Skip to main content

Our vision for refugees’ future? It starts with ending the hostile environment

By October 2, 2023Blog post

If we want to create the future that refugees and many people in the UK want, we must demolish the hostile environment. 

It’s an environment that manifests itself in the racist rhetoric of our leaders and the systems they create; systems that are dehumanising and complex, which segregate people and sap their spirit.  

Our current leaders may be stooping to new lows with their words and policies, but they are simply repeating the behaviour of previous Governments. The hostility has been ramping up for years.  

We can see it in the late 1980s when the then Conservative government foisted controls on Tamils fleeing violence in Sri Lanka, or when New Labour created the segregating dispersal system and passed the laws that now underpin a deportation deal with the Rwandan government.  

It was the same Labour government that stripped people seeking asylum of the right to work. 

Hostile policy starts with dehumanising language directed at people seeking asylum, casting them as liars, bogus, chances, queue jumpers and, more recently, illegal. 

The resulting hostile system forces people to reveal traumatic experiences in an environment where their credibility is doubted, where they wait for years in poverty, their health and will in freefall.  

When applications are successful, they face a cliff edge of support before they are made homeless; refusal can be a matter of life or death. 

It’s no coincidence that hostility increased when the demographic of asylum applicants shifted from European, eastern bloc dissidents to people from Europe’s former colonies. Asylum law became a tool for governments to exclude and oppress racialised people. 

Our colonial past evolved into a colonial present that is expressed in the structural racism in our asylum system. 

The hostile environment cannot be reformed, so we must work with partners to demolish it, transform the asylum system and build a future rooted in the fundamental right to move, underpinned by a commitment to anti-racism.  

This is what our 2023-2030 strategy sets us on the path to do. Developed and designed with our Expert by Experience Network and supported through the process by the equalities charity brap, we are delighted to share it, and look forward to making it a reality. 

The strategy is a compass, not a map. It is flexible and adaptable, there to inform and direct our decision-making in a fast-moving environment to take us to our 2030 goal. 

End the Hostile Environment 

UK governments segregate people seeking asylum from mainstream society. We and other refugee rights organisations naively mirrored that separation by campaigning in an asylum silo, treating issues as isolated from wider society and the experiences of other marginalised groups.  

Campaigning charities can sometimes be guilty of working within the Government agenda by simply demanding a shift from an inefficient brutalising system to an efficient brutalising system. It’s time we all recognised just how rooted it is in colonialism and the ashes of Empire. Then and only then can we create a just and welcoming system. 

For us, “hostile environment” has a broader scope than simply to describe the current cruel asylum policies and narratives. 

Firstly, it means the set of laws that embed the border into every area of life – from renting to employment – that gives people seeking asylum fewer rights. It contravenes our human rights laws and the Refugee Convention. 

Secondly, it means the general hostility that shapes the immigration system, such as the “no documentation means illegal” strategy, which led to the Windrush Scandal, or restricting the rights of people seeking asylum, allowing government to reduce support and services, and ban working. 

Thirdly, it means the racism that sits behind these policies – the belief that it’s OK to treat people – mostly black and brown people – worse, because of their immigration status. This perpetuates oppression and discrimination in the rental market, in jobs, and in schools. 

Ending the hostile environment has been a campaign aim for a wider social justice movement for years, so we share this call with humility and aim to identify where we can make change.  

We must stop wasting energy fighting for compassion or on policy detail. We must fight for universal rights – the right to move, the right to safety, the right to live free from persecution. Climate change affects where and how people move. If we argue about granular policy that upholds the status quo or simply demand compassion, we will not be ready for the emerging world.  

“I feel recognised for all that I am.” 

Our vision needs a big shift in public opinion, in political narratives and in policy making. To achieve this, we must hear and share the experiences of people targeted by the hostile environment. 

While we created our strategy, members of our Expert by Experience steering group and the lived experience members of our Board of Trustees and Senior Leadership Team discussed the question: “What would it feel like if the hostile environment no longer existed.” 

People said they felt reduced to their identity as a person seeking asylum and whatever limiting and generalised characteristics were being projected onto them.  

In this context, one answer stood out: “I will feel recognised for all that I am.” 

“To be recognised for all that I am” is the human change that runs alongside system reform. We want to show and share how people in the asylum and immigration systems answer this question and others, to track change at the human level.  

So alongside qualitative evidence from our Expert by Experience network, we want to work with partners to create a regular survey of people and to use this to drive our vision. 

Our approach to creating change 

Removing barriers to power 

Displaced people need to be at the forefront of change. For too long, saviourism (normally white saviourism) and power imbalances have meant they have been excluded from power. This is changing, but too slowly.  

Identifying and removing those barriers is at the heart of this strategy. It is essential because history is littered with examples of people without lived experience selling refugee rights down the river in exchange for a policy win.  

Over the next two years, we aim to increase the influence of people with lived experience on our work, support refugee organisations to develop Expert by Experience programmes, increase the platforms we create for people with lived experience to influence decision-makers, and make sure we build on our current 44% of our Senior Leadership Team and 50% of our Board having lived experience; in terms of representation, but also in terms of inclusion and empowerment. 

Create a movement for change 

If we want to grow our movement and move the narrative towards “universal rights” we need to understand the root causes of the racialisation, exclusion and oppression of refugees. And we need to identify their place in the multiple wider interlocking social justice issues that our society is grappling with.  

We will work with partners across other movements to connect the experiences of our clients with the wider social justice issues. We will reimagine our world where refugees are seen for all that they are within our communities, rather than isolating them as an easily targeted singular phenomenon.  

To make this happen, we will advocate for systemic changes to transform the UK’s racist and colonial asylum system into one based on universal rights and prepared for a newly emerging world. 

Working with refugee rights organisations to model and design the future system 

We can only create the system we want to see collectively. This means building on the work of our Good Practice and Partnerships team to test, research and share ways of working that respond effectively to the experiences of people, with a firm eye on a future asylum and immigration system.   

Supporting individuals to fight for their rights in the face of the hostile environment  

We cannot create this change without supporting people in the asylum and immigration system to challenge the hostile environment they’re stuck in. This means providing legal and expert support to secure rights to status, to housing, to support, to tenancies, to bank accounts and so on.  

We look forward to discussing how we can work with partners, allies, collaborators, funders and supporters, activists, the public and policymakers to end the hostile environment and build a future rooted in the fundamental right to move and underpinned by a deep societal commitment to anti-racism.