Subscribe to Holyrood updates

Newsletter sign-up


Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine


Subscribe to Holyrood
How hostile environment immigration policy reaches into every area of UK society

Image credit: Holyrood

How hostile environment immigration policy reaches into every area of UK society

Beatrice, originally from West Africa, first came to the UK in 2012 to study.

Her father supported her financially at first but when she became pregnant, he disowned her, cutting off all support in the process. Her partner then left and, having overstayed her visa, she found herself in the UK unlawfully, with no income and unable to pay rent.

After that, Beatrice moved in with another man, who became violent. Yet, afraid of being deported while heavily pregnant, she was unable to leave or go to the police. Eventually, with three weeks until her due date and with the help of a local church, she moved out.

It was the day after she gave birth that the first debt letter arrived from the hospital, demanding £6,000 to cover her maternity costs.

After that, the debt recovery calls continued on a steady basis, with the caller suggesting she make £100 instalments, though she explained she was unable to work, and therefore unable to pay. Next the Home Office sent a letter addressed to her baby, to warn he was “a dependent of someone liable to be detained”.

Beatrice had several potentially dangerous medical conditions during her pregnancy. She says if she had known about the charges, she would have missed hospital appointments and tried to give birth at home.

She said: “It’s just me alone with my child, and they’re telling me you have to pay. I almost went mad. It’s my first child. I’ve got no experience. And so the guy’s calling me, you have to pay, you have to do this, when you start working, they take £100 every month… And I’m like, you don’t know what I’m going through, and I told him, stop calling me! There’s no way I’m going to get the money. It’s not just that I’m alone with a child.

“The Home Office is on my back, I can’t deal with it.

“It’s just crazy, actually… because I’m still trying to get over the nightmare that this is happening and I have to deal with it all alone. When they were calling me and saying I have to pay, I have to do this, there was a point I felt like just dying.”

Charging migrants for NHS secondary care was introduced by Theresa May during her time as Home Secretary, though the policy has been pursued increasingly aggressively since the 2016 Immigration Act, and while different regulations exist in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, all have provisions for charging for maternity care.

Typically levelled against someone without secure immigration status – someone who has overstayed their visa, or who otherwise doesn’t have leave to remain in the UK (in England, it also includes people whose asylum claim has been refused) – healthcare charges were presented as a means of deterring ‘health tourism’, but some who are required to pay have been in the country for decades.

Natasha, who is attempting to make an asylum claim, came to the UK when she was 18-years-old, after fleeing sexual violence in the Caribbean. She had a miscarriage in 2015, which led to her receiving a £3,500 health bill for maternity care and inpatient treatment. She said: “My baby was buried and I couldn’t even go. I was just so scared that I was going to go and they were going to come and detain me.

“I am scared to go to the hospital because I don’t know how I will be able to pay on top of this bill. So I haven’t had any medical examinations just to see what happened.

“Even to just hear what caused the death of my baby, that is what I would really like to know. Just tell me what happened, so I know what caused the death, instead I am just thinking, Was I stressed? Was I not eating well? Was it a time that I was going on the stairs and I slipped? I don’t know what caused it. Or was it a medical problem? I don’t know.”

Meanwhile, campaigners have expressed concern over the way decisions over charging are made, with implementation seemingly patchy between different parts of the UK.

Rosalind Bragg, director of campaign group Maternity Action, told Holyrood: “It’s our experience that the finance staff whose role is to implement the regulations often aren’t trained in immigration law and often have a limited understanding of the application, which is particularly worrying for women who aren’t chargeable but are receiving bills. It’s quite common on our advice line for us to encounter women who aren’t chargeable who have been wrongly sent a bill by the NHS and of course, these are often quite vulnerable women, often with limited English language skills, who are not well placed to challenge the decision.

“The impact on women is harsh. In many cases, the women impacted have come to the UK with a partner, the relationship has broken down and their immigration status was dependent on that partner. They now find themselves without immigration status and often in quite desperate circumstances. It’s extraordinary that women in such a vulnerable situation are being targeted.”

Health guidance stipulates that maternity care is immediately necessary and that no woman should be refused, or see care delayed, because they are unable to pay. Yet, according to Bragg, the reality is quite different.

“We regularly encounter women who have been refused appointments or told appointments will be delayed until chargeability is resolved, or that future care will be refused if they don’t pay their bills, which is unlawful, but it’s still quite common.”

Health professionals have expressed anger at the policy, with the Royal College of Midwives warning the move could be dangerous if it deters women from seeking care.

The RCM said: “We strongly believe that this is an administrative issue and that it is not for midwives or other maternity health workers to determine eligibility or immigration status. This is not their job and never should be and we would expect all trusts to ensure that they are not put in a position where they have to take on this role. A midwife’s responsibility is to care for the women who walk through the doors of their maternity unit, not to tick any boxes about whether a woman should receive care.”

These concerns are echoed by a recent report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, warning that cost, alongside fears over the consequences for their immigration status, are preventing people seeking or refused asylum from using the health service.

This is the UK’s hostile environment immigration policy in action. Yet the approach extends far beyond the health service, with the Home Office’s attempts to ensnare those who it considers to be in the UK unlawfully reaching into every area of UK society.

The phrase is thought to have come straight from Theresa May herself. As she put it, in 2012 during her time as Home Secretary: “The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.”

In outlining the policy, the UK Government’s stated aim was to deny those in the UK unlawfully from accessing public services in an attempt to persuade large numbers to leave the country.

And as time has passed, the sprawling web of policies which constitute the hostile environment have spread, with professionals in health, education, social work, finance and housing all expected to act as de-facto border guards.

Last year, in Scotland, that approach was brought to life by the Home Office’s decision to start arresting and removing people from the European Economic Area who were rough sleeping on the streets.

First introduced in February 2017, the policy change meant that a European rough sleeper was considered to be in breach of their treaty rights, and therefore could be arrested and removed from the UK.

But while the policy was then ruled unlawful by the High Court the following December, Freedom of Information (FoI) requests from Holyrood show that, in the time between the policy being enacted and the High Court’s intervention, 26 people were deported from Scotland.

Meanwhile, although the Home Office said it would work with local authorities and homelessness agencies in enforcing the move, further FoI requests from Holyrood revealed that Edinburgh City Council had not been issued with direct guidance on how the policy would be implemented, while Scottish homelessness charities, such as Streetwork, warned that they would not hand over information to enforcement authorities, except in circumstances where they are legally required to do so.

And while enforcement has become tougher, gaining citizenship has become more complicated and more expensive. In fact, it costs thousands of pounds for someone to maintain their ‘leave to remain’ status.

Many of those paying these fees have worked and paid tax for years, but fall behind on payments and their immigration status would then be at risk. Meanwhile, figures obtained by the Guardian show hundreds of vulnerable children as young as 10, who have spent most of their lives in the UK, are having their applications for British citizenship denied for failing to pass the government’s “good character” test.

In finance, the 2014 Immigration Act prohibited banks and building societies from allowing undocumented migrants to open accounts. Then, in October 2017, the process ratcheted up further, with banks required to carry out quarterly immigration checks on everyone who holds a personal current account.

If a check identifies someone who is thought to be in the UK illegally, the bank is required to share the results with the Home Office. Banks may also be required to provide the Home Office with information on account-holders, including the type and balance of each account held, details of certain payments made from the account and any other information the bank decides is relevant. The Home Office then has the power to freeze the account-holder’s assets.

Meanwhile, the ‘right to rent’, enacted as part of the 2014 Immigration Act, requires private landlords to check the immigration status of tenants before renting to them.

Anyone without permission to live in the UK would then be banned from renting, including undocumented migrants, as well as asylum seekers who have not yet received a decision on their case. The move – which has not yet been introduced in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales – shifts responsibility for policing immigration onto landlords themselves, with anyone flouting rules facing up to five years in prison.

Social workers too have found themselves required to implement the hostile environment, with a 2017 inquiry from the Scottish Parliament’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee highlighting cases where people with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) were being denied access to vital services to which they were legally entitled.

The NRPF condition applies to people who have arrived in the UK in a range of immigration categories, including as students and workers, and their spouses, who may have the right to work, but not have access to benefits. In addition, those who have been refused asylum and have had their appeal rights exhausted, or are deemed to be in the UK without lawful status, are not entitled to work, but are also not entitled to either asylum support or mainstream benefits. This means they are effectively destitute by operation of the law.

