What should replace the hostile environment?
The majority of the UK public consistently say they want immigration control. But there is a fundamental misunderstanding about – and misrepresentation of – what “immigration control” means in the UK. All the major political parties are perpetuating these misunderstandings, which are an obstacle to any serious attempt to address this issue.
Even liberal politicians talk tough on strengthening controls at the border. But the UK cannot control immigration simply through border checks. This is because the UK allows in large numbers of people temporarily to visit, study and work, but currently has no system for ensuring they do not ‘overstay’, and leave when their permission has expired. There is no systematic way of knowing who is in the UK, what they are doing, and where. As a result, only a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of irregular immigrants thought to be here ever become known to the UK authorities.
The current response to this problem is ‘the hostile environment’, an attempt to encourage irregular immigrants to leave the UK by seeking to deny them access to certain services and opportunities here. The hostile environment is not therefore an adjunct to immigration control; it is immigration control.
From both an ethical and practical standpoint, the hostile environment has come in for considerable criticism, from both sides of the immigration divide. Unsurprisingly, the two main opposition parties commit in their manifestos to ending it. Even its Conservative authors do not defend it, preferring to leave it unmentioned, and instead committing in their manifesto to “overhaul the current immigration system, and make it more fair and compassionate” to avoid any repeat of the Windrush scandal.
None of the manifestos say anything about what should replace the hostile environment. If it is to be scrapped, what would the consequences be and how will immigration actually be controlled? This silence may not be surprising, for no strategy for seeking to address irregular immigration is currently popular with the UK public. The realistic options include a ratcheting up of forced deportations and an even more hostile environment at one extreme, and amnesties to allow irregular immigrants to stay in the UK at the other. Other possibilities include the assisted voluntary return of migrants – offering public cash to support resettlement – and a national ID card scheme.
Few, if any politicians, are keen to explain those choices to voters, much less to advocate any or all of those policies. That suggests that politicians still haven’t learned the lessons of the last decade. Keeping the public in the dark about the hard choices of immigration policy is only storing up trouble for the future – again.