Home Secretary Priti Patel recently made headlines for her comments on the UK asylum system at the Conservative Party Conference. She has claimed that too many people coming into the country illegally are being granted asylum as a result of a broken system and “do-gooders” within the legal profession. This comes after innumerable statements from the Home Secretary advocating for a stricter and more rigid immigration system, with the suggested system due to be enforced from next year seeming to follow these lines. Despite having promised a review of the ‘hostile environment’ policy in July, she announced it will stay in place until at least 2022. This demonstrates a lack of desire to follow through with that promise, something which is not out of character for Boris Johnson’s government, nor is it a position unique to the current cabinet. For years, the UK has used immigration as a scapegoat, pointing a finger at ‘relaxed’ immigration policies whenever issues with funding arise – whether that be for the NHS, education, or any other of the UK’s countless underfunded sectors. Now that the UK’s departure from the EU is imminent, immigration policies and immigration law are set to change dramatically. This article will cover two of the biggest stories in the history of modern immigration in the UK and how these have brought us to the position we are in today.
The UK’s history with immigration is intrinsically linked to its colonial past, with large numbers of people moving to the UK from former colonies of the British Empire. The British Nationality Act 1948 gave citizens of these colonies the right to live and work in the UK without a visa, and mass migration was encouraged as part of post-war reconstruction to boost the economy and fill roles in public services like the NHS. The number of people to have arrived in the UK from Commonwealth countries before 1971 is estimated to be over 500,000. A large proportion of these people were from the Caribbean and have been named the Windrush generation after the ship MV Empire Windrush, which brought many of them over to the UK. In 1971, Commonwealth citizens already living in the UK were given indefinite leave to remain by the Immigration Act 1971. This meant they could continue living and working in the UK indefinitely. Requirements for all other Commonwealth citizens wanting to move to and work in the UK became more stringent.
The Home Office didn’t, however, keep a record of who was granted leave to remain, and didn’t provide those concerned with any paperwork. This meant that many of this generation were not aware that they were not British citizens, but Commonwealth citizens with a leave to remain in the UK. This should have given them the same rights as a British citizen to live and work in the UK, but, due to the lack of paperwork, records, and the destruction of landing cards of the Windrush arrivals in 2010, many had no proof of this right. Those without legal documentation were told they needed proof to continue to live in the UK, and many who chose to move back to their country of birth for short periods of time were wrongly told that they could not return to the UK permanently.
For many of the Windrush generation, problems began in 2012 when Theresa May, then Home Secretary, announced an intention to create a “really hostile environment” for irregular migrants (migrants entering the UK through improper routes). This included introducing extra checks of immigration papers, leaving anyone without proper documentation unable to, amongst other things, use the NHS, open a bank account, or access higher education. Not only did this affect irregular migrants, but migrants of the Windrush generation with no documentation were forced to go through rigorous checks to ensure the legality of their residency in the UK. This led to 83 people being forced to leave the country despite having the right to stay here indefinitely. Many more were made homeless or denied access to higher education as a result of these checks. This was revealed in 2018 and has led to over 1,000 applications for financial compensation. More than 12,000 people have now been given the correct documentation since April 2018.
These actions from the government do not, however, go far enough. Not only is the amount of financial compensation insufficient, with just £10,000 for being deported and £250 for every month of homelessness, but it fails to acknowledge shortcomings prior to the introduction of the ‘hostile environment’. The Windrush Scandal was not the sole injustice experienced by these migrants at the hands of the UK government; many had already been refused re-entry to the UK after a period of absence. The Immigration Act 1971 provided that Commonwealth citizens were exempt from the rule that leave to remain would lapse if the person in question left the UK for longer than two years. Prior to 1988 when this section of the Immigration Act was revoked, many of the Windrush generation were unable to prove their indefinite right to remain and thus were refused re-entry. This unlawfully forced people to remain abroad, depriving them of their leave to remain.
Whilst the Windrush generation is not the only migrants to have suffered at the hands of UK immigration policy, the injustice faced by these people has received more attention than any before. It is a clear demonstration of the UK government’s historic disregard for the wellbeing and rights of immigrants and Commonwealth citizens. As David Lammy, Member of Parliament for Tottenham and former lawyer, said “[the Windrush Scandal] has happened here because of a refusal to remember our history”.
The UK joined the European Economic Community (“EEC”), the predecessor to the European Union, in 1973, making it subject to the freedom of movement of qualified industrial workers, a founding principle of the EEC. This was expanded by the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, which created the EU, and allowed freedom of movement of all EU citizens. This has allowed all EU citizens to reside and work in the UK, and likewise for British citizens to move elsewhere in the EU. As a result, immigration from other EU Member States has played a big part in shaping British society today.
As with all migrants, the vast majority make outstanding contributions to society. As an example of this, 13.8% of all NHS staff are of a nationality other than British, 5.5% being EU nationals. These are statistics for just one organisation, and don’t take into account the large numbers of first-generation and second-generation immigrants with a British citizenship, but they go some way to show the valuable contributions made by migrants in the UK. It seems surprising then, that the rhetoric at the time of the 2016 EU referendum was disproportionately centred around immigration, and the idea that immigrants in the UK are a leading cause of the demise of many public services. Encouraging the idea that immigrants steal jobs and are drains on the economy, the Leave campaign provoked an increasingly anti-immigrant sentiment. Because of this, control of UK borders became one of the key demands of those voting Leave and has been an important part of the UK’s negotiations as the government sets out what the country will look like post-Brexit.
With the rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric, years of creating a ‘hostile environment’ for both irregular and regular migrants, and a history of disregard towards the individuals affected by this, Patel’s comments come as no surprise. The new points-based immigration system set to be enforced from 1 January 2021 is a clear move towards strict immigration regulation, and an attempt to keep everyone out of the country, other than those the government deems to be the most qualified and skilled workers. There are concerns that this system will be too restrictive, and that its aim is solely to keep as many immigrants from coming to the UK as possible, with the result that even Patel’s parents would not have been allowed in under the new system. With this, the recent stance of the Home Office against ‘lefty’ immigration lawyers, constant cuts to legal aid, and a postponing of the revision of the ‘hostile environment’ seem to pre-empt increasingly aggressive immigration policies, of which asylum seekers, refugees, migrants and foreign-born British citizens will be the victims.