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Guest Blog

Christmas Special: The Hostile Environment

The Twelve Days of Immigration Injustice

A guest blog by Naomi Reiss:

You can read more from Naomi at https://underwhosewings.wordpress.com/about/

You may or may not know that Christmas is actually about immigration. As colonial subjects, Mary and Joseph are forced to relocate to Bethlehem to register for a census (Luke 2:4), had a child in squalid conditions (2:7), then experience religious and social persecution when their newborn son is threatened with murder by an insecure monarch (Matt 2:16), and fled to Egypt as refugees (2:14). A few years down the line, they are able to return to their home country (2:20), but it’s still not safe for them in Judah (2:22), so they move to Nazareth (2:23), an unglamorous part of the world, but relatively stable.

Unlike Mary and Joseph, I grew up in a relatively secure middle-class white British family, and thus lived happily under the illusion that governments and authorities are there to protect people. The government might be complicated, bureaucratic, and rather ponderous, but basically it meant well. It was not until I was in my late teens that, thanks to my parents who volunteered with the local City of Sanctuary services for refugees and asylum seekers, I began to get to know people whose experiences were markedly different from mine. To them, the government was not there to do good. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The following is a few thoughts on the “Hostile Environment”: the UK government’s deliberate policy of making life as difficult as possible for certain people. I am writing it because I know that many decent citizens of the UK are largely unaware of what is being done in their name, and the name of their safety and their money. Because I am very far from an expert on this subject, I have decided to present it not as a comprehensive commentary, but merely as twelve quick facts or reflections, one for each day of Christmas, the season to think about immigration. I hope it may prompt you to question, do some further reading, and perhaps consider your politics in a fresh light.


1) The term “Hostile Environment” dates from the last Labour government, but was embraced in 2012 by then-Home Secretary Theresa May, who declared that “The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants”. It then became the catchphrase for the UK’s particularly harsh stance on immigration under the Conservative government. The stated purpose of the Hostile Environment was to “deny illegal migrants access to public and other services and benefits … in the expectation that this would persuade large numbers to depart the UK voluntarily” (p. 2).

2) One of the problems with this statement is the term “illegal immigrants”, which is used reductively and often inaccurately as a short-hand for “anyone we don’t really want”. It is, for example, frequently applied to asylum seekers, but it is not illegal to seek asylum. In fact, our right to do so, wherever we may come from, is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14. Only when their claim has been rejected and they have exhausted all appeal rights does their residence in the UK become illegal. Up to this point, they are neither “illegal immigrants” nor somehow “bogus”, but people who are exercising their legal right to seek asylum on British soil. The UK has far fewer asylum seekers than similarly-sized EU countries such as Germany, Italy and France.

3) A quick word on terminology: an asylum seeker is “someone whose request for sanctuary has yet to be processed”. “Refugee” is an ambiguous term: it can mean someone whose request for sanctuary has been accepted and who thus is now a legal resident of the country they inhabit – someone with “refugee status”. Or it can have the much more general meaning of anyone who has left their country because of “war, violence, conflict or persecution”. They weren’t thinking about climate change at the Geneva Refugee Convention in 1951, but that now joins war and persecution as a displacer of people, though this isn’t officially recognised as grounds for asylum yet.

4) One of the distinctive features of the UK’s Hostile Environment is the prolific use of detention centres, formally Immigration Removal Centres. These are, to all intents and purposes, jails, where people who are awaiting deportation or who have overstayed their visas may be held – but also asylum seekers who are awaiting the outcome of their case. The UK detained some 23,970 people in such centres in 2020, 13,136 of whom were asylum seekers. (Compare with Germany’s relatively few 2,777 detainees in 2018 or Spain’s 7,855.) There is no time limit on how long people can be detained for: the UK is the only country in Europe where this is the case. In 2018, 225 people were held for more than a year. An asylum seeker whose claim is still being processed, who has never been accused or even suspected of a crime, who may be a victim of torture and/or highly traumatised from war, can thus be locked up indefinitely, costing the taxpayer £95 a day and inflicting unquantifiable damage on their own physical and mental wellbeing.

