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Ten Years of the 'Hostile Environment': Resistance, refuge and the role of cities in the asylum journey

This Refugee Week marks 10 years since the hostile environment became a commonly known term in mainstream public and political discourse. The term came to be widely used after Theresa May announced her intention to “create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration” in a 2012 interview with The Telegraph. It has since come to define the UK government’s restrictive and exclusionary approach to immigration, with a particularly harmful effect on the lives of people seeking asylum.

Whilst that interview attracted lots of attention, Theresa May was arguably only giving a name to the policies, practices and rhetoric that already existed in politics at the time.

As such, the ‘hostile environment’ wasn’t created by one clear cut policy. Rather, it’s a complex web of administrative and legal constraints designed to make life in the UK for ‘irregular migrants’ unlivable, forcing them to leave and deterring others from coming.

Creating the ‘hostile environment’

The rationale behind the ‘hostile environment’ is borne from a desire to reduce immigration and prevent irregular migrants from being able to access essential services. It is also in part, based on ideas that people come to the UK for our ‘generous’ welfare system. However, studies show people fleeing to the UK have little to no knowledge of these systems.

It also skirts around the real reasons people come to the UK, which are primarily driven by push factors and a need for safety. In cases where a degree of choice is possible, decisions are based on ties to family and friends, the influence of colonial legacies and a familiarity with the language or culture.

This focus on needing to control asylum isn’t backed up by numbers – in 2019, only 6% of all immigrants to the UK were asylum seekers and in 2020, the UK ranked 14th on the number of asylum applications received per capita when compared with its 27 EU counterparts.

It also hasn’t been successful in deterring people coming to the UK and it hasn’t led to an increase in removals despite its objectives. For example, removals (deportations and voluntary returns) of migrants without legal status in the UK actually decreased overall between 2010 and 2020. There are several reasons for this but on the whole, it suggests a policy ineffective at meeting its objectives but nonetheless one that continues to inflict serious harm on people trying to seek refuge in the UK.

The impact on people seeking asylum

In practice, the hostile environment is a series of immigration checks at every turn. Griffiths and Yeo discuss how citizens are “deputised” to become border guards, keeping a check on the everyday lives of those seeking asylum. It includes restricted or managed access to basic rights and services like employment, education, health, renting, driving and banking. This is in addition to huge complexities in immigration rules, cuts to legal aid, problems with the decision-making process and reduced appeal rights for refused claims.

Meanwhile, the dispersal process places people in unsuitable accommodation around the country on a no-choice basis, there is a ban on working and the financial support offered to asylum seekers is very low.

This can push people into living in a legal ‘limbo’ at risk of destitution. The hostile approach also led to the Windrush scandal highlighting its spillover effects to other groups in society.

All of this creates divisions and fuels prejudices and overturning some of the policies are estimated to have significant benefits for the economy, not to mention people’s health and well-being.

Cities: Sites of refuge or reinforcers of hostility?

As Yuval-Davis et al. (2017: 228) put it, these everyday bordering practices threaten the “convivial co-existence of pluralist societies, especially in metropolitan cities''. A well-known example of this is the case of the ‘Go Home’ vans driven through the streets of London in 2013 carrying a message designed to stoke fear in communities and bring immigration control to the streets of the city: “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest”.

In the hostile environment, control reaches beyond the borders of the state and beyond the hostile institutional spaces typical of the asylum journey (i.e. detention centres, dispersal accommodation and reporting centres). It is felt and encountered in everyday life, in the streets and urban public spaces, and as a form of “affective border violence”, an ever-present sense of shame, discomfort and fear (Mayblin et al., 2020; Meier, 2020).

Despite all this, cities, their politics and their spaces can double as sites of respite, refuge and well-being. An “urban rebellion” (Bauder, 2016) from the policies of the state is evident in some cities such as London, where the Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has championed the rights of refugees and asylum seekers and positioned London as a welcoming, non-discriminatory place to live.

Powers for immigration remain at state level but cities are the ‘first responders’ in dealing with the on-the-ground effects of immigration generally, as well as other global events and crises. Therefore, international alliances of cities have formed which enable cities to come together to share best practices in accommodating and welcoming refugees at the local level. An impressive network of cities, towns, boroughs and districts across the UK have also set up City of Sanctuary groups. Through this movement residents and community groups have rallied to welcome refugees and asylum seekers into their local communities.

In addition to the politics, the physical urban spaces and services of cities such as faith buildings, parks and greenspaces, and community drop-in centres have been found to offer sanctuary from hostility in their ability to improve well-being and allow people to make social connections (e.g. Rishbeth et al., 2019; Squire and Bagelman, 2012).

While their effects may be temporary and competing with hostile policies, the benefits of these everyday spaces and encounters can at least offer some respite and boost well-being.

What is next for the UK’s approach to asylum?

The hostile environment has continued to intensify and 10 years later has rounded off with the introduction of the 2022 Nationality and Borders Act and Theresa May criticising the current Home Secretary’s plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

However, cities have shown that a system based on ideals of care, compassion and fairness could be possible in the future. Figures also show that the public are becoming less concerned about issues of immigration in general although recent polling from YouGov suggests public opinion on the government’s Rwanda plan looks largely split.

The 10-year mark should be an opportunity to pause and pay attention to the destructive impact that the hostile environment has had on people’s lives and find an alternative, evidence-based approach grounded in respect for human rights in recognition of the UK’s responsibilities under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

There is much to be gained by an immigration system which offers more safe and legal routes to asylum, and a more welcoming and inclusive asylum system.

In this story

Rachel Taylor

Rachel Taylor

PhD student

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