‘Positive, welcoming, liberal, forward-looking’.
This is how Michael Gove summarised the Government’s approach to immigration only this week. Did he not get the Windrush memo?
Immigration lawyers, human rights organisations and migrant communities have for years now tried to draw attention to the dangerous impact of the Government’s policy of establishing a ‘hostile environment’. However public discussion of immigration has instead focused on net migration figures and linking immigration to crime and a crisis in public services. There has been publicity about successful appeals against deportation and doubts over the true age of asylum seeking children.
These stories have provided convenient scapegoats for politicians faced with a dissatisfied public. One need not examine the impact of austerity on the NHS and housing when this can be blamed on rising net migration.
In the final weeks of the EU referendum, fear of immigration was weaponised and exploited – think Farage’s infamous Breaking Point poster and Leave campaigners raising the spectre of EU expansion into Turkey meaning increased free movement to the UK.
Growing public concern about rising net migration has been legitimised without any real examination of either the veracity of the basis of these concerns or, just as crucially, the impact of the response on individuals caught up in our immigration system.
In a speech in October 2016, the Secretary of State, Amber Rudd told us that immigration must be reduced in order to ‘change the tide of public opinion’. She just took a reading of public opinion as the driving force for policy on immigration, without a substantive analysis of factors underpinning this opinion.
Absent in so much of the public and political debates have been personal stories of the impact of our approach on individuals and communities. With this week’s extraordinary events and Amber Rudd’s declaration that the Home Office had ‘lost sight of individuals’, we can only hope that we are beginning to witness a tipping point which leads us as a society to examine the human impact of this rush to demonise immigration.
It is crucial that, if we do start to recalibrate our thinking here, we do so in a holistic manner. Hostility in immigration extends beyond the regulatory framework we have developed for employers, landlords and banks to policies on family reunification which have, since 2012, led to tens of thousands of divided families as British Citizens struggle to meet draconian requirements to bring their partners and children to the UK. It extends to the removal of appeal rights from thousands of migrants despite the fact that around 50% of Home Office decisions are reversed on appeal. It extends to the cuts to legal aid in the arena of immigration which leave vulnerable individuals without access to proper advice on extremely complex areas of law.
The recent public exposure of serious flaws in our immigration system, together with the need to develop a functioning, trustworthy system which can meet our needs in a post Brexit future, provides a great opportunity to examine our system in its entirety. We don’t just require policy prescriptions to deal with skills gaps in our workforce, we need to consider the moral basis of our Rules and the way in which they are implemented. How else can we ask Europeans to trust that their rights will be respected and protected in the future when they see how those who came to the UK 50 years ago are being treated today?
Theresa May should not listen to her former Special Advisor Nick Timothy who has urged the Government to stick to their guns on the hostile environment. The fact is that the Government’s policy applies well beyond illegal immigrants, to those here lawfully (as demonstrated by Windrush) and those who contribute positively to our economy and our society.
The disgraceful scandal of the treatment of the Windrush children has cracked the dirty glass behind which an immigration policy which is negative, hostile, illiberal and fixated on arbitrary migration targets has festered for many years. It is time to smash the glass completely. The many stories which lie beyond need to be told and, hopefully in their telling, we can have a public debate and ultimately immigration policy which truly is positive, liberal, welcoming and forward looking.