and fear which made it difficult to integrate into community life. This shows up in supermarkets and at school gates, or wherever you go. We live in a society where we are made to feel alien. This seems to be the intention of the hostile environment, but we do at least have the resources of our own communities to push back against this imposed isolation and hardship. That is the role of groups like my own, Women Asylum Seekers Together, of WAST. As well has providing mutual support to counter the anxiety and fear the system creates it also gives us a platform to reach out to people in the host communities. When we have the opportunity to do this we build friendships and connections that make British society seem a little less hostile.
Zoe Bantleman spoke from the perspective of a lawyer who had to look at the overall structure and logic of immigration law. From that standpoint she felt that the hostile environment was more than the effect of laws passed in the last ten years and went right back to the legislation passed by Parliament in the 1960s – the two Commonwealth Immigration Acts of 1962 and 1968. This was the beginning of the ‘othering’ of migrants – the dividing line between the government deciding who belongs here and who doesn’t. We continue to see the ramifications of this across immigration, asylum and nationality law and other related areas. Following the racist logic of these laws we have to say that it is not just about dealing with ‘illegal’ migrants: anyone who can be deemed one of these ‘others’ can fall into the hostile environment. One of the multiple ways this can impact on them was set out in a recent report published by Migrant Voice on the effect of the fees the Home Office charges to people making applications for status. Combined with the sheer length of the time it takes to become settled and the complexity of the system, the procedures are generating insecurity and risk that legal status will be lost.
Precarity and migrant workers
The ways in which the hostile environment produces vulnerability to exploitation in the jobs market is the subject of research which Julius-Cezar MacQuarie has been involved in. He described his investigation of the scene around Spitalfields Market in London where many jobs involved network and were undertaken by migrants typically working for six days a week for low wages. Many layers of precarity had produced this concentration of migrant workers, many of whom were women who had been funnelled into this employment by the street-level bureaucrats of immigration control which includes doctors and social workers. The hostile environment impacts on people spiritually, mentally, and physically. The stresses it induces where seen whenever immigration officials came to the market, raiding for evidence of workers with irregular status. When this happened it seemed that almost the entire workforce would disappear so anxious were people to avoid contact with intimidating officials.
But it was interesting to see public perception of this group of precarious workers change during the period of the Covid-19 pandemic. Suddenly they were seen as the people getting food to our tables and providing other essential services: they were ‘key’ workers. But while this was a significant development at the time of the health emergency it is not clear that it is an attitude that has survived now that things are supposedly getting back to normal. Immigration raids on communities and workplaces are becoming more common. But we do now have a migrant paradox where workers are valued providing they slot into the places where we expect them to be found as labourers but who are at risk of losing the marginal degree of respect if the authorities can claim that they have infringed one of any multiple regulations that are generated by the hostile environment.
Francesca Humi developed this theme of the essential work with precarious status from her experience working in support of Filipino people. Filipinos have long had a strong presence in the health and care sectors, in the NHS and private providers and as agency workers. They were celebrated for their role during the height of the pandemic with people clapping on their doorsteps every week to show appreciation for them and all other essential workers. But this has not yielded any long-term benefit when it comes to immigration regulation. Migrant health care workers were not given any exemption from international health surcharge for example, and still had to pay the exorbitant fees that are charged whenever residents permits have to be renewed.
At Kanlungan we were being told by people newly arriving to take up health and care service jobs that they were being expected to work long hours with people with Covid and who hadn’t even been given the courtesy of induction on how they could shop for their own groceries during this time of exceptional restrictions. Many found themselves dreadfully overworked during this period. But if they informed their employers they wished to leave they were told that they would have to repay the money that had been spent on sponsoring their admission to the UK. If they did leave a job because of the burden of overwork the Home Office would only grant them 60 days to find a new employer, failing which they would be expected to leave the country. This had become a system in which people were being trapped into abusive and exploitative employment. They have shown themselves to be the conditions which have produced the high levels of Covid infection among ethnic minority worker and a disproportionately high death rate.
At least we can say that as a result of these experiences and the work that has been done by investigative journalists and other researchers there is a higher degree of awareness among the public about what is going on in the realm of migrant work. We have to hope that through our campaigning work we will get the advantage of this learning experience and it will become pressure to end the hostile environment.
What has been learnt from campaigning against the hostile environment?
Prominent campaigner and the co-chair of Status Now, Loraine Mponela, shared her experiences of fighting back. She explained the importance for migrant and refugee people in having a support group immediately around them to build the energy and resources for this work. In her case it took the form of the Coventry Asylum and Refugee Action Group, or CARAG, which supported her in all her campaigning.
We are alone; we don’t have our families; and so our support group has to become our family. In the case of CARAG we meet weekly and we help people with the practical issues connected to their asylum applications, such as find legal advisors to help with appeals. But there is also a more fundamental care work that is involved to keep people in good mental and physical shape during what is always a stressful and anxious time. A further role for the support group is its function in reaching out to potential allies to see what can be done with them to work for change. A good example of this is the work CARAG does with Status Now, which is why I am here today.
One of the biggest issues for refugees is housing. Many people live in very insecure situations and this was revealed during the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. We had to find ways to get people out of the night shelters they were reliant on and into accommodation that was safer. It was at this time we really appreciated the links we had made with the wider community. I am thinking of antiracist groups and trade unions in particular. They helped us with the important task of fundraising so we could begin to address the problem. We were able to work with the people supporting the right of everyone to a home and got the advice we needed to set up our own housing project. We were even able to find a few landlords who said they would be willing to let properties to CARAG and this was the basis for our success in establishing a five-bedroom house for our members. This is just a beginning and we hope to take on more tenancy agreements for this purpose in the future.
My answer to the question “What have we learned from our campaigns?” is, I would say, understanding where empowerment comes from. It comes from learning to work together, first among the people most directly affected, but from base to move on and find other allies. This is a way to make the environment a little less hostile.
One of the most notable campaigns to expose the effects of the hostile environment took the form of the movement in solidarity with people from the Windrush Generation. Leah Bassel offered her thoughts what could be learnt from that work.
She explained the scandal here involved the fact that this group of migrant people, even after 40 or more years as subjects or citizens of the country and resident in the country throughout that time could suddenly find themselves framed as the racialised others who could be made victims of immigration control. What we saw happening here was the longstanding processes of colonialism being brought to the fore. This was a shock to people to people who had no experience of the workings of immigration control and in that moment they became willing to listen to the voices of people who were suffering these injustices. The public conversations of that time have since moved on and have been caught up in the culture wars of the subsequent period, particularly in areas like education. But it is still important to note that the dominant narrative about a country and its relationship to immigration can be disrupted and people then become open to different understandings of what is going on.
Zoe Bantleman picked up this point to consider how what had been learnt about immigration control was being carried into the current controversies over the Nationality and Borders Act and the Rwanda removal scheme. Many of the immediate battles over these issues were being fought out in the courts and it remains important that lawyers doing the work of defending the rights of migrants and refugees consider their role in the wider solidarity movement. There are a number of ways to view the lawyer’s tasks.
The first of these is to get accurate information out to the public as to the way the legal system actually functions. But even more important is the role of practitioners in upholding the fundamental principle of the rule of law. We are having to deal with a Government with a large majority in Parliament and this makes it difficult to successfully challenge the Government during the Parliamentary process to ensure new laws are consistent with international obligations, including international human rights obligations. However, where law or policy breaches human rights, legal challenges can be mounted in the courts. The difficulty with this is we then have to face up to the fact that a government with a large Parliamentary majority might deal with this by undermining the powers of the courts to consider and offer remedies in these challenges. This is the threat being posed by the new Bill of Rights Bill which is intended to reduce the scope for legal challenge based on the failure to apply universal human rights standards. Already, our domestic courts show deference to the decisions of government ministers in this area. For one person who was to be on the recent Rwanda flight, our courts refused to grant an injunction against removal. It was only the last minute intervention of the Strasbourg Court which prevented a risk of possible irreversible harm being done.
The attack on the legal profession itself, with solicitors and barristers working for clients whose cases need to be considered from the human rights standpoint being denounced as ‘lefty lawyers’ and subsumed into the culture war is becoming a major theme in the public debate and needs to be resisted. This is not a term assigned to lawyers acting for and advising the Government on those same laws. If we are ever to have an immigration system that acknowledges the human rights of people who move across borders than we will need a legal profession that can act in the best interest of their clients without being criticised by the Government.
Are there areas where we should be looking to step up our campaigning work? What more needs to be done to present a complete picture of the nature of the hostile environment to public opinion?