5) Speaking of taxpayers’ expense, the housing of asylum seekers not in detention is subcontracted out to private security companies such as SERCO and Mears. (G4S lost their contracts in 2019, after repeated scandals and evidence that much of their housing was unfit to live in.) Asylum seekers are allocated a meagre £37.75 a week per person for food, transport, clothing, etc. Asylum seekers are not eligible for Child Benefits or many other benefits (p. 8).

6) With a very few exceptions, asylum seekers are not permitted to work. No matter how skilled, motivated, or enterprising you are, you have no legal means of increasing your income. One young man known to my family did manage to secure one of the vanishingly rare jobs open to asylum seekers – namely, a teaching position at a local university – and taught for a week before the government removed this job from the approved list. He was not paid for the week of work he had completed.

    7) If an asylum seeker’s claim is rejected, their benefits are cut off after 21 days and they are told they must leave the country within that time. They may receive limited further support if they have young children or can prove that they are indeed planning on returning to their country of origin (p. 9). They are at all times vulnerable to deportation. (Currently, the government is rushing to deport as many people as they can before Brexit, meaning many asylum seekers have had their screening processes cut short.) If they do not cooperate with the authorities who are trying to return them, they are made forcibly destitute (p. 9). We think the Victorians were unenlightened for putting poor people in workhouses, but at least they had a roof over their heads and some sort of employment. Today we put vulnerable people on the streets, with no access to public funds, let alone legal advice, and ban them from getting a job. Oxfam comments significantly that “relatively little is known about how the many thousands of people in the UK with no access to legitimate means of securing a livelihood actually survive” (p. 9).

    8) This is probably a good place to comment on the flawed “justice” of the Home Office’s handling of asylum claims. I’ll use the example of torture survivors as an illustration. Torture survivors are subjected to exhausting, trauma-triggering, and generally poorly-handled interviews of five hours or even more (p. 21). A particularly damning 2020 study by Freedom From Torture finds numerous instances of appalling interview practice, including caseworkers who were hostile, aggressive or dismissive, did not allow claimants to explain their experiences, and even laughed when a survivor described their experience of rape (p. 37). In 2016, they found that the Home Office mishandled the evidence in all 50 of 50 cases involving torture which were re-examined.

    9) Cases can drag on for years, even decades. Friends of our family include someone who had to wait thirteen years to get his papers, and another who had to wait three years before she even got a Home Office interview. Asylum seekers live in limbo of the most psychologically draining kind.

      10) A bit of (temporary) good news: COVID-19 prompted the government to extend the provision of free school meals or vouchers to children whose parents are asylum seekers and otherwise have no recourse to public funds. For as long as Gavin Williamson sees fit, that is.

      11) As is hopefully clear by now, the Hostile Environment has certainly succeeded in hostility, but it has not greatly succeeded as a deterrent to immigration or an incentive to return home. Voluntary returns have steadily dropped over the last four years (see fig. 4). Oxfam comments that “That hundreds of thousands of people would rather live in poverty and in constant fear of deportation – reliant on friends, transactional relationships, commercial sex work or low-paid illegal work – rather than return to their country of origin, suggests the failure of government policy” (p. 2). Indeed.

      12) I’ve focused on asylum seekers here, but follow the links to read about the manifold other injustices of the Hostile Environment, including the Windrush scandal, the deportation of EU migrants sleeping rough, and the splitting up of families in cases where one parent is not a UK national. The Hostile Environment has had a deeply pernicious effect on British society and politics, and many different groups have been affected.


      A final word on education: I didn’t know all this before I wrote this post – I’ve learned a lot since yesterday! So I’ve included a further reading list below, in case you also want to inform yourself a bit more. I’m also more than happy to chat about anything in this post – please do get in touch or leave a comment below. And if you’re looking for some useful New Year’s resolutions:

      Meanwhile, I wish you a blessed Christmas in the presence of Jesus, the refugee God born into a Hostile Environment, and those who you love.

      Naomi xxx

      Further reading:

      By Naomi Reiss

      Image Credit = Pixabay