10 Years of the Hostile Environment

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the hostile environment. As the war on migrants continues, building solidarity across our communities has never been more important, writes Shami Chakrabarti.

Migrants packed tightly onto a small inflatable boat attempt to cross the English Channel near the Dover Strait. Credit: Luke Dray / Getty Images

Today marks a grim anniversary. Ten years of the notorious ‘hostile environment’. 

Just as surely as austerity led to the horrors of the Grenfell atrocity—atrocity and not just ‘tragedy’ because it was man-made— the hostile environment directly caused the Windrush Scandal.

Contracting out immigration control to health professionals, employers and private landlords, and using starvation and destitution as tools of public policy, was always a recipe for discrimination and fear.

Division and oppression

We know that these policies of austerity and hostility work together to achieve one result: division and oppression.

It was an attempt to turn most people in the country and the world against each other and their own best interests, so as to keep the millionaires in the Cabinet and the billionaires on their yachts, jets and spaceships, in a position of domination and exploitation of everyone else.

My time as a young lawyer in the Home Office was perhaps the most formative of my whole career. I advised Ministers and officials on everything from criminal policy and counter-terrorism to immigration and asylum practice, legislation and litigation. 

I learned so much about Human Rights and even more about human decency, including the values of the overwhelming majority of public servants with whom I worked in the late 1990s—up until the summer before 9/11.

That public service now faces devastating cuts of 91,000 jobs, attacks on collective bargaining, strike action and picketing. Unsurprisingly the Prime Minister and law-breaker in chief did nothing to strengthen employment rights and enforcement after the P&O Ferries saga. He is now doing next to nothing whilst sky-high inflation and costs of living threaten so many families. 

Public servants do not come to work to be de-valued, bullied and scapegoated by Ministers. Nor do they come to work to de-value, bully and scapegoat some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. I stand with all those forced to agonise with their friends and families night after night, at great cost to their mental and physical health; all those forced to whisper ‘not in my name!’

They do not come to work to breach international and domestic law, to dismantle vital institutions, or lie to the public about what is being done in their name. That privilege seems to be reserved for those who currently govern us all and who time and again demonstrate just how much they think that they are above the law.

So I am so proud to stand with trade unions protecting their members from both catastrophic job and resource cuts and the mental health and moral harms that come from being sent out to administer lawless and inhumane border policy—aimed more at securing cheap headlines than keeping anyone safe or free. 

And whilst protecting members, trades unions can work in wider partnership and lead coalitions of action with grassroots campaigns at home and internationally. After all, that is how the anti-apartheid movement began long ago, and long before our politicians caught up.

Rights under attack

No country has a perfect record on giving asylum to the desperate. Indeed it is because of the grave omissions of the 1920s and 30s that we have a Refugee Convention at all.  It was the world’s apology for the Holocaust. Let us not forget that the children of the Kindertransport had to leave their parents and families behind, and that this country refused refuge to Albert Einstein.

And public servants need no reminder that the European Convention on Human Rights—now incorporated in our Human Rights Act—grew out of the bitter lessons of the 1930s and World War II.

But for a maritime nation such as ours, the so-called Channel Pushback policy was as un-British as impractical, criminal and inhumane. I call it the reverse Dunkirk Spirit; owing far more inspiration to Boris Johnson’s recent mentor Donald Trump than his former hero Winston Churchill, who must have been spinning. 

Did someone forget to tell Johnson and Patel that this country’s national myth and finest hour was all about saving people in little boats, not turning those little boats around?

It is thanks to the litigation brought by PCS that Government lies were exposed. The Home Secretary told the public and even parliament before the local elections, that this policy was expressly designed to pushback and deter refugees and asylum seekers in the English Channel.

Only when this union and its partner organisation Care for Calais resisted government attempts to keep their policy secret in court, was it revealed that the Home Office knew all along that it would have been illegal not to allow asylum seekers to come to shore. As a direct result of that litigation, this dangerous and disgraceful policy has now been dropped.

But just as previous politicians once worked in the greater interests of peace and justice to bring us the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, this generation now stokes more fear and division via the Maundy Thursday Pact with Rwanda. The government thinks it can ‘contract out’; not just of worker’s rights but refugees’ rights as well. 

It is nothing short of an exercise in state-sponsored people trafficking that even involves the transfer of large sums of tax-payer’s cash. It’s hardly surprising that the Archbishop of Canterbury has called it ‘ungodly’.

The Home Secretary displays her characteristic cheek when she suggests that criticism of this so-called ‘off-shoring’ is racist. But it isn’t the Rwandans that I blame, it’s the entitled and corrupt Etonians closer to home.

Once more PCS and allies are leading the resistance to this moral and human disaster.

So my message to Boris Johnson and Priti Patel is simple:

‘Your lawless and inhumane policies are not being thwarted by activist lawyers any more than they are being perpetrated by the government lawyers unfortunate enough to be working for you. 

‘You are being called to account by ordinary working people who care about common humanity and the Rule of Law.’

Building solidarity

But we should brace ourselves for the wider assault and very much more brutish and entitled lawlessness to come. Just as Donald Trump sought to undermine democratic dissent, institutions and elections, we are looking at a barrage of anti-protest provisions, attacks on trade unions, broadcasters and even the electoral commission. We are promised a Bill to scrap the very Human Rights Act that has allowed the government to be held accountable in court.

We are promised a so-called ‘Bill of Rights’ to replace the Human Rights Act. But we are also told that under the new law, our courts must ignore decisions of international courts and rights will be contingent on nationality, significant hardship and good behaviour. 

Are we really going to let a government that treats the Refugee Convention with such contempt drive a coach and horses through the Human Rights Convention that protects everyone as well?

Are we going to forget the Grenfell and Windrush scandals by saying that only those with the right papers can have their basic rights as human beings?

Are we going to let millionaire ministers determine hardship ‘significant’ enough for access to rights protection?

And is Boris Johnson’s gang of law-breakers going to define ‘good behaviour’?

Whilst the current lawless government would have us all turn inwards on each other, we must look outwards in solidarity and interconnection with a world in crisis. 

And the answer to that crisis, whether of health and wealth inequality, or conflict or climate catastrophe at home and abroad is more common decency not less. 

It lies in one rule for all and not no rules for some.

It lies in a principle at the heart of the trade union movement. A word that translates  into every language and culture on earth.

Christians call it ‘fellowship’. Muslims call it ‘Umma’. Southern African peoples use various versions of Ubuntu.

We call it ‘solidarity’ to describe ‘no me without us’; the kind of society we want to reach together and the means of transport as well.

In standing up for its members and their wider communities. In the workplace, on the streets and in the courtroom.

And crucially in the homes where decent working people would otherwise be forced to whisper their ethical and practical fears about the cost of living and working under this lawless government. In solidarity with each other and their union, those whispers can become a roar.