Migration: Brexit brings hard choices
Kehinde’s immigration problems started when she applied for indefinite leave to remain in Britain in 2016. “They said there was a problem with my tax, which I wasn’t aware of,” says the 37-year-old Nigerian from Ibadan. Despite rectifying the problem with the UK’s tax authorities, Kehinde was labelled ‘undesirable’ under paragraph 322(5) of the Home Office’s immigration rules – which advises refusal for reasons ranging from bad character to being a terrorist. Her request was denied and her passport confiscated.
Kehinde went to the UK in 2007 to study for a master’s in food quality and safety management, and was earning £39,000 ($52,700) a year until the Home Office told her employers she no longer had the right to work. Now with large debts and medical problems, she is waiting to hear whether she will be granted an appeal.
At least a thousand other highly skilled migrants like Kehinde are going through a similar ordeal. These are the trickle-down effects of Britain’s so-called “hostile environment” policy on immigration.
Clash of interests
These problems have come at at a bad time for Britain. Presenting the country as ‘Global Britain’, a champion of free trade that is still open for business, the government wants to negotiate trade deals with countries such as India, Australia and Nigeria to ease Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU). But in exchange, these countries want the loosening of visa restrictions for their citizens – something many who voted for Brexit want to avoid. This clash between the goals of controlling migration and benefiting from free and open markets is defining much of the UK’s current politics, with people like Kehinde caught in the crossfire.
The “hostile environment” policy was the brainchild of Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May in her prior role as home secretary. In 2012, as the Conservatives faced the widespread defection of its supporters to the far-right, populist UK Independence Party (UKIP), she declared: “The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.” The policy has turned employers, landlords, university lecturers and medical staff into unwilling internal border guards, liable for prosecution if they employ or let a flat to somebody with an irregular immigration status.
Far from calming the rhetoric over immigration, the EU referendum in 2016, which set Britain on course to leave the union (Brexit), unleashed the latent racism at the heart of a section of the UK population. The UN’s special rapporteur on racism and xenophobia, Tendayi Achiume, said that the Brexit vote had led to more “explicit racial, ethnic and religious intolerance”.
Some of those who have suffered most from the “hostile environment” policy are people from Britain’s former colonies suddenly required to prove, after decades of living and working in Britain, that they have the right to be there. In April, The Guardian newspaper documented the plight of children of the ‘Windrush generation’, so-called after the Empire Windrush ship that arrived in London in 1948, carrying Jamaicans who had answered Britain’s call to its then-colonies to help it rebuild after the Second World War. Some of those who came to Britain as children were threatened with deportation because they could not prove when they arrived. It later emerged that the Home Office destroyed an archive of landing cards that could have acted as proof in some cases.
The issue came to a head just as May welcomed heads of state for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting on 16 April. Having rebuffed a formal diplomatic request from Caribbean leaders to discuss the issue, May was shamed in the House of Commons and forced to issue a hasty apology and promise compensation. The ensuing scandal also cost the head of one of May’s staunch allies, home secretary Amber Rudd.
Although the case of Caribbean immigrants hit the headlines, Commonwealth citizens who came to Britain before 1973, when a new and more restrictive immigration act came into force, also include large numbers from India, Pakistan, and several African countries including Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. “It’s not just about the Windrush,” says David Lammy, a member of parliament (MP) for the opposition Labour party who coordinated a letter to the Prime Minister signed by 140 MPs over the isthe issue. “When we think of Windrush, we think of people who came here from the Caribbean to work, particularly on the Underground and in the National Health Service. But, of course, there were many, many African people who came just a little bit later. […] Many of them are caught up in a similar nightmare.”
Legal, but no entry
New data released in early May by the British Office for National Statistics, showed that at the time of the 2011 census there were 599,078 people living in England and Wales who had been born in a Commonwealth country before 1971. Of these, 21,053, or 3.5%, did not have a passport and may face trouble if they cannot prove when they entered the UK.
Satbir Singh, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, a campaign group, said he has met people from Ghana and Kenya who came to the UK legally before 1973 and who had subsequently travelled abroad and been prevented from re-entering the UK. They have then had to go through the “excruciating process” of proving who they are.
Jo Wilding, an immigration barrister at Garden Court Chambers and lecturer at the University of Brighton, says Britain’s immigration policy “has a much, much wider effect on people who are not here illegally.” She says it is easy for people with the right to remain to fall foul of the law because of a small administrative error. The UK is the only country in the EU that has no statutory time limit on immigration detention. The Labour Party has pledged to end indefinite detention should it win the next general election, which must take place by 2022. Yet, key figures within the party appear divided on how much of the “hostile environment” the party would dismantle.
For decades, the status of Britain’s relationships with Europe and with its Commonwealth partners have been inversely linked. The more restrictive Immigration Act that came into force on 1 January 1973 coincided with Britain’s joining the European Economic Area, which promised free movement of workers for its member states. Syed Kamall, a Conservative Member of the European Parliament, supported Brexit in the hope it would lead to a fairer immigration policy. He says immigration should be skills-based, which would not only be fairer but dispel some of the hatred directed towards immigrants: “Then you can change the narrative so it’s no longer about numbers. People will say, ‘Oh yes, we do need immigration because we haven’t got enough nurses and doctors […]. But what I’m really keen on is that we no longer have a racist immigration policy where we give preference to white Europeans over non-white non-Europeans.”
Row back on hostility
Singh says there is a real chance that “Britain going out into the world and sailing the HMS Brexit might have to row back some of the hostility that it has heaped upon foreigners in order to get favourable trade deals.” Labour MP Lammy adds: “I really hope that African nations will be robust, that when Britain comes to strike trade deals they will be robust about the way in which their brothers and sisters are being treated in this country, about the rights of their brothers and sisters.”
The UK is yet to set out its post-Brexit immigration strategy. A long-awaited white paper on the issue is now expected by July, though that means it will not include evidence from a study by the Migration Advisory Committee into the effects of immigration on the British economy. Yet, given Prime Minister May’s commitment to reducing net migration, any drastic loosening of immigration policy or rowing back on the “hostile environment” are unlikely.
This article first appeared in the June 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine