UK’s hostile environmental policies ‘disproportionately affect’ people of color | Windrush scandal

The Home Office’s hostile environment policies appear to have had a disproportionately negative impact on people of colour, a government review of the legislation has found.

The long-awaited impact assessment of the package of hostile environmental measures introduced when David Cameron was prime minister and later renamed “environmentally friendly” policies reveals for the first time the government’s own assessment of the potential risks of the legislation.

The report published on Thursday shows that Indian, Pakistani, Nigerian and Bangladeshi nationals were most likely to be affected according to the equality impact assessment. Albanians and Brazilians, despite being among the top five nationalities most often found to be illegally present in the UK, were less frequently affected by the measures.

“We note that of the top five nationalities affected most are identifiable as being of/of brown or black heritage and all five are not visibly white,” the document notes. “Internal data suggests that some of the compliant environmental measures may disproportionately impact people of color.”

The publication marks the first official assessment of the policies that led to the Windrush scandal, when thousands of people legally resident in the UK found themselves unable to work, rent property, get NHS healthcare, open bank accounts or travel.

Former home secretary Priti Patel pledged to review hostile environment measures in 2019 when she promised to implement 30 reform recommendations set out in the independent Wendy Williams inquiry into what caused the Windrush scandal.

The policies were devised by Theresa May, who announced in 2012 when she was home secretary: “The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal immigration.” The measures were intended to restrict access to work, benefits, bank accounts, driving licenses and other essential services to those who could not prove they had a legal right to live in the UK. It then emerged that many in the UK legally could not prove their status and that the Home Office often misclassified legal residents as immigration offenders.

Mary Atkinson, Head of Campaigns and Networks at JCWI, a migrant rights charity, said: “This report exposes in the cold, clinical language of the Home Office what communities of color have been saying for over a decade: the hostile environment of this government is racist. For the Home Office to admit that its policies have a disproportionate impact on people of colour, particularly the black and East Asian communities, is a watershed moment. This government cannot begin to right the wrongs of Windrush while every policy that discriminated against the victims of Windrush remains in place.”

The review of the policies mainly looked at the impact they had between the introduction of the Immigration Act 2014 and 2018, when some policies were stopped or changed in the wake of the Windrush scandal, as it became clear that thousands of people had been wrongly detained under hostile environment measures.

During this period, the Home Office shared records of 448,800 people with other government agencies, and as a result 63,786 people were affected by compliant environmental policies. The most common actions were revoking their UK driving license or sending a letter to their employer informing them that they may not be allowed to work in the UK.

A Home Office spokesman said: “Assessing the compliance environment is vital to ensure that both its rules and protections are working effectively. Steps have already been taken to improve safeguards and to ensure that people who are in the UK legally have the right protections and do not face difficulties in proving their right to work, benefits and services.’

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Previous external studies of hostile environment functioning have highlighted similar concerns. In December 2018 the National Audit Office found that hostile environment policies did not provide value for money for taxpayers.

A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research in 2020 found that hostile environmental policy had encouraged racism, pushed people into poverty, wrongly targeted people living legally in the UK and had “seriously damaged the reputation of the Home Office”.

Campaigners have often warned that requiring landlords, doctors and employers to carry out immigration checks could lead to racial discrimination. The high court ruled in 2019 that requiring landlords to check the immigration status of prospective tenants was unlawful and constituted racial discrimination because it caused landlords to discriminate against British citizens of minority ethnic origin and against foreign nationals who had a legal right to rent . However, the Home Office later won an appeal against the decision.

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