By Rachel Benchekroun and Rachel Humphris 

The UK has consistently created a hostile environment for racialised ‘Others’. In 2012, however, this became an overt policy aim, and since then has become a normalised aspect of discourse on migration (SSAHE 2021). This is the first in a series of blogposts examining the policies and impact of the hostile environment across different aspects of everyday life. In this first post, we provide an overview, looking at where it began and the legislation underpinning it.  

The blog series does not aim to be exhaustive but to provide a useful reference for the key political and policy developments that have come to constitute the ‘hostile environment’. We hope that it will be a living resource for all those who want to research and organise against the hostile environment and its wide-ranging ramifications. 

Upcoming blogposts in this series will explore how the hostile environment restricts access to education, the NHS and the police, as well as the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) condition. 

Where it started 

Immigration policy in the UK has become increasingly restrictive and selective since the early 2000s, both shaping and shaped by hostile political and media discourses (Grayson 2013). In early 2010, David Cameron, then leader of the Opposition, announced that, if elected, his party would reduce net migration to ‘the tens of thousands’ by 2015, a pledge later included in the Conservative Party manifesto. Once in power as the Coalition government, this became a much-vaunted target1  (despite the unlikelihood of it being met in practice), and set in train a series of policies framed by the government as the ‘hostile environment’.  

As Prime Minister, Cameron set out his aim to ‘break [the] link between temporary visas and permanent settlement’, allowing ‘only those who contribute the most economically’ to stay. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Theresa May, then Home Secretary, not only highlighted new restrictions on student and working visas, but also – (in)famously – announced her intention ‘to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration’ (Kirkup and Winnett 2012). Cameron, May and other members of the government repeatedly blamed so-called ‘illegal migrants’ and their alleged ‘abuse of the system’ for problems in the economy and public services (without acknowledging how their government’s policies were increasing the number of people with insecure immigration statuses). These narratives were regularly picked up by certain sections of the media, eager to fan the flames. 

Although never presented as a White Paper, government documents suggest the hostile environment strategy aims ‘to discourage people from coming to the UK, to stop them overstaying visas, to prevent irregular migrants from accessing services and drawing from the public purse, and to make it easier to remove people’ (Griffiths and Yeo 2021: 10). Hostile policies have made it increasingly difficult particularly for negatively racialised people from the global South to move to the UK and make it their home. The hostile environment constrains the ability of individuals with insecure immigration statuses to meet their everyday needs, and, for parents and carers, those of their children. Although rebranded by then Home Secretary Sajid Javid as the ‘compliant environment’ in 2018, the strategy remains hostile in its objectives and its effects.

Legislation 

Cameron’s government (and later Conservative governments led by Theresa May and Boris Johnson) brought in a wide range of hostile policies through the Immigration Acts 2014 and 2016, as well as via related secondary legislation.  

The Immigration Act 2014 introduced the principle of the ‘right to rent’, requiring landlords to check that current and potential tenants have the right to reside in the UK, and to refuse tenancy (or evict existing tenants) if not. The Immigration Act 2016 took this further, criminalising landlords who ‘know or have reasonable cause to believe’ that they are ‘renting to a person who does not have the right to rent’ (Landlord’s guide to right to rent checks 2021). Meanwhile, the 2014 Act increased fines to up to £20,000 per ‘illegal worker’ for employers found not to be carrying out ‘right to work’ checks, whilst under the Immigration Act 2016, employers can be prosecuted ‘where they knew, or had reasonable cause to believe, that they were employing an illegal worker.’

Banks and building societies are required under the Immigration Act 2014 to carry out checks on new customers and refuse accounts to identified ‘disqualified persons’. This extended existing data-sharing arrangements between the Home Office and Cifas: a Memorandum of Understanding was signed in 2015. Concerns have been raised about the wrongful inclusion of individuals with leave to remain on the list of ‘disqualified persons’ (ICIBI 2016). Since the Immigration Act 2016, banks must check the status of existing customers when required, notify the Secretary of State and close the account of customers who cannot prove they have leave to remain.  

The Immigration Act 2014 requires marriage registrars to report suspected so-called ‘sham marriages’, and the DVLA to revoke the driver’s licence of anyone without leave to remain. Moreover, the Immigration Act 2016 made it a criminal act to drive without leave to remain. Regulations following the Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016 require NHS providers to check that patients are entitled to free treatment, and to charge upfront those who are not (at a rate of 150% of the cost), or to refuse care. (In the case of necessary or urgent treatment, patients are treated but will be billed afterwards.) 

