‘There have always been a hostile environment’

This blog reports on research supported by The Sociological Review Foundation’s Kickstart Grants scheme.

Elsa Oommen

We first read about the story of Paulette Wilson, a former chef at the House of Commons, who was being detained and threatened with deportation from the United Kingdom to Jamaica, in late 2017. She had moved to the UK in 1968, aged 10 years, from Jamaica, a country which she had never visited since. She did her schooling here, helped raise two generations in the UK, until one day the Home Office branded her an illegal immigrant. Amelia Gentleman, the guardian reporter who broke this news to the world, continued her reporting on this issue (2017- 2019) on similar long – term British residents of Caribbean diaspora, who had legally entered the country in early 50s and 60s, who were getting threatened with forceful removals. The first case was brought to her attention by Refugee and Migrant Centre, a small refugee charity in Wolverhampton, who wanted to bring media attention to the case of their client Paulette Wilson – and became the case that led to exposing the lives of several windrush-era children who were hounded by the Home Office for documents they cannot produce, because they were not required to have these in the era in which they had moved to the UK.

Subsequently, the media and academic attention cast light on the ‘hostile environment policy’, introduced in 2012 by then-Home Secretary Theresa May, which had wrongly caught long- term, legal residents in a net that was cast for irregular migrants. Of course, successive governments prefer to use the term ‘illegal’ instead of irregular, when in reality lack of legal pathways to migration, asylum and citizenship create irregular statuses (but this is a larger topic and not the immediate remit of this paper). But this also brings us into the topic of my research, into long term British-Caribbean residents’ experience of rights and restriction in the UK: how do we understand the interaction of law and policy in shaping people’s lived experiences, practices that separate us into legal and illegal, worthy of rights or requiring restrictions?

Understanding the continuum of rights and restrictions in people’s lived realities was important to my project, because a sense of rights (or prospect of future rights) attracts us to put down roots in a new land. In fact, every discussion of Windrush-era migrants starts at a place of rights, granted through the British Nationality Act, 1948, which granted equal rights of abode, to all subjects of the crown, giving an impression of equal rights to all – British citizens and British subjects alike – this was however not true in practice. The big difference between perception of rights and an actual practice of rights was exacerbated by the legal distinctions between ‘Commonwealth citizens’ and ‘aliens’ for purposes of voting in Britain – giving Commonwealth migrants a sense of identity as British when they moved to the UK. This understanding of Commonwealth citizens as British subjects has been invoked in parliamentary debates on voting rights – and relevant to this very day. So then the question remains: how can long term residents from Commonwealth countries, who enjoy civil and political rights, and understood on par with British subjects, be suddenly threatened with deportation? It is this quandary that I sought to understand through my early career pilot project, funded by the Sociological Review Kick Starter Grant. The answer to this is, as you may have guessed from the title, is the existence of a hostile environment towards migrants from the erstwhile colonies, in operation since 1948.

I will explain this using what I argue as the ‘deployment of a semblance of rights’, systematically conjured to hide an otherwise hostile environment, in operation from the very beginning – even before the HMT Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury. In fact, every effort was taken to persuade people from not using their rights to move to the UK, by reminding them, ‘of the difficulties which they were likely to meet in finding work and accomodation in the UK’[1] Further, according to an official report of an emergency meeting of the Cabinet Economic Policy Committee[2], which was called to discuss the situation [arrival of the first of the windrush generation], the Minister of Labour had to reassure MPs that:

“no encouragement will be given to others to follow their example.”—[Official Report, 8 June 1948; Vol. 451, c. 1851.]

Thus, a ‘semblance of rights’ was mounted on the actual operation of restrictions on racialised migrants in the UK from the immediate post-war years of migration to the UK. Slowly and steadily, this chimera of rights was also dismantled – through the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 and 1968, Immigration Act 1971 and its introduction of patriality, British Nationality Act 1981 – all these served the purpose of making erstwhile colonial migrants in Britain, such as those of the Caribbean diaspora, live under an unofficial hostile environment.

The existence of an informal hostile environment was also reiterated by my interviewees – who agreed that they have experienced it in several ways – but that it found a legal standing from 2012. For instance, Bill, who moved to the UK in 1964, aged 15 years, remarked that hostile environment is ‘nothing new’:

“…for the minority people from as long as I can remember, there’ve always been that hostile environment, so it’s nothing new.  It’s not just something that happens since whoever made that statement about creating a hostile environment.  It had always been a  hostile environment where I’m concerned from the 1960s when I came to the UK until now.  It got more hostile, when that statement was made…whatever..”

(Bill, 71 years, British, Born in Jamaica)

Bill’s words make it clear that a hostile environment is not something that comes into being with one statement or one historical moment – it has been present all along! Some of my interviewees also remarked that the operation of a hostile environment over the years, and its present day manifestations have made them question the certainty in rights that draw from their citizenship status. Cynthia who moved to the UK in 1966, from Barbados reflected on this uncertainty:

“So, I have citizenship by naturalisation – but I can’t take that for granted anymore…I mean our status is not secure. And it can be redefined at any time… at any moment– you know.”                                             

(Cynthia, 58 years, British, Born in Barbados)

Cynthia was just six years old when she moved to the UK and admits that ‘it’s the place that I know best of all’. However, the Windrush scandal, and similar instances of citizenship deprivation, has now made her aware of how further restrictions could creep into an all-pervasive hostile enviornment.

Wendy Williams’ investigation into the Windrush scandal has pointed at the ‘causative impact’  of ‘operational and organisational failings’ of the Home Office, in the ‘detrimental treatment received by the Windrush generation’(p.113). This is particularly notable in the administering of the 1987 registration scheme, wherein advertising was intended to be informative, but not “stimulate a flood of inquiries” (p.113). Publicity leaflets from the time also explained that there would be no consequences if people chose not to register at that time (p.113). Thus, it is unsurprising that some did not register. I take this as yet another evidentiary instance of negligent hostility – when efforts were not taken to adequately convey to the settled population of Commonwealth citizens, the implications of not having the new set of documents demanded by each change in the immigration legislation. The Windrush scandal exposed it at its most brutal operation – where some citizens became more deportable than others, and most of them to this day are awaiting justice from a land they loved and served as their ‘mother country’.

Disclaimer: Interviewees’ names have been pseudonymised, abiding by ethical standards of anonymity, in humanities and social science research. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the employer or affiliated organisations.

Dr Elsa Oommen is a Senior Research Officer for Human Mobility Initiative at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). She holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Warwick. She is a Visiting Fellow (Sociology) at Goldsmiths, University of London and Honorary Fellow (Sociology) at University of Warwick.


[1] CLWP(49)12, 13 Jul 49, LAB 26/226, p.3, para.10, as cited in Wakamatsu, K. (1998). The Role of Civil Servants in the Formulation of Policy: An analysis of the policy process commonwealth immigration from 1948- 1964, Doctoral Thesis, University of Warwick.

[2] HC Deb, 30 April 2018, Col 31WH. Statement by Stuart C. McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP)

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