Amber Rudd 17 days before her resignation as Home Secretary. Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.
The Windrush scandal and Amber Rudd’s failures have dominated headlines, but Theresa May’s anti-migrant “hostile environment” policies have been causing misery for years.
It was in 2012 that May, then Home Secretary, made public her plan to make Britain a “hostile environment” for people who have “no right to be here”.
Measures would include compulsory ID checks in hospitals, a series of bans on migrants defined as illegal by the Home Office: they couldn’t rent homes, open bank accounts, obtain driving licences or work.
Schools, NHS service providers, police forces and local authorities would work with immigration enforcement, sharing data and information to track down and deport anyone suspected of breaking immigration rules.
Despite this the government came no closer to its’ stated aim of “getting control” over immigration. The mass deportations, NHS passport checks, workplace raids, rough-sleeper round-ups and other nasty features of the hostile environment haven’t driven down immigration.
What then, was the point?
It’s a question tackled in depth by Corporate Watch’s latest report “Who is immigration policy for?” Our research exposes the different roles played by politicians, media, right-wing hate preachers and corporate power in creating an atmosphere of hate and fear, fuelling conditions for a rise in anti-migrant feeling and xenophobia.
Standing on the shoulders of Labour Home Secretaries
None of this is new. The hostile environment, which seeks to turn us all into immigration informers, builds on the legacy of Tony Blair’s Labour Party.
Between 1999 and 2009, Labour governments passed five major immigration acts, which dramatically expanded the immigration detention and deportation system, and dismantled asylum rights.
A long line of Home Secretaries made their names by rolling out ever tougher measures against “illegal migrants”
Officially, the aim of these policies was always to reduce immigration and restrict entry into the UK to the “right” immigrants.
Yet net migration to the UK has been positive every year since 1994, peaking at over 300,000 in 2014 and 2015.
Meanwhile the ineffectiveness of vicious Immigration Enforcement measures is an open secret among Home Office officials.
Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd resigned over the Windrush scandal and for claiming ignorance of her own officials’ methods. But stories of departmental chaos are nothing new.
The Independent Chief Inspector’s report on illegal working from 2015 quotes Home Office managers. He writes, “Immigration Enforcement would never have the resources to resolve the overall problem. They described it as ‘not a realistic working model’.”
Even the most extreme hostile environment measures fail as an immigration deterrent. Instead these policies are dramatically reshaping aspects of Britain’s civil society and research suggests that many migrants do feel their bite. They live with high levels of fear and anxiety. But there is little evidence that this pain actually pushes many people to leave. The reasons people migrate to the UK are complex, influenced by conditions faced at home, rather than levels of hostility from the Home Office.
Spectacle and audience
If the numbers aren’t falling, what drives these vicious ineffective attacks?
Immigration policy is a spectacle, an emotive performance. It rarely targets overall migration levels. Instead the focus is on controlling vulnerable “low value” scapegoats: “asylum-seekers”, so-called “illegals”, and others who fall between the cracks.
This suits the demands of big business. One example is City lobby group London First, whose meeting with Amber Rudd was cancelled last Thursday. London First advocates liberalised migration controls for students and workers on the one hand, “robust enforcement to clampdown” on “low value migration” on the other.
This performance, immigration policy as a spectacle, is designed for a narrow audience. Our report shows that attacks on migrant scapegoats are primarily directed at two groups of older, white “target publics”.
One is made up of alienated working-class people hit hard by poverty and social tension, often living in run-down neighbourhoods in the North or Midlands. The other are comfortable “middle Englanders”.
Home Office teams on the prowl. Image by kenjonbro. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Whereas the first have personal economic and social troubles they blame on migrant scapegoats, the second often have little contact with migrants at all. But what both share is a generalised anxiety about migration as a “cultural threat”. Together they only make up about 20 per cent of the population but, in the UK’s electoral system, they can be pivotal voters, particularly when centrist governments feel a threat from the “populist” right.
Our research examines the ways media and politicians collaborate to court these target publics and, in the long run, shape their attitudes.
While it has deep roots, the tempo of anti-migrant media-politics picked up during the Blair years. There was the 1999 panic whipped up about Sangatte, a refugee camp in Calais, France. Then Home Secretary David Blunkett’s revival of Thatcher’s “swamping” discourse. The time Blair’s cabinet jointly planned an “asylum week” of scare stories and policy announcements with The Sun newspaper.
Labour developed a conscious strategy of scapegoating asylum-seekers to “neutralise” the electoral threat from the BNP.
Labour developed a conscious strategy of scapegoating asylum-seekers to “neutralise” the electoral threat from the BNP. The same moves play out today, with UKIP taking the BNP’s role. Since 1999 surveys report the proportion of people concerned about immigration as an important issue has doubled. Meanwhile, a long line of Home Secretaries made their names by rolling out ever tougher measures against “illegal migrants” – as well as the other undesirable spectres caricatured and demonised in the media.
Beyond the “public debate”
How can pro-migrant campaigners counter this propaganda machine?
Our analysis calls into question some popular approaches. Campaigners often aim to push alternative views and voices into the liberal media sphere, trying to influence the “public debate” on migration.
But there is no “public debate on immigration”. This idea is a charade that obscures how power works. There is no one public, but many different people having many different conversations. And it’s not a debate, it’s a propaganda war. Fought with emotive stories, not facts and reasons. Conservative campaign guru Lynton Crosby says: “When reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins”.
Right-wing politicians and propagandists, at least the clever ones, are well aware of this. They understand who they need to talk to, and how they need to talk to them. This isn’t to say we should copy their strategies, as indeed our aims and values are very different. But we do need to question a default campaigning approach based on getting positive messages – interview comments, opinion pieces, media-focused stunts, or reports like this one – into the liberal media and left-leaning parts of Facebook.
When the current scandal blows over, the raids, detentions and deportations continue. To strategise effectively, first we need to understand how the enemy works.
Click here to read the new Corporate Watch report “Who is immigration policy for?”
More Corporate Watch reports on the hostile environment:
Edited by Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi for Shine A Light.