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The ‘hostile environment’ is 10. It blighted these women’s lives

A decade after Theresa May declared a ‘hostile environment’, many immigrants to the UK are stuck in legal limbo

Michelle Martin Anita Mureithi Daniel Trilling
20 May 2022, 11.15am

Illustration by Inge Snip

Ten years ago, Theresa May – then the home secretary – declared that her government intended to “create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration”.

It triggered a major policy disaster, in the shape of the 2018 Windrush scandal. Yet despite government claims to the contrary, the hostility is not over.

Over the past decade, the UK’s immigration system has been made harsher by successive governments. The flagship “hostile environment” rules, intended to cut people off from essential services by making institutions such as the NHS or private landlords check people’s immigration status, have been accompanied by a flood of other restrictions.

The crackdown has helped create a large number of people whose lives are rooted in the UK, but who are forced to live in forms of legal limbo. These include people who are undocumented – a group estimated to be anywhere between 600,000 and 1.2 million in number, according to the barrister and author Colin Yeo – and people whose immigration status is temporary.

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openDemocracy has spoken to some at the sharp end of the UK’s immigration system who described their experiences as “mentally torturing” and “living in fear”. Others felt it had robbed them of their youth.

Bethan Lant, a veteran frontline worker at the London-based charity Praxis, tells openDemocracy that her organisation regularly helps people placed in severe financial hardship, or reduced to homelessness and destitution because of immigration restrictions.

For many of the people Lant works with, the experience is one of “ongoing precarity, where it feels like you’re never going to get out the other end”.

The women in the four following accounts have all been helped by Praxis. They asked that we use assumed names, and withhold certain details about their backgrounds – this is so they can speak freely about the way they feel the system is treating them.

immigration beds.png

Illustration by Inge Snip. All rights reserved

Margarita’s story: struggling to meet the cost

“I have to deprive my family of so many things,” says Margarita, a mother of four who works at a food bank. All of Margarita’s children have British citizenship, but she originally came to the UK from a country in Africa and has been placed on what’s known as the 10-year route to settlement.

This scheme, introduced in 2012, applies to many people who ask for the right to stay in the UK on human rights grounds – for example, if they have British children. Margarita must renew her visa every two and a half years for a decade before she can ask for permission to live in the UK indefinitely.

The problem is that the government has raised the price of visa applications.

Each time Margarita applies to renew her visa, she has to pay more than £2,500 in fees to the Home Office – including the “immigration health surcharge”. This was introduced in 2015 to charge people for use of the NHS, even if they are working and paying taxes in the UK.

On a low income, it’s not easy to find that sort of money.

“It has been a long time since I have spent money on myself. I only think about my children and try and make it work for them,” Margarita says. “I don’t put myself in the picture any more. For them, the things we have had to cut back on are trips, nice food and clothes, outings, activities outside of school – all things that their mates are able to do, but my children can’t experience because I always have to save for my visa fees. Only recently we were able to sign up for Netflix. Often teachers at school tell the children to watch educational programmes there but we couldn’t do it.

“I am trying to speak with [my children] and make them understand but it’s difficult. It’s mentally torturing.”

Desiré’s story: A sudden discovery

“The first time I discovered I was undocumented was when I was in sixth form college,” says Desiré, who came to the UK with her family aged 11, and never thought while growing up that she might not have a legal right to live in the country.

“When the time came to start picking subjects and apply for university, I had to fill out the necessary information [about my nationality] on the UCAS form. I realised: ‘Oh, I’ve not really asked about this before,’ so I asked my mum – and that’s when I found out.”

At school, Desiré says, she didn’t think of herself as any different from her classmates. Her mother would keep her away from situations where she might need to prove her immigration status. “When my mum told me that she couldn’t afford school trips, to go overseas like to Paris, I just left it like that. To be honest, I didn’t pay attention to things like that at that age.”

Desiré completed one year of a degree, paying fees as an international student, but had to drop out because her mother couldn’t keep up the payments.

“It does affect you a lot, because gradually you start losing friends,” she says. “You get left out when [people are] travelling. You want to go but you can’t because you need a proper ID.”