Children whose parents have insecure immigration status and no recourse to public funds are not entitled to free school meals (except in year groups where these are universal). Young people who do not have proof of British citizenship or indefinite leave to remain in the UK are faced with university fees at international student rates, unaffordable for most. 

Everyday bordering 

The ‘hostile environment’ strategy has significantly expanded internal borders and inland border management. Ordinary citizens have been turned into border guards: landlords are required to check prospective and existing tenants’ ‘right to rent’ and banks must check customers’ right to hold a bank account. Employers are required to check employees’ ‘right to work’, whilst further and higher education institutions must check students’ right to study. NHS providers now charge upfront for, or refuse access to, secondary healthcare for those who cannot prove they are entitled to free care. Border controls are ‘being carried out by anyone anywhere’ (Yuval-Davis et al. 2018), eroding institutional trust. 

Wide-ranging legal measures have led to dramatic increases in visa fees, a minimum income requirement of £18,600 for British citizens (or those with indefinite leave to remain) seeking to bring their partner from beyond the EU to the UK, and severe restrictions on access to public services, accommodation and paid work. Families who do not meet the financial requirements for shorter routes to settlement are placed on the ten-year settlement route, which requires a series of (at least) four applications for limited leave to remain. Families on this pathway are by default subject to the condition of ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF), which means they do not have the safety net of access to mainstream welfare benefits, social housing or free school meals, regardless of levels of need.  

In Operation Vaken, high profile ‘Go Home’ vans targeted ethnically diverse London boroughs in 2013 with a hostile message of ‘go home or face arrest’, inviting residents to text a number, and displaying the purported number of arrests in the local area. Adverts were placed in media outlets aimed at ethnic minority populations. Immigration raids on private homes and businesses have sought to intimidate those without leave to remain as well as the wider public through displays of hostile state power.  

Meanwhile, arrangements for increased data-sharing for immigration enforcement purposes have been quietly implemented between the Home Office and public institutions, including DVLA, the NHS, the police and the Department for Education. There is also evidence of the Home Office embedding immigration officers in public services and private companies since 2016 (charging up to £60 an hour) to check service users’ status and pass on information for immigration enforcement. 

As Griffiths and Yeo (2021) have argued, these diverse policies all involve the co-option of third parties for border enforcement: private individuals, managers and frontline workers are positioned as border guards, and face sanctions for non-compliance.  

Since 2012, the implementation of the Hostile Environment strategy has been overseen by the cross-departmental, high-level Hostile Environment Working Group (Later renamed the ‘Inter-Ministerial Group on Migrants’ Access to Benefits and Public Services).  

The impact of the hostile environment 

The hostile environment has had a direct and negative impact on (largely negatively racialised) migrants to the UK by restricting or denying access to services and support: to healthcare, education, housing and bank accounts. For those who do not fit into the government’s category of ‘the brightest and the best’ – in other words, those who cannot meet the ever-increasing financial requirements – family reunion and settlement in the UK remains out of reach (Yeo 2020). Huge backlogs at the Home Office have condemned those seeking asylum or to renew their leave to remain to a state of limbo, having to wait for many months or years for a decision. Policies implemented in 2012 have subjected families with children born in the UK to precarious lives via the protracted ten-year settlement route with ‘no recourse to public funds’ (Dickson and Rosen 2021).

Moreover, since 2012 the hostile environment has excluded and rejected people who arrived in Britain before 1973 as British subjects, part of the so-called ‘Windrush generation’, who have been unable to prove their date of arrival (Williams 2020). Hostile policies have led to many being wrongly deported or detained, denied access to healthcare or welfare benefits, and losing their homes and their right to work (JCWI n.d.).

Minoritized British citizens and residents are also affected by these hostile policies. For example, there is evidence that ‘right to rent’ checks cause some landlords to discriminate against British citizens and residents from minority ethnic backgrounds (Griffiths and Yeo 2021). This view was supported by a High Court ruling in 2019 that the policy had a ‘disproportionately discriminatory effect’. (Whilst the Home Office later won its appeal against the ruling that the policy was unlawful, the Court of Appeal maintained that it did cause discrimination.) Hostile and inflammatory political and media discourses also influence and potentially stir up racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic attitudes and actions across society.

