Hostile Environment Policy – British Till When?

[Written by Hester Lee]

[Image Credit: Creative Commons// Fleming]

Birthright citizenship, while now almost exclusively applicable to countries in the Americas, still holds considerable political issue in the UK as it sheds light on the current dispute of certain migrant’s claims to citizenship and the vilification of migrants in the media, regardless of their absolute legal right to be in the country.

The issue is dominating news in the US, where Trump claims it’s ‘the only country in the world’ that has birthright citizenship (despite being among 34 other countries who share this law) and declares he will revoke this law by executive order, regardless of the fact it is codified in the 14th Amendment of the constitution; thus, impossible to repeal by executive order. This is a classic Trump gambit: spouting false statements in order to draw voters’ attention back to the issue of immigration. This new pursuit in immigration policy is yet another volume in a catalogue of anti-migrant action and rhetoric which has dominated the US public sphere. Nevertheless, while it is easy to berate Trump and the US for their outlandish policies and the negative depiction of migrants, I think it is imperative to understand the extent to which the UK is equally racked with this injustice.

It was only in 1983 that the UK altered their birthright citizenship law from granting citizenship to those born on British soil to that where a child must have at least one of parent who is a citizen or ‘settled’ in the UK. The issue of citizenship and migration in UK politics became particularly prevalent after the recent ‘Windrush Scandal’ earlier this year. The ‘Windrush generation’ refers to the hundreds of thousands of people who came to the UK from Commonwealth countries in the years 1948-1970, as the UK government sought to relieve labour shortages after the war. The British Nationality Act 1948 granted those who migrated from these countries the right to settle in the UK, then further extended in 1973 to the permanent right to settle if they had arrived before 1973. Many of these migrants never gained documentation as they believed they were British citizens – as they had come from British colonies. Others came as children on their parent’s passports, and with the 1973 law providing them with a legal right to permanently settle, they didn’t see a need to gain documentation. In fact, they were never given documentation by the authorities – having fallen through a neglected crack in immigration law over several decades.

The repercussions of this policy failure have been elucidated by the implementation of a ‘hostile environment’ by the Conservative government since it took power in 2010. Despite the overarching objective of the policy being to limit migration and encourage those already in the country without ‘leave to remain’ to voluntarily leave – a policy of quotas and target objectives superseded – with a detrimental effect on the attitudes and actions of government and wider society towards migrants. In the case of the Windrush generation, this meant challenging and deporting those who had every legal right to be in the country. It was only after accounts dating back as far as 2013 came to light of individuals who have lived in the country since their infancy being fired, denied treatment by the NHS, threatened with deportation and put in detention centres that scandal took hold. Subsequent backtracks in policy to address this issue have been made and statements released of apologies and an altering of the government position claiming, “no-one with the right to be here will be made to leave”. This statement ignores the fact that this scandal and mistreatment of migrants by authorities has come as a direct consequence of the ‘hostile environment’ they had pursued as a core policy objective. It raises the question; how has this clear injustice, persecution and disregard for the law been allowed to happen and how different really is it, to the anti-migrant rhetoric and policies of the Trump administration?

Undoubtedly the media has played a role in shaping the attitudes of the people in relation to immigration; the vilification of migrants has had far reaching effects on their ability to live a peaceful life in this country. There is a correlation between the anti-migrant climate the media cultivates and demand for harsher immigration policy, which subsequently enables the unjust policy and poor treatment of migrants, as seen in the case of the Windrush generation. The anti-migrant rhetoric in the media is further extended not just to migrants but to refugee and asylum seekers and can be argued is a key reason the UK is so far behind others EU countries on their intact of those seeking refuge.

Professor Greg Philo, senior lecturer in Sociology here at Glasgow University, recently gave a talk hosted by Student Action for Refugees (STAR) on the perception of refugees and asylum seekers in the media. Philo highlighted that refugee and asylum seekers, and migrants in general, were continuously depicted in main tabloids such as the Daily Express and the Daily Mail in association with words of invasion; ‘flood’, ‘overflow’ and ‘surge’, with emphasis on the detriment they cause to the economy, despite the fact that it was grounded in next to no truth, and in some cases outright lies. He drew a further link to the fact that many saw no distinction between migrants and refugees; it’s simply the stigmatization of certain groups of people, regardless of their differences in legal status, or reasons to be in the country, which drives most of the public resistance to immigration.

Philo suggested that this resistance rather than being founded in genuine opposition to migration or resistance to taking in refugees, was in fact fueled by an atmosphere of fear and insecurity as a consequence of living in a free market society. This wider socio-economic factor has meant that it is far easier to blame the deficit on spending money on refugees and asylum seekers, as exhibited by the figures printed on tabloids such as ‘Asylum seekers cost you £786 million’ (Daily Express 2015) and migrants ‘rob young Britons of jobs’ as ‘one migrant lands in Briton every minute’ (Daily Express 2011), rather than blaming the government’s policy of austerity, or capitalism more generally. Headlines such as the ones above harness the fear and insecurity of the population into a political ideology, mainly that of anti-immigration and Euroscepticism.

A study in 2013 by Scott Blinder, University of Oxford, titled ‘Imagined immigration: the impact of different meanings of “immigrants” in public opinion and policy debates in Britain’ draws a connection between the negative presentation of asylum seekers in the media with people’s perception immigrants in general. It finds that most people have an ‘imagined immigration’, related to but distinct from actual immigration. A significant finding was the fact that majority group of Britons ‘show stronger opposition to immigrants from racial and cultural backgrounds different from their own’ (Dustmann and Preston, 2007; Ford, 2011). This fits with the notion of a widely shared ethnic hierarchy in perceptions, including widespread negative stereotypes of ethnic groups that rank lower in this perceptual ranking (Hagendoorn, 1995). Moreover, the study argues that ‘in politics in general, media coverage and elite rhetoric often work through agenda setting or framing: telling people what to think about’ (McCombs and Shaw, 1972) and, through framing or ‘second‐level agenda setting’, how to think about it (McCombs and Ghanem, 2001).

Thus the headline printed by the Daily Express in 2011; ‘Briton’s 40% surge in ethnic numbers’, particularly aids the ‘hostile environment’ pursued by the Conservatives, extending it not only towards migrants but those of ethnic backgrounds, as it carries the presupposition that an increase in ethnic diversity is bad by tying ethnicity with the negative image of immigration already seeded in the public’s ‘imagined immigration’. An atmosphere of distrust and opposition to different ethnic groups in general has been born, regardless of their immigrant status, or when they settled in the UK. In relation to those who had been born in the UK but to migrant parents, there seems to be little distinction. The negative representation of migrants in the media has reinvigorated a deep-rooted racism which runs through our society in which minority groups are stigmatized and treated unequally due their ethnicity. Philo outlined this pattern that has permeated throughout history, whether it was the Jewish, the Irish, Pakistani, Roma Gypsies, Caribbean, Eastern European, or refugees and asylum seekers, the media will select a group to vilify and persecute.

Thus, while we do not have the same issues with birthright citizenship America is currently debating, the issue of citizenship and portrayal of migrants in the UK is equally as fraught. We must be aware of the misrepresentation of migrant culture in the media and the mistreatment of those who have as much claim to be here as any other British national.

[Image Description: A closed British passport lying at an angle on a red and green surface.]


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