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  • Writer's pictureRita

Maya Goodfellow on the hostile environment

Dr Maya Goodfellow is Maya Goodfellow is a writer and academic, specialising in the relationships between race, bordering and capitalism. She is currently Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at SPERI, the University of Sheffield, visiting fellow at UCL, and author of the book "Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats."

Rita: Maya, thanks for joining me today. I’m curious, what got you started on the journey of researching the hostile environment?

Maya: I remember sort of being engaged with and reporting on the 2015 general election, and the Labour Party in particular. This was the time of the infamous immigration controls. I was really frustrated with their positioning and was thinking about the history of these debates, and how in particular the party political left responds to some of these issues. And so because of that, I ended up becoming very interested in the history of the hostile environment - one I actually didn't know a lot about, despite having been through the British state education system, despite having a migration family history myself. And so I was interested in thinking about how we got to this point, but then also trying to track what some of the arguments against immigration have been, and trying to argue against some of those because in the public domain, there is quite a lot of popular anti-immigration books, but not a huge amount, or maybe not enough, books countering some of these arguments at least in popular press. There’s a wealth of work in the academic realm, but doesn't always translate into public debate. I was interested in thinking about how we do that.

R: When speaking of the history, what did you find? Has how immigration is perceived changed over time?

M: There’s a depressing similarity in some of the arguments that you find now (or at least when I was writing the book in 2016) - these arguments like the idea that migration is bad for the economy, bad for culture - you find that way back in the early 1900s. The arguments then were largely antisemitic, directed to people in the Jewish pogroms, but also related to poverty.

But there are obvious shifts that sort of occurred over time, particularly when you have people coming from the colonies and former colonies. You really see that although the anti-Jewish arguments are themselves racist arguments, this morphs to be applied to different groups. There were very important changes in legislation in the early 1900s, impacting particularly Jewish people, but also other migrants that are coming to Britain, and particularly migrants of colour. You find this directed towards people who are actually British citizens and subjects, who are sort of turned into migrants. And interestingly/depressingly, there are certain things that people aren't able to access - legislation makes it more difficult for people to come to this country, but also for people who are here, there's an attempt to stop people from accessing certain things in certain ways. We see the contemporary outcome of that now with the hostile environment.

R: When did the phrase ‘hostile environment’ come in? What drove that impetus?

M: It's traced back to right at the end of the New Labour government, but I guess we really see it take off with the coalition government when Theresa May talks about wanting to make Britain a hostile environment for people who are undocumented or cannot prove that they have the right to be here. But for me, the term hostile environment must be situated in the border history that I've talked about. You have the contemporary hostile environment, which are a set of policies that were introduced through the immigration act under the coalition and conservative governments. But it's really important to recognise that Britain didn't just suddenly become a hostile environment - there is this very racist history of immigration legislation that has produced hostility towards certain groups of people at certain different times. There’s a number of reasons for highlighting that. One, in the aftermath of the EU referendum, there was this sort of idea amongst certain groups, that the outcome of the referendum was going to turn Britain into a place it had never been before, which is to say, hostile and inward looking. Whilst we don't want to ignore the very specific forms of racism and hostility that are being produced by what is happening in the UK now, and what was happening at that time, we also can’t suggest that Britain was some kind of a utopia for people to come to.

R: Given that there is so much evidence that points towards the benefits of migration and immigration, what is the function of xenophobia and a hostile environment? What purpose does it serve the government?

M: There’s a number of different arguments about what exactly is going on. One is that when you have the form of the nation state, there's always going to be some forms of demarcation of who is in and who is out; who has the right to be and who has the right to access things. We could have a lengthy debate about whether there's different articulations of that which are less exclusionary, hostile or violent. That’s a function that we have to engage with regardless of who is in government: there are going to be immigration policies and there are going to be forms of exclusion. I would personally argue against that, but that is sort of the political vehicle or way of organising that we have now.

But there are also arguments about how British capitalism functions, or how capitalism functions more broadly through the differential inclusion of certain people into the labour market, for instance. And so what I mean by that is, you have this idea of certain people serving the UK economy in the ‘right’ way or the most beneficial way. And this can create a hierarchy of differential rights. An example of this is during the pandemic, when we saw momentary recognition of people who weren't born in the UK doing key worker jobs: working in hospitals, doctors, nurses, porters, in supermarkets, delivery drivers, all kinds of different, different jobs in UK society. Then there was a push to make it so that people who were working in the NHS didn't have to pay the NHS immigration surcharge, which turned into a relatively successful campaign. But the broader message, or what is implied, is that if you’re not doing these key worker jobs, then you’re not socially valuable…. If the migrant is saving a British person's life, then their life also becomes sort of more worthy… Their worth becomes contingent upon what they're seen to contribute.

This exists within a broader environment where certain people are scared to go and seek medical care, despite COVID exemptions, because of the hostile environment.

What we have is a multi-layered system here of treating people differentially depending on how they seem to contribute or if they're seen as worth anything at all. Despite politicians saying that