Boris Johnson’s government continues to implement policies which are hostile to people not framed as ‘desirable’ or ‘deserving’. From 1 July, the positioning of EU citizens living in the UK without (pre)settled status as potential ‘illegal immigrants’ subject to immigration control will increase the scope of the hostile environment. Meanwhile, Home Secretary Priti Patel’s New Plan for Immigration sets out how it will limit the rights of those seeking asylum in the UK.

Useful resources on the ‘hostile environment’ 

Legislation  

Immigration Act 1971 https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1971/77/contents  

Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1999/33/contents  

Immigration Act 2014 https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2014/22/contents/enacted  

Immigration Act 2016 https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2016/19/contents/enacted  

Immigration Rules https://www.gov.uk/guidance/immigration-rules  

Parliamentary speeches 

BBC (2011) ‘In full: David Cameron immigration speech’ (14 April 2011). Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-13083781  

BBC (2014) ‘David Cameron’s EU speech’ (28 November 2014). Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/david-camerons-immigration-speech  

Gov.uk (2010) ‘Immigration: Home Secretary’s speech of 5 November 2010’. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/immigration-home-secretarys-speech-of-5-november-2010

Gov.uk (2011) ‘Immigration: Damian Green’s speech on family migration’ (15 September 2011). Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/immigration-damian-greens-speech-on-family-migration

Gov.uk (2011) ‘Prime minister’s speech on immigration’ (10 October 2011). Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/prime-ministers-speech-on-immigration  

Gov.uk (2012) ‘Damian Green’s speech on making immigration work for Britain’ (2 February 2012). Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/damian-greens-speech-on-making-immigration-work-for-britain

Gov.uk (2012) ‘Home Secretary speech on ‘An immigration system that works in the national interest’ (12 December 2012). Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/home-secretary-speech-on-an-immigration-system-that-works-in-the-national-interest

Gov.uk (2013) ‘David Cameron’s immigration speech’ (25 March 2013). Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/david-camerons-immigration-speech  

Gov.uk (2014) ‘James Brokenshire speech to the HASC International Conference’ (23 October 2014). Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/james-brokenshire-speech-to-the-hasc-international-conference

Gov.uk (2015) ‘PM speech on immigration’ (21 May 2015). Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-speech-on-immigration   

Gov.uk (2021) ‘Home Secretary Priti Patel speech on immigration’ (24 May 2021). Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/home-secretary-priti-patel-speech-on-immigration

Grey literature  

Against Borders in Schools www.schoolsabc.net 

Corporate Watch (2017) ‘The Hostile Environment: turning the UK into a nation of border cops’. Available at: https://corporatewatch.org/the-hostile-environment-turning-the-uk-into-a-nation-of-border-cops-2/ 

Düvell, F., Cherti, M. and Lapshyna, I. (2018) Does immigration enforcement matter? Irregular migration and control policies in the UK, Final Report, Oxford: Centre on Migration, Policy and Society. Available at: https://www.compas.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/DIEM-Irregular-Immigrants-and-Control-Policies-in-the-UK.pdf  

Free Movement blog. Available at: Freemovement.org.uk 

Global Justice Now (2018) ‘The hostile environment for immigrants – How Theresa May has created an underclass in the UK’. Available at: https://www.globaljustice.org.uk/sites/default/files/files/resources/hostile_environment_briefing_feb_2018.pdf 

HMG (2018) The UK’s future skills-based immigration system. (White Paper) Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/766465/The-UKs-future-skills-based-immigration-system-print-ready.pdf

Home Affairs Select Committee (2018) The Windrush generation. Available at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmhaff/990/99002.htm  

House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (2019) Windrush generation and the Home Office. Available at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmpubacc/1518/1518.pdf  

House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (2020) Immigration Enforcement. Available at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5801/cmselect/cmpubacc/407/407.pdf 

Home Office (2016) Immigration Act 2016 Factsheet – Illegal Working. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/537205/Immigration_Act_-_Part_1_-_Illegal_Working.pdf  

Home Office (2017) Guidance for banks and building societies on carrying out immigration status checks on current account applicants. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/654410/Guidance_for_banks_and_building_societies_on_carrying_out_immigration_status_checks_on_current_account_applicants..pdf  

Home Office (2021) Criminal investigations: sham marriage. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/953001/criminal-investigations-sham-marriage-v3.0-gov-uk.pdf  

Home Office (2021) Landlord’s guide to right to rent checks. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/landlords-guide-to-right-to-rent-checks  

Home Office (2021) Employer right to work checks supporting guidance. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/999119/FINAL_Employers_Guide.pdf

