Content by Tiger Hills / Image by Slava Kosteniuk

Reporting by RAMFEL reminds us how our immigration system continues to be ‘hostile’ for migrants even after they gain entry to the UK and begin to re-establish their lives.

The UK Home Office introduced its ‘hostile environment’ policy in the 2014 Immigration Act, when Theresa May was Home Secretary. The policy’s stated aim is to create such difficulties for individuals without leave to remain* [see note on terminology below] in simply living their everyday lives and accessing social services that they ‘voluntarily’ choose to leave.

The immigration controls that make up the ‘hostile environment’ were designed to prevent individuals without leave to remain from accessing healthcare, housing, education, work, and benefits by requiring the NHS, landlords, charities, and banks to check a person’s immigration status before offering them a job, housing, or support.

The hostile environment aimed to criminalise the everyday activities of undocumented migrants, including working, driving, or renting, and disincentivise people from accessing these services for fear of being identified as ‘irregular’, detained, and deported.

It has shattered any sliver of trust between marginalised communities and frontline workers.  

There are many ways that people become ‘irregular’ migrants without leave to remain and, once a person’s status becomes irregular, it becomes very difficult for them to (re)acquire regular status. This has meant that many of the people subject to the hostile environment should theoretically have rights to social services, housing etc. but are, in practice, denied them .

This unjust denial of rights was brought forcefully to light by the Windrush Scandal. The ‘Windrush generation’ arrived in the UK from the Caribbean during the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s to meet post-war labour shortages. They have the right to indefinite leave to remain in the UK but were not given immigration papers to prove this when they arrived. As a result, Windrush families became subject to the hostile environment in 2014, with many losing their rights to benefits, jobs, housing and healthcare. Eighty-three British citizens were unlawfully and violently deported, more were wrongfully detained, and the scandal led to the resignation of the Home Secretary at the time, Caroline Noakes.

The introduction of the ‘hostile environment’ has also had wider implications for society, with the policy underpinning a rise in racialised discrimination. The ‘Right to Rent’ scheme under the 2014 Immigration Act introduced fines of up to £30,000 for landlords who failed to check the immigration status of prospective tenants/lodgers. An extension of this in 2016 introduced criminal liability for landlords who had reasonable cause to believe that tenants may have an irregular immigration status. A report published by JCWI in February 2017 revealed that, as a result, 42% of landlords were less likely to consider an application from somebody without a British passport and 27% decided not to engage with individuals with foreign accents or names.

While the government has sought to rebrand its immigration policy since the Windrush Scandal from a ‘hostile’ to a ‘compliant’ environment a recent report by the Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London (RAMFEL) outlines just how little has changed.

The RAMFEL report highlights the status of ‘3C leave’ which is a temporary form of immigration status issued to a person who is in the process of renewing their leave to remain. To qualify for indefinite leave to remain in the UK, most immigrants are required to complete either a five or ten-year ‘qualifying period’. During these periods, they must renew their 2.5-year visas which give them leave to remain. Somebody on the ten-year route may have to renew their visa up to five times before being granted indefinite leave. Every time an individual renews their visa, they risk being placed on 3C leave. This is because ongoing (and worsening) Home Office delays mean that renewal is almost never completed before a person’s visa runs out, and it is in this case that migrants are placed on 3C leave. During this period, applicants retain all rights held under their previous period of leave, but do not have a physical visa to prove this.

Since 2020, RAMFEL has monitored how 3C leave impacts the everyday lives of migrants and their report suggests that in one third of cases (an estimated 63,000 people per year) individuals suffered ‘serious detriment’ owing to their inability to prove their legal status. For some, this led to wrongful suspension from work, denial of new employment, and loss of access to benefits. Their lack of documentation subjects those who are on ‘3C’ status to the will, lenience, and legal understanding of their employers, and local social workers, who ultimately decide whether to believe migrants’ claims that they retain their rights. Whilst the Home Office is theoretically able to confirm this by email, this step is often either not taken by employers/social services, or the Home Office fails to respond in an adequate timeframe.

Some people on 3C leave are left unable to work and reliant on community support. Shantel, a woman who has lived in the UK since she was nine years old, describes her experience of being denied employment whilst on 3C leave:

“Despite being in the UK for 20 years, sounding and feeling British, without a passport I continue to face discrimination and micro-aggressions. I have consistently paid the Home Office nearly £3,000 to renew my visas, but now I am wrongly denied a job because of my immigration status. I want to work, like everyone else, but instead I am forced to spend my savings and rely on my limited family support.”

The number of people on 3C leave is only likely to expand in the next few years because of the impact of Brexit and new asylum entry policies. After Brexit, the Home Office expanded its use of tiered forms of leave to remain for EEA nationals with pre-settled status, meaning that they too need to go through a qualifying period and the process of visa renewal. Further, the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 treats asylum seekers differently based on different criteria (whether they travelled ‘directly’ from the country where their life or freedom was threatened; whether they arrived via ‘legal’ routes; and whether they presented themselves ‘without delay’ to the UK authorities). For individuals who don’t meet these criteria, the Home Office intends to give ‘temporary’ refugee status under which these individuals would qualify for indefinite leave to remain after 10 years. This will create a “whole new pool of people on the 10-year route and in turn a new pool of people spending significant time and frequent periods on 3C leave”.

The UK’s immigration policy continues to be both inwardly and outwardly hostile, and increasingly violent against arrivals. The “new” Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has a plan to deny the right to claim asylum to anyone entering the UK through ‘irregular routes’— a plan which will inevitably undermine the international refugee convention. These plans place those most globally marginalised on the physical, social, and legal fringes of British society, and put people’s families, health, and lives in danger. The reality is, however, that this marginalisation and denial of rights is already happening to refugees and migrants in the UK.

Looking beyond recent news of chaotic and deadly border controls, the unlawful detention of arrivals, and the warehousing of asylum seekers in hotels, it is clear that is not just our border politics but our wider immigration system that is completely broken and fails nearly everybody who enters and looks to build a life in the UK.

*‘Leave to remain’ is the permission granted to non-UK nationals to reside in the UK. This can be ‘limited leave to remain’ (temporary permission; time-bound) or ‘indefinite leave to remain’ (unlimited; individuals with ILR are no longer subject to immigration controls).