The Hostile Environment’s Next Step

Priti Patel is considering plans to halve the minimum prison sentence required for deportation – the latest attack on migrants from a government determined to expand the hostile environment at every opportunity.

Home Secretary Priti Patel is considering emboldening the hostile environment even further by cutting the current sentencing term required for the deportation of migrants.

The plan is one of several options currently being looked at by the Home Office as part of the soon-to-be published Sovereign Borders Bill. Patel is also looking at increasing the number of deportation flights, which already run twice a week.

Cutting the minimum sentence required for deportation would be the latest in a series of policies enacted – in a global pandemic – with the overarching aim of removing migrants from the country as quickly and as easily as possible.

The UK Borders Act, passed by a Labour government in 2007, outlines the terms required to allow for the deportation of a ‘foreign criminal’. It states that offenders must be sentenced for a minimum of twelve months to be liable for automatic deportation–a period that’s already relatively short–but the new legislation may see that minimum term cut down to just six months, placing considerably more people at risk of deportation.

It’s important to note here that there are already mechanisms in place which allow for the deportation of offenders who persistently cause serious harm and receive six-month sentences. Instead, this new sentencing term will make the automatic deportation of so many more people that much easier for the Home Office, irrespective of the harm that person may or may not have caused.

Six-month sentences are not just issued by crown courts, but by magistrates’ courts, too. A vital difference between the two is that the means test for legal aid in the magistrates’ courts is significantly more rigorous than that of the crown courts; that means a higher number of people are forced to attend magistrates’ courts without any legal representation, leaving them at an increased risk of imprisonment, and now, potentially, of deportation.

The people likely to be affected by the rule change will be migrants convicted of minor offences, hence the shorter prison sentence given: crimes like possession of cannabis – crimes that arguably shouldn’t result in a prison sentence to begin with. Drug debates aside, those serving those sentences may now receive a double punishment – the second being a lifelong one.

The hostile environment is an inherently racist and discriminatory system, as made clear by the Windrush scandal. The Home Office’s policies have thrown migrants of colour into poverty and destitution because of their inability to access housing, employment, and healthcare, and as the immigration process has grown more bureaucratic and more expensive, many migrants have been left in a state of limbo.

And as people of colour are already far more likely to be penalised than their counterparts for the same crimes, and are overrepresented in prisons, this new sentencing term for deportations will only further racist injustice in Britain. Deporting people who have committed minor crimes will perpetuate and embed discrimination in both the criminal justice system and immigration system, just at a time when more and more conversations are pointing to the need for criminal justice reform and rehabilitation.

Minnie Rahman, a public affairs and campaigns officer at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, tells me that this could ‘set a precedent for changes to the criminal justice system which further deny people access to their rights and legal advice.’ When asked about the reasons given by Patel and the Home Office for changing this term now, Rahman explains that the proposed Sovereign Borders Bill has been touted widely as a way to crack down on legal advice for migrants and people seeking asylum.

She goes on to say that Patel has spent a lot of time and resources trying to dehumanise those facing deportation by branding them as ‘dangerous criminals’. We saw this last month, when the Home Office attempted to deport fifty people to Jamaica; Patel responded to criticisms from Labour MPs by saying that they were ‘re-traumatising victims of serious crimes’. Her efforts to feed the fear of migrants may mean the government is able to move forward with a lower threshold for deportations without the public making too much of a fuss.

The Home Office claims that deportations resolve problems in both the immigration and criminal justice systems – but as Rahman says, these problems are in part created by the ‘chaotic and inhumane immigration system’, and speak to that system rather than to migrants. ‘Deadly channel crossings, the horrendous backlog in people waiting for decisions on their asylum claims, and the number of undocumented migrants living without rights will not change by increasing deportations,’ Rahman adds. The only real purpose this new minimum sentencing term would serve is the expansion of the hostile environment.

Patel has stated numerous times that she’s committed to delivering on the recommendations of the Windrush report. The Windrush scandal proved that migration policy needs to be evidence-based – but the Home Office is instead hardening the processes that led to the scandal in the first place. If it goes ahead, this change will break up more families, threaten more communities, and make Britain in general a more hostile place.