Home Office (2021) New Plan for Immigration: legal migration and border control strategy statement. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/new-plan-for-immigration-legal-migration-and-border-control/new-plan-for-immigration-legal-migration-and-border-control-strategy-statement-accessible-web-version

Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (2016) An inspection of the ‘hostile environment’ measures relating to driving licences and bank accounts January to July 2016 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/567652/ICIBI-hostile-environment-driving-licences-and-bank-accounts-January-to-July-2016.pdf  

JCWI (n.d.) ‘The Hostile Environment explained’. Available at: https://www.jcwi.org.uk/the-hostile-environment-explained 

JCWI (n.d.) ‘Windrush Scandal explained’. Available at: https://www.jcwi.org.uk/windrush-scandal-explained

Liberty (2019) Report: A Guide to the Hostile Environment. Available at: https://www.libertyhumanrights.org.uk/issue/report-a-guide-to-the-hostile-environment/ 

March, S. (2020) ‘Government successfully appeals in ‘Right to Rent’ case’, UK Human Rights Blog. Available at: https://ukhumanrightsblog.com/2020/04/22/government-successfully-appeals-in-right-to-rent-case/

McNeil, R. (2020) ‘Long Read: Curtains, at last, for the net migration target’, Compas. Available at: https://www.compas.ox.ac.uk/2020/long-read-curtains-at-last-for-the-net-migration-target/ 

Migrants Rights Network www.migrantsrights.org.uk  

National Audit Office (2018) Handling of the Windrush situation. Available at: https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Handling-of-the-Windrush-situation-1.pdf  

Qureshi, A., Morris, M. and Mort, L. (2020) Access Denied: The human impact of the hostile environment, IPPRAvailable at: https://www.ippr.org/files/2020-09/access-denied-hostile-environment-sept20.pdf 

Qureshi, A., Morris, M. and Mort, L. (2021) Beyond the hostile environment, IPPR. Available at: https://www.ippr.org/research/publications/beyond-the-hostile-environment 

Williams, W. (2020) Windrush Lessons Learned Review. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/874022/6.5577_HO_Windrush_Lessons_Learned_Review_WEB_v2.pdf  

Yeo, C. (2018) ’Briefing: what is the hostile environment, where does it come from, who does it affect?’, 01/05/18. Available at: https://www.freemovement.org.uk/briefing-what-is-the-hostile-environment-where-does-it-come-from-who-does-it-affect/  

Yeo, C. (2019) ‘Theresa May’s immigration legacy’, 24/05/19. Available at: https://www.freemovement.org.uk/theresa-mays-immigration-legacy/  

Media reports  

Gentleman, A. (2020) ‘Hostile environment has fostered racism and caused poverty, report finds’, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/sep/03/hostile-environment-has-fostered-racism-and-caused-poverty-report-finds  

Grayson, J. (2013) ‘Welcome to Britain: ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’, Open Democracy. Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/shine-a-light/welcome-to-britain-go-home-or-face-arrest/ 

Grierson, J. (2018) ‘Hostile environment: anatomy of a policy disaster’, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/aug/27/hostile-environment-anatomy-of-a-policy-disaster  

Hill, A. (2017) ‘’Hostile environment’: the hardline Home Office policy tearing families apart’, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/nov/28/hostile-environment-the-hardline-home-office-policy-tearing-families-apart  

Hill, A. and Taylor, D. (2019) ‘Right to Rent scheme ruled incompatible with human rights law’, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/mar/01/right-to-rent-scheme-ruled-incompatible-with-human-rights-law

Kirkup, J. and Winnett, R. (2012) ‘The Theresa May interview: ‘We’re going to give illegal migrants a really hostile reception’, The Telegraph. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/0/theresa-may-interview-going-give-illegal-migrants-really-hostile/ (paywall) 

Savage, M. and Cadwalladr, C. (2019) ‘Revealed: how Home Office hires out staff to hunt migrants’, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/feb/16/home-office-hires-out-staff-hunt-migrants-hostile-environment 

Skapinker, M. (2019) ‘Theresa May’s poisonous immigration legacy’, Financial Times. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/fd592a16-6c07-11e9-a9a5-351eeaef6d84

Travis, A. (2007) ‘Officials launch drive to seek out illegal migrants at work’, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/may/16/immigration.immigrationandpublicservices  

Wemyss, G. (2018) ‘Compliant environment: turning ordinary people into border guards should concern everyone in the UK’, The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/compliant-environment-turning-ordinary-people-into-border-guards-should-concern-everyone-in-the-uk-107066

Academic literature  

Anderson, B. (2013) Us and Them? The Dangerous Politics of Immigration Controls, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Button, D., Salhab, A., Skinner, J., Yule, A., & Medien, K. (2020). Patients Not Passports: Learning from the international struggle for universal healthcare. 

Crawford, J., McKee, K., & Leahy, S. (2020) ‘More Than a Hostile Environment: Exploring the Impact of the Right to Rent Part of the Immigration Act 2016’, Sociological Research Online, 25(2), 236-253. doi:10.1177/1360780419867708 

Dickson, E. and Rosen, R. (2020) ‘Punishing those who do the wrong thing’: Enforcing destitution and debt through the UK’s family migration rules. Critical Social Policy. doi:10.1177/0261018320980634

Feldman, R. A., Bewley, S., Bragg, R., & Beeks, M. (2020) ‘Hostile environment prevents women from accessing maternal care’, BMJ, 368, m968. doi:10.1136/bmj.m968 

Glennerster, R., & Hodson, N. (2020) ‘Confused out of care: unanticipated consequences of a ‘Hostile Environment’’, Journal of Medical Ethics, 46(3), 163-167. doi:10.1136/medethics-2019-105634 

Goodfellow, M. (2019) Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats. London: Verso.

Griffiths, M. and Yeo, C. (2021) ‘The UK’s hostile environment: Deputising immigration control’. Critical Social Policy. doi:10.1177/0261018320980653 

Hiam, L., Steele, S., & McKee, M. (2018). Creating a ‘hostile environment for migrants’: the British government’s use of health service data to restrict immigration is a very bad idea. Health Economics, Policy and Law, 13(2), 107-117. 

Hodkinson, S. N., Lewis, H., Waite, L., & Dwyer, P. (2021) ‘Fighting or fuelling forced labour? The Modern Slavery Act 2015, irregular migrants and the vulnerabilising role of the UK’s hostile environment’, Critical Social Policy, 41(1), 68-90. doi:10.1177/0261018320904311 

Jones, H. (2021) ‘UK immigration policy in a hostile environment’ in Jones, B., Norton, P. and Hertner, I. Politics UK (pp. 726-742): Routledge. 

Jones, H., Gunaratnam, Y., Bhattacharyya, G., Davies, W., Dhaliwal, S., Forkert, K., Jackson, E. and Saltus, R. (2017) Go Home? The politics of immigration controversies. Manchester University Press. Available at: https://research.gold.ac.uk/id/eprint/20124/1/Jones,%20Gunaratnam,%20Bhatacharyya,%20Davies,%20Dhaliwal,%20Forkert,%20Jackson%20and%20Saltus%20_%20Go%20home_.pdf 

Papageorgiou, V., Wharton-Smith, A., Campos-Matos, I., & Ward, H. (2020). Patient data-sharing for immigration enforcement: a qualitative study of healthcare providers in England. BMJ open, 10(2). 

Ratzmann, N., & Sahraoui, N. (2021). Introduction: The (Un)Deserving Migrant? Street-Level Bordering Practices and Deservingness in Access to Social Services. Social Policy and Society, 20(3), 436-439. doi:10.1017/S1474746421000129 

Social Scientists Against the Hostile Environment (SSAHE) (2020) Migration, racism and the hostile environment: Making the case for the social sciences. London. https://acssmigration.wordpress.com/report/  

Webber, F. (2019). On the creation of the UK’s ‘hostile environment’, Race & Class, 60(4), 76-87. doi:10.1177/0306396819825788 

Weller, S. J., Crosby, L. J., Turnbull, E. R., Burns, R., Miller, A., Jones, L., & Aldridge, R. W. (2019) ‘The negative health effects of hostile environment policies on migrants: A cross-sectional service evaluation of humanitarian healthcare provision in the UK’, Wellcome open research, 4

Wroe, L. (2019). Social working without borders: challenging privatisation and complicity with the hostile environment. Critical and Radical Social Work, 7(2), 251-255. doi:10.1332/204986019X15623302985278 

Yeo, C. (2020) Welcome to Britain: Fixing Our Broken Immigration System. London: Biteback.  

Yuval-Davis, N., Wemyss, G., and Cassidy, K. (2018) ‘Everyday Bordering, Belonging and the Reorientation of British Immigration Legislation’, Sociology, 52(2):228-244. doi:10.1177/0038038517702599