Mariam Yusuf suggested that one of these areas is most definitely that of housing for refugee people. Asylum seekers in particular are in a very insecure situation, often being accommodated in very low quality places with big problems over disrepair, lack of privacy and who are not treated with respect by the landlords. They are anxious about complaining about these conditions because they feel it might jeopardise their applications for protection status. There was a legal challenge during the height of the Covid pandemic involving mothers and children in asylum seeker accommodation. There are problems with the role that Migrant Help plays in managing the system. Trying to get through to their phone line is very difficult, involving long waits on the phone and not very helpful responses.
Refugee support groups in the North West are having a meeting about this next week and out plan is to use that to launch a campaign that helps asylum seekers access their rights to decent accommodation and raise awareness of this problem more generally. So much of our work is about helping to build confidence among refugees to speak out and fight for their rights. We are having some early success in this work. Accounts of poor housing have been carried in the social media and this has been picked up by the national media on at least one occasion that we know about with the evening television news picking it up and questioning one housing provider about the complaints of poor conditions.
The discussion turned to campaigning that needs to be done in relation to labour exploitation. Julius-Cezar MacQuarie considered what needs to be done to get more support from the trade union movement for migrant workers. With regard to the Night Workers Charter campaign, which formulated a set of demands aimed as reducing risk tis group of migrants has to deal with, he said there was a need to recognise as a stand-alone form of work with features that marked it off from day-time work. Night workers provide a range of services to people who work in the day-time and who are more likely to be members of trade unions and enjoy higher degrees of protection in their employment. But the multi-layer precarity of people working as night workers, particularly for the large number of women night workers, which runs from low wages in business that are themselves often very fragile, producing a lack of job security, through the risks of having to travel during hours of darkness, and includes the social isolation that comes from having to take rest hours when the rest of the world is at its more active. r
My research work in markets revealed a whole world of people who were loading and unloading fresh foodstuffs that the rest of us would be consuming from breakfast and lunch but at anti-social times that preventing them from being a part of our daytime world. There are stresses and strains associated with this that need to be recognised and talked about. The trade union movement often seems to be distant from all this employment activity. There are some examples of unions, and I can mention Unite here, which do attempt to challenge things like shift patterns, but we have yet to see a comprehensive engagement with the totality of night work. Among the facts that the unions would have to engage with is that a large segment of this workforce consists of migrants. The obligation to work in this area arises from the fact that migrants are under pressure from multiple sources to work in sectors that most indigenous workers would avoid. The unions have to recognise the specific characteristics of nightwork, its multilayer precarity, and the additional vulnerabilities that a migrant workforce has to contend with. Out of 11 unions who could potentially deal with these issues only one has shown any degree of interest. Please do have a look at the Night Workers Charter, consider signing it, and do what you can to give this group of workers a voice.
Accessing the evidence currently held by migrant and refugee organisation
The roundtable moved on to discuss the general problem of being able to access the evidence about the experiences of migration which is the property of migrant and refugee people themselves, and being able to make us of this in a campaigning activity that has a chance of bringing about change.
Grainne McMahon has considered this question in her work with RAPAR, a refugee support organisation which makes use of participatory action research methodologies. She said that she found herself in agreement with much of what Julius-Cezar had been saying about the night-time economy and this related to her own experiences in Northern Ireland where a large food and agricultural sector was kept running by migrant workers.
There are general issues to consider here which is about the way we talk about the hostile environment and the ways we talk about what we do and the ways we tell our stories. This all becomes an issue of concern when we find our ways of talking and acting is not bringing about the changes we want to see. They system is set up to push us back and is now moving into the intense phase of the culture wars, which play crucial a role in dividing people and distracting them from the things that they really ought to be thinking about and acting on. Thinking about the ways we can handle these challenges will have to include our tactics for giving voice to the experiences of migrant and refugee people. The fact is that as we move beyond the experiences of the hostile environment that have been acknowledged as a disaster for the Home Office, and the months of the pandemic when migrants came to be depicted as heroes, we are now moving into a time framed by the obsession of the Borders and Immigration Act and the dangers which are supposed to be inherent in migration, and this is proving fertile for a renewal of the hostile environment agenda.
In RAPAR we are familiar with the frustration of people who tell us that they have told their stories so many times, but nothing ever changes. Yet the problem is that we have a need for these stories, and a need to have them told over and over again, in order to do our campaign work. But they are being told at a cost to the people concerned and they can be traumatising and re-traumatising. Perhaps what we need to think a lot more about is not the telling and the re-telling but trying to do more about the circumstances in which the voices will be heard.
Leah Bassel offered her views at this point on what might be done to create the best conditions for ‘hearing’ migrant voices and increasing the chance that this will lead to real change. Drawing on the experience of the 2018 Permanent People’s Tribunal on violations with impunity of the rights of refugee and migrant people, where she sat as a juror considering evidence, she described it as an opportunity to ‘listen differently’ to the accounts of and oppressive migration control system from the standpoint of those who are most involved.
The framing of this as a ‘tribunal’ was initially confusing because this although it was presented as a quasi-legal procedure it couldn’t reach a decision that was legally binding. But it was a process that acquired its importance from the way in which it brought people from a wide range of backgrounds and who had experienced different aspects of the hostile environment to give their accounts in ways in which each gathered momentum from what had preceded it and to forge an account of the oppressiveness of the system which became increasingly powerful and comprehensive. It included evidence from trade unions and the providers of public services like the NHS, from religious groups and disabled people’s movements, and developed these alongside what people who had had to contend with as asylum seekers, immigration detainees and exploited workers. We heard from people involved in campaigns for reparations for colonialism and anti-racism all in the same space as migrant domestic workers and public transport cleaners explaining how the system operates to deny them rights.
What is particular important about the People’s Tribunal process is the way that in encourages people to listen to each other and shape their accounts in ways that weave a comprehensive understanding out of what is lived as fragmentary experiences. The politics of listening is something we need to think a lot more about, especially with regard to the circumstances when it facilitates reflection and incorporation into an understanding of what is going on in the world. It is not about who can shout the loudest or grab the most attention but finding a path through difference to build a more substantial solidarity. Sometimes this meant challenging each other. The tribunal heard testimony from Disabled People Against the Cuts which asked us to think again about the implications of emphasising the importance of work and consider what work looks like from the point of view of migrant people with disabilities. The case was made that the demand for dignity and respect has to encompass the great breadth of human lives and experiences and not, by focusing on just a few aspects, like ‘work’ or ‘contributing’, end up generating stigma for people who also need justice. It was a privilege to witness these offerings of evidence and exchange of viewpoints during the tribunal process and I would commend the use of it as a political action aimed at forging unity.
Opening up to contributions from other participants
Jenny, joining the discussion from Wales, urged us to consider the significance of place as one of the points of difference for the experiences of migrants and refugees. The rhetoric coming from the devolved government in Cardiff was clearly intended to generate a more positive response to the plight of refugee people than anything coming from the Westminster government. This seems to be the case in Scotland as well. This reveals a difference between the real environments which refugees experience which, depending on what part of the country they are can, can be much less hostile than what is intended by law and policy. This is another aspect of the different experiences that people have in their real life experiences which needs to be taken into the comprehensive account we are aiming for.
Margaret spoke about the work of Waling Waling, a migrant domestic worker support group, and its involvement in the 2018 Permanent People’s Tribunal. She said she felt the most important aspect of the work was the process which brought so many different groups together and facilitated the exchange of experiences and viewpoints. It becomes a way of helping people understand that it is not they who are doing wrong, but a system which makes criminals out of anyone caught up in it. It becomes a very good way of building a community around the issues and giving people the opportunity to have a voice in the public forum. What comes out of it, if not a legally binding decision, is the important awareness that migrant people have agency and they can act to change things.
Khadija explained why the 2018 tribunal had been important to her as a migrant domestic worker involved with the Waling Waling support group. She had been involved in its work from the earliest date, when the first session of the tribunal was convened in Barcelona. From that point on it was a very positive experience for her group. Migrant domestic workers live for years in conditions of isolation, confined to private homes and not even having the opportunity to talk to people living the same lives as their own. Now we were able to share experiences with people from lots of different nationalities across Europe. We were able to give an account of how our right to a secure work and residence visa was taken away from us in 2012 at the start of the government’s hostile environment. The campaign to get that back is continuing and we are using the networks we built up during the People’s Tribunal to carry that forward.
Rhetta, joining from Manchester, talked about the recent success in stopping the removal of asylum seekers to Rwanda. Achieving this has required an amazing solidarity that stretched from the lawyer representing the asylum seekers before a judge in Geneva and the amazing activists were ready to take direct action to stop the flight departing if the ruling had not gone the way it had. The level of organisation to achieve that solidarity was also extraordinary and uplifting. It is a movement that must connect with the new drive towards the agency of other workers, like the transport workers taking strike action at the moment, in order to defend their standards of living. In the next period more people will be joining them in taking industrial action. This is a movement that migrant solidarity networks have to relate to if we are to build the unity of ordinary people which will be needed to secure basic rights.
Jenny came back again to say she thought that we should be going out to look for people who also have experience of hostile environments not related to the immigration regime to appeal for their support. We need to get beyond people in poverty blaming their situation on migrants and instead make the case that there is a reason common to both their situation and the situation of migrants for the hardships they are having to deal with.
Julius-Cezar suggested that we might make a special appeal to people who have experience of being migrants but who now have British citizenship. They often have stories to tell about their journeys which challenge the idea that Britain is a welcoming country to anyone who plays by the rules.
Grainne wanted to underline the point others had been making about the importance of the new wave of trade union struggle underway. There is clearly something important going on there and we have to find ways of relating to this desire to resist which is growing everyday. But also, let’s look at what people in the Republic of Ireland have achieved in recent times in bringing about changes in their country’s immigration laws. We can add the success in overthrowing the oppressive abortions laws that have limited the right of women to control their own fertility. What has been going on there, how did they achieve it, and how much of that can be reproduced in the UK?
The meeting concluded at this point and an invitation was extended to everyone to join Status Now’s work in organising a People’s Tribunal over the course of the next 12 months. A meeting for everyone interested would take place online on Monday 11at 5pm. If you would like to join he People’s Tribunal Working Group please email Don Flynn at email@example.com.
Download a copy of the report here:
20 June 2022: Status Now Refugee Week Event “How do we hold the Government to account for its Hostile Environment?”
The setback in the Court of Appeal over the challenge to refugee deportations to Rwanda has added urgency to the task of fighting for the human rights of migrant people.
The recording of this hybrid event – zoom and live in London – is available on request:The Government’s Hostile Environment bandwagon is rolling again despite the fact that its racism and injustice was clearly exposed during the height of the Windrush generation scandal. What needs to happen among the networks and coalitions of migrant and refugee rights organisations across the UK to get their campaign for justice underway again?
The Status Now Refugee Week event, taking place on Monday 20 June, starting 5pm, has assembled a panel of migrant and refugee activists who will be setting out their views.
Loraine Mponela, from the Coventry-based CARAG, and Miriam Yusuf, representing Manchester’s WAST, will be setting out their ideas alongside academic and activists Leah Bassel and Grainne McMahon.
New discussants will be adding their contributions.
Julius-Cezar MacQuarie, Ambassador for Migrant Voice willing be telling us of his experiences as a worker in London’s night-time economy.
Francesca Humi, Kanlungan Filipino Consortium, will set out the record of the work she has been doing to support trade union activism among Filipino healthcare workers.
also Zoe Bantleman, Legal Director of ILPA (Immigration Law Practitioners Association)
The event can be attended in person, at a venue in central London. To register to attend in person CLICK HERE
You can also join the discussion by Zoom. To attend via CLICK HERE
If you plan to come and need some assistance contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We have a limited budget and can see what assistance we can offer.
There is a downloadable flyer for this event here:
Refugee Week site: https://refugeeweek.org.uk/events/hostile-environment-hold-government-account/
23 June 2022: 7.30pm online StatusNow4All North West region event
A meeting to discuss how asylum seekers can fightback against extreme substandard housing conditions.
About this event
You are invited to join a discussion on the difficult conditions that people seeking asylum have to endure with regard to housing.
Housing is a basic necessity for any human being. Our speakers’ panel will consist of people living the experience of the UK asylum system, and who have written about the poor housing conditions they have endured. Together, they have much to tell us about what needs to be done to resist this denial of human rights.
This will be a learning opportunity as we hear the stories of people who are fighting against the inhumanity of the UK asylum regime.
We hope you will join us for this vital meeting!
Participating in the speakers’ panel will be representatives of South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) who have been leading the fight for decent housing for asylum seekers in Sheffield. From Manchester we will be hearing from Refugee & Asylum Participatory Action Research(RAPAR), and also Refugee Women Connect(RWC) who are campaiging in Liverpool.