End the hostile environment – defend asylum seekers and refugees

5 October 2020

Fred Leplat and Mike Picken analyse the latest Tory plans to make the Hostile Environment even crueler and call for support for the weekend of action on 10-11 October by Migrants Organise.

The recently revealed Tory plans to disperse asylum seekers thousands of miles away are another example of the racism of the UK governments’ brand of neoliberalism.  Meanwhile, existing asylum seekers within the UK are facing inhumane treatment by private contractors, incarcerated and facing Covid outbreaks, deportation, and frequent movement that also risk spreading the virus among the asylum community. 

For decades, migrant communities and asylum seekers have lived under the shadow of a pervasive and dangerous system in Britain. Theresa May introduced the Hostile Environment policy in 2012 while Home Secretary. But it was Labour immigration minister Liam Byrne who in 2007 coined the term when he said that the Labour government is “… trying to create a much more Hostile Environment in this country if you are here illegally.”

The Hostile Environment has killed many and destroyed the lives of thousands. Britain has one of the worst records in Europe in allowing unaccompanied child refugees to be reunited with their families. The Hostile Environment led to the appalling treatment of the Windrush generation and other Commonwealth citizens not being able to prove their right to remain in the UK. As a result, many lost their jobs, were denied medical treatment, and even deported. 

Now the Tory government is planning to make the Hostile Environment, which they rebranded the Compliant Environment – even crueler by planning the use of off-shore detention centres. Migrant detention centres used by Australia on distant islands such as Nauru have been condemned for their abuse of human rights. Behrouz Boochani vividly describes the appalling conditions in these centres in his award-winning book No Friend But the Mountains.


The attacks on the few rights that migrants and asylum seekers have will appeal to the Tory party membership – half of whom believe that Islam is a threat to the British way of life – and to its supporters who voted for Brexit. The English nationalist government of Johnson, Gove, and Cummings now want to deliver on their racist and xenophobic promise for Britain to regain its sovereignty and control its borders. That was the same message put out by Farage and UKIP, who must be delighted that the Tory party is now carrying out their policies.

The Tory party may appear incompetent in containing the Coronavirus as Johnson makes U-turns every week. But it is at the same time charging ahead to shift to the right the political values of state institutions and society more generally. It is carrying out a “culture war” against what it sees are progressive and liberal values. This is what lies today behind the plans to attack migrants and asylum seekers. This “culture war” is also behind the row over singing Rule Britannia at the Proms, the proposed appointment of right-wingers Moore and Dacre to head the BBC and OFCOM, the order to schools that they consider anti-capitalism as an “extreme political stance”,  and the departure of top civil servants. 

Today the anti-immigrant hysteria is focusing on the alleged flood – in reality, a trickle – of ‘illegal’ migrants who took advantage of mild summer seas to cross the Channel in rubber dinghies and makeshift rafts. In a jingoistic and flag-waving exercise, Home Secretary Priti Patel has mobilised the navy to aid the border patrol in pushing them back. This will only cause more misery and deaths as desperate migrants and asylum seekers seek even more dangerous routes into Britain like the 39 Vietnamese migrants found dead in a lorry in Essex last year.


The Tories have handed responsibility for housing existing asylum seekers in the UK to private contractors such as the infamous Serco and Mears groups.  In Scotland, three asylum seekers have died in recent months after hundreds were moved out of their Glasgow homes by the Mears group and incarcerated in hotels, prompting calls from MPs for a public inquiry.  In Birmingham, dozens of asylum seekers housed by Serco were moved in September, some 120 miles to London, despite testing positive for Covid and being required to self-isolate. Leaders of seven councils have written to the UK government describing the actions of Serco as “beyond reckless”.  In October, desperate asylum seekers facing Covid outbreaks in Glasgow have also written to the UK government demanding action.  The Tory government policy of putting its appalling treatment of asylum seekers ahead of public health remains despite the condemnation of the Scottish Refugee Council, pointing out the reality of most asylum claims being regarded as genuine.  

The UK government has also attacked lawyers defending asylum seekers threatened with deportation.  In August, the Home Office Twitter account attacked ‘activist lawyers’ for opposing ‘returns’.  Formal complaints from organisations representing lawyers, including the Law Society and Bar Council who stated that the Tory attacks “undermine the rule of law”, led to the removal of the tweets.  Yet when Channel 4 News pointed out that a deportation flight to France chartered at a cost of around £30,000 involved the deportation of just one asylum seeker, the Tories once again claimed it was all the fault of lawyers.


While freedom of movement within the EU is something that socialists should defend, the EU’s own treatment of migrants and refugees remains appalling.  The 2016 deal with Turkey to hold migrants outside of EU territory was a terrible response to the rise of far-right racism within EU states.  It has meant that the EU now ignores the gross violations of human rights by the increasingly authoritarian government of Erdogan, whether it be against Kurds, the left opposition in Turkey, or even against EU member states as in the current diplomatic dispute in the EU over Cyprus and response to the situation in Belarus.

The task of mobilising opposition to Britain’s closing of borders and treatment of asylum seekers and refugees is becoming more and more urgent. And the end of European free movement in January will constitute the biggest expansion of border controls in many decades. 

We urgently need a successful protest movement around asylum seekers and migrant rights to push back the far right’s narratives. The coalition that would organise such a mobilisation must be inclusive, democratic, and migrant-led.  A first step is the weekend of action against the Hostile Environment on Saturday 10th and Sunday 11th October 2020 called by Migrants Organise. That weekend must mark the stepping up of the campaign to demand justice for all the lives destroyed by Britain’s racist immigration policies and to make clear that Black Lives Matter also means that the Hostile Environment must end. 

This article was originally posted here

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