Karishma Dharni

Lessons Not Learned: The Home Office’s New Plan for Immigration represents an escalation of the ‘hostile environment’ policy, not a break from it

Southall Black Sisters (SBS) responds to the Home Office’s New Plan for Immigration, which was out for consultation until Thursday 6 May 2021.

In our consultation response, we raised significant concerns about the egregious harm that the new proposals would have on all asylum-seekers, but particularly women subject to gender-based violence, including our own service-users. We reject the direction of travel that the Government proposes in the Plan, mainly because it is premised on dangerous and misguided narratives about those seeking sanctuary in the UK. A summary of the proposals in the Plan can be found here.

The Plan is primarily focused on attributing the systemic failures of the Home Office and the UK immigration system on ‘people smugglers’ and those seeking asylum themselves. It deflects attention from the significant challenges that exist, largely of the Home Office’s own making. The Government presides over a deeply flawed asylum system characterised by delays, incompetency, poor decision-making, inefficiency and profound unfairness. Instead of tackling the structural discrimination and biases that exist in the system, the Home Office has embarked on a series of punitive reforms that are unjust and potentially unlawful. It proposes to introduce a more rigorous test to assess people’s “well-founded fear of persecution” as set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention. It also proposes to divide people seeking asylum into two distinct groups based on their mode of arrival into the UK – a move that has been widely opposed including by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – in defiance of the Refugee Convention. For example, asylum-seekers who do not arrive via resettlement schemes and ‘safe and legal’ routes (that are virtually non-existent), or who do not adhere to the Home Office’s ever-changing discriminatory rules, will be provided with ‘temporary protection status’ only. This proposal will create two classes of refugees: those deemed to be ‘genuine’ based on their route of arrival to the UK and those deemed to be ‘suspect’. The latter group of people will be compelled to live in a permanent state of uncertainty, fear and anxiety. Far from addressing the longstanding issues of unsafe and inappropriate accommodation, indefinite detention and poverty and destitution that people seeking sanctuary in the UK face, the proposed measures will exacerbate the systemic failings that exist.

The proposals set out in the Plan will do untold harm to SBS’ service-users and other women and children subject to gender-based violence. They take no account of the desperate circumstances in which women and girls are forced to flee from their countries of origin, or of how the experience of gender-based violence shapes their journey to the UK and determines the extent to which they can adhere to complex and changing immigration rules on arrival. Our experience shows that women subjected to coercive control, threats, isolation and abuse are frequently prevented from regularising their status. Many are deliberately misinformed about asylum and immigration law and have their documents withheld. Many are also exploited or ill-served by dubious immigration advisers, which results in complicated immigration histories. Most of this is recognised in the Government’s own draft statutory guidance framework for domestic abuse which states that ‘controlling or coercive behaviour’ can include ‘threatening precarious immigration status against the victim, withholding documents, and giving false information to a victim about their visa or visa application’.

Those who receive ‘temporary protection status’ would also have “restricted” family reunion rights and would be subject to the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) condition. We have long highlighted the reality of NRPF and how it traps women in harmful and abusive situations due to their exclusion from the welfare safety net, putting them at risk of re-victimisation and escalating violence. The proposals are also devoid of any consideration of how the decimation of legal aid and access to high-quality specialist immigration advisers and specialist domestic abuse services, also impacts upon women’s ability to enter into the asylum system promptly.

Overall, the Plan sits at direct odds with the Government’s commitments to tackle violence against women and is also far removed from the “compassionate” approach promised by the Home Secretary following the Windrush Lessons Learned Review. What we have instead is a Plan that is underpinned by relentless paranoia about the ‘exploitation’ of the immigration system, despite the overwhelming evidence that more often than not, it is Home Office rules and policies themselves that create the conditions for the exploitation and destitution of some of the most marginalised people in the UK. The Home Office would have us believe that these draconian proposals are justified because people are frequently ‘openly gaming’ the asylum (and immigration) system, but we know better. This was precisely the same argument used to justify the Government’s decision to carry out an indiscriminate assault on the Windrush generation and more recently, to reject our calls to amend the Domestic Abuse Bill to protect migrant women, for which there was no basis in evidence.

The Windrush Lessons Learned Review Recommendation 8 clearly states: “The Home Office should take steps to understand the groups and communities that its policies affect through improved engagement, social research, and by involving service users in designing its services.” This consultation disregards this, and many other recommendations. Instead, it has initiated a “poorly designed, confusing and inaccessible” consultation, the deadline of which was scheduled only days before a new ‘Sovereign Borders Bill’ is set to be announced in the Queen’s Speech.

SBS adds our voices to the widespread condemnation that this Plan and its flawed consultation process has drawn from across society including amongst others, over 400 academics, the Quaker Society, Women for Refugee Women, the Refugee Council, Amnesty International UK, and even the Rt Hon Caroline Nokes MP. We remind the Home Office that the Windrush scandal was both ‘foreseeable and avoidable’, yet ministers and officials were ‘impervious’ to warnings. We sincerely hope that ministers and officials will heed the many warnings voiced in relation to this Plan.

No government can pursue and defend cruel and inhuman policies towards the most vulnerable and marginalised indefinitely. That is the key lesson to be learnt from the Windrush debacle.

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