For example, someone could come to the UK as the partner of a student, and if the partner became abusive and they left them, they would be considered to be in the UK unlawfully and would also have no entitlement to benefits. Evidence from the British Red Cross shows destitution is increasing among people seeking asylum, including among women and children survivors of domestic abuse.

Concern over the role of social workers in enforcing immigration controls then prompted the Scottish Association of Social Workers and UNISON Scotland to release a new legal guide for practitioners after finding that, even when social workers request vital services for asylum seekers, they are often wrongly denied.

In short, the policies which constitute a hostile environment reach everywhere. There are many ways someone could find themselves in the UK unlawfully, and at that point, they would be unable to rent a home, access their bank account, work, access welfare or even potentially study at college or university.

The Immigration Act 2016 widened the scope of ‘hostile environment’, with the Home Office placing responsibilities for enforcing immigration controls onto professionals at all levels of society.

Higher and further education, for example, became a key area of focus, with changes brought in January 2018 allowing an immigration officer to set restrictions on particular individuals, including restricting their right to study, even if they are already enrolled on a course. Colleges, which rely on Home Office permission to bring in foreign students, have little choice but to comply.

College lecturers in Scotland told Holyrood they have already seen students pulled out of English-language courses as the policy is enacted. Again, decisions on immigration status – as in healthcare and social work – are made by people in colleges without a background in immigration law.

College lecturers have expressed anger over the effect on their ability to teach, while universities too have come under increasing pressure from the Home Office to implement immigration controls through detailed attendance monitoring of both international academics and students, as well as opening up to either pre-arranged visits by the Home Office or surprise raids.

One senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, who asked to remain anonymous, told Holyrood that attendance monitoring has become “part of day-to-day business” at the university, and although all students are monitored – regardless of immigration status – the process stepped up in intensity following Home Office regulations.

He said: “The university pitches it with a rhetoric about how it’s part of our care for students, but everyone knows that underlying it is the requirement for the university to do this and the implication of losing status as a trusted sponsor [for foreign students] as well.”

He added: “I’ve been a lecturer for more than ten years and it didn’t used to be like this – no one would ask me to report on who was attending my class or not. I would keep a record of who was attending, and if someone wasn’t turning up more than two or three times, I would find out who their Director of Studies was and say, ‘is there a problem here?’ but it was absolutely nothing to do with migration monitoring.”

And while the system is clearly causing problems for universities, concern is also growing over the effect of Brexit on the future of the immigration system.

Andrew Cobley, a senior lecturer at the University of Dundee, runs an MSc programme which has been complicated by the bureaucracy surrounding UK immigration controls. He told Holyrood: “One of my biggest concerns is that the MSc programme we run is done by what we call intensive weeks, which allows people who work in the data science industry, for instance, to be able to enrol. They can do that even if they come from Europe.

“They don’t need to come to Dundee five days a week, they can just come for two weeks a year. But depending what happens with Brexit, European students will be counted as overseas students, as far as I can see, and there is no visa which will allow them to come and study like that, because the visa system is geared up towards people studying full time.

“This is going to rule out a lot of Europeans coming to do those courses, and then the second question is whether universities are going to charge European students as overseas students, in which case, the fees are going to double for them. So in terms of universities, I can see the number of EU students dropping quite a lot.”

What Brexit will mean for the future of the UK immigration system is still unclear, but it’s easy to see why Europeans are concerned.

Home Office ads, released over Christmas, provoked outrage among EU nationals in the UK, who learned they will need to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme in order to stay in the UK after 31 December 2020, at a cost of £65 for adults and £32.50 for children under 16.

And while campaigners expressed anger, for Europeans outside the UK the future remains shrouded in doubt. With the end of free movement of people, Europeans too could find themselves navigating the cold reality of the hostile environment immigration policy.

Meanwhile, each change to immigration law, from the 2014 Immigration Act onwards, has brought increased complications. In this sense, with the term used to cover a huge range of complex and at times brutal, policy choices, the ‘hostile environment’ is not one policy but many.

The system grows in scope and severity, while increasing numbers of professionals – from lecturers, to social workers to midwives – find themselves thrust into the unwanted role of border guards. The net widens, and more and more people are finding themselves trapped.

Holyrood Newsletters

Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe

Read the most recent article written by Liam Kirkaldy - Sketch: If the Queen won’t do it, it’ll just have to be Matt Hancock.

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox


Popular reads
Back to top