Now, in her early 30s, she is applying for permission to stay in the UK. In 2012, the government increased the length of time – from 14 years to 20 – that an ‘undocumented’ person has to have been living in the UK before they become eligible.

And that’s only the start of a process that can take several more years.

I am still hopeful. I still see the light at the end of the tunnel

“For years I have had plans for all the things that I wanted to do but as the years go by, it kind of fades out,” Desiré says. “But I am still hopeful. I still see the light at the end of the tunnel. I would still like to go to university. I want to get a job, maybe start a business – something that can take me out of my home, because I haven’t been able to do things for years.

Despite her experience, Desiré still feels lucky. “I usually get support from friends and family, [from] my mum as well. Not a lot of people can say that they have their mum or friends that can support them. So I'm really grateful for that.”

Abena’s story: fear of destitution

“I had a few friends who would do a collection for me among themselves,” says Abena.

She has lived in the UK since 2001 – but spent much of the past decade without the right to claim most forms of benefits.

That’s because another of May’s reforms was to drastically expand the use of a New Labour-era policy known as “no recourse to public funds”, or NRPF, a condition imposed on both undocumented people and many of those with temporary visas. People can apply to have it lifted if they can show that they – or their children – are at risk of destitution. But this process takes time, and usually requires legal advice.

To complicate matters, the government also cut legal aid for most immigration cases in 2012, meaning people who can’t afford to pay lawyers must hope there is a charity with the capacity to help them.

“[Praxis] are probably one of the biggest free immigration advice providers in London, as charities go,” says Lant. “But we could fill our casework team ten times over and still people would need more because there’s such huge demand.”

Abena, a single mother of two, has spent years doing several low-paid jobs at a time – including as a cook – to make ends meet. She works more than 40 hours a week, but the money she earns is not enough on its own.

“I was living in fear of the unknown,” she says, recalling the period she was under NRPF restrictions. Her children were not even allowed to claim free school meals during that time. Instead, her church pastor would bring round food for her and the children.

“One Christmas the crisis centre gave us a few toys,” she says.

“I’m not harsh on my kids but when my [eldest] son turned 16, I begged him to go out and get a job.” She says her son, now 17, currently works eight hours a week on top of his studies. “It's not fair on him because he is in full-time education, but what could I do? I needed the help.”

Abena still worries about the future. She recently applied to renew her current visa and is waiting to see whether the Home Office decides to impose NRPF restrictions again.

“I guess I overwork myself, which I know – my family keeps on telling me to take it easy. [But] I can't take it easy even if I want. I have to do this in order to survive.

“I don’t know how I do it – I say I get my motivation from God.”

immigration shadows.png

Illustration by Inge Snip

Joy’s story: stuck in the system

“My immigration situation is a little bit complicated,” says Joy, explaining that she was trafficked to the UK by a relative at the age of 15. When she escaped, in her early 20s, she spent several years without the ability to prove her right to live in the UK, because she had no documents. For much of the time, she says, she slept on friends’ sofas.

“I was stuck – I didn’t know what to do for years. Then one day I went to the GP to talk about how I was feeling, because I realised that I was depressed.” The GP referred Joy to a specialist charity, which told her that she could apply for permission to stay in the UK as a trafficking survivor.

In 2019, by now 27, Joy made an application. Two years on, she is still waiting for an answer from the Home Office.

“Up to now, I have heard nothing from them. Like, zero,” says Joy.

More complex immigration restrictions mean more bureaucracy. Lant told openDemocracy that delays in processing people’s applications can compound their problems.

Joy does not have the right to work or study, and is currently living in asylum accommodation provided by the Home Office, supplemented by a subsistence payment of £35 a week.

These experiences, Joy says, have “affected my mental health in so many ways. Because being stuck in the system, even on the first day you think about how you’ve not got your status. You start thinking and crying by yourself in the middle of the night, then you start flipping on people and having mood swings.

“Sometimes you don’t even know how to have fun – you don’t know how to have a social life.”

Joy says she would like it “if the government can have a little bit of compassion” for young people in her situation, “thinking and putting themselves in our shoes. These young people are the future leaders. You don't know if this young person is the next prime minister, you don't know if this young person would be the next minister of education.

“You don't know what this person could be when you are robbing them of their dreams and aspirations. That sucks.”

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