Image: Protests at Yarls Wood immigration detention centre, iDJ photography/Flickr.
Fewer than 500 days are left until the UK is due to leave the European Union. Yet the most significant obstacles to the ‘smooth, orderly Brexit’ promised by Theresa May have not been created by Brussels. They lie in wait in Croydon, Sheffield and the half a dozen other sites where the Home Office is shamefully unprepared for the most significant challenges our immigration system has faced in four decades.
The Home Affairs Select Committee today grills Immigration Minister Brandon Lewis on his department’s ability to deal with these challenges. Three million EEA nationals and their families currently residing in Britain will have to be processed and regularised. And 450 million Europeans will become subject to broken and cruel systems hitherto reserved for the ‘rest of the world’.
Officials have conceded that the department is struggling to increase its capacity. Ironically, the Home Office may have to recruit new staff from the EU to handle the strains of leaving the EU. The Home Office already faces accusations of incompetence as it fails to respond to a growing backlog, with procedural errors and poor decision-making leaving workers and families waiting up to two years for a decision. At current staffing levels, each caseworker will process an additional 1500 European applications. Yet even a doubling of capacity will not change the fact that the system itself does not work. Without a significant shift in the way Britain deals with both the idea and the reality of people on the move, we are just 500 days from chaos.
To address this looming crisis, last week saw leading progressive organisations, politicians and think tanks gathered in London. At a conference hosted jointly by CLASS, Runnymede and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, delegates explored the challenge of rising intolerance and division, the risks of Brexit for EEA nationals and proposed the building blocks of a post-Brexit immigration system that works for British, EEA and non-EEA citizens alike. Much about the coming year remains uncertain. However, consensus emerged around principles which we hope will guide a new conversation about immigration.
Those in attendance recognised that valid concerns exist in our society about inequality, opportunity and neglect but we must refuse to accept division, suspicion and hatred as the inevitable consequences of this anxiety. Solidarity must mean solidarity between those who fear prejudice and those have suffered from decades of economic decline and cuts to public services. Britain has a proud history of such bonds – from the Lancashire mill workers who shunned American cotton to support Lincoln’s war against slavery, to the towns of Bolton, Oldham and Burnley who welcomed Mahatma Gandhi despite his boycott of British cotton. Let this be a template for our national conversation, rather than the poisonous language of division and fear.
If we are to mitigate the climate of fear, we must also recognise that it did not appear overnight. The injustices of Britain’s immigration system existed long before the fate of the 3 million fell into uncertainty.
The Telegraph expresses shock at the possibility of European nationals without documentation being detained by Immigration Enforcement after 2019. But – as Martha Spurrier, Director of Liberty pointed out - inhumane and indefinite detention have been a reality for thousands of non-European migrants for decades, as have the indignities of family separation, dawn raids, profiling and now, Theresa May’s so-called “hostile environment”. Meanwhile, numbers of EU nationals in immigration detention are rising rapidly. This concern about EU nationals is a positive step in our national conversation, but we must also address the injustices that lie at the heart of our whole immigration system. We cannot create a two-tier system, but must take this moment as an opportunity to fight for a fairer system that works for everybody.
This includes workers. Diana Holland OBE, Assistant General Secretary of Unite the Union and Owen Espley, Senior Campaigner at War on Want, drew the focus of the discussion to the reality of growing economic insecurity as zero-hours contracts, outsourcing and other forms of precarious employment become the norm. Vulnerable workers have much to fear in today’s economy. To reach a durable settlement for European and non-European migrants, protections for foreign and domestic workers must lie at the heart of our immigration policy. We must call on this government to find solutions rather than scapegoats for those at risk.
Finally, we must rethink the way our immigration system thinks and works. Laws and regulations are convoluted to the point of being unintelligible for both applicants and decision makers. It’s simply a dereliction of duty to hugely increase the number of people subject to a system that offers poor service, growing delays and incorrect decisions in exchange for overinflated fees. A ‘Global Britain’ must embrace and celebrate a long history of people from across the world contributing to life in this country. Cruelty and incompetence cannot be the default settings for our interactions with all who hail from elsewhere.
So much about Britain’s future remains uncertain, meaning so much is left to decide. But it is incumbent upon all of us to examine who Britain wants to be, and what sort of society we want our children to live in. To build an immigration system which is fair, humane, just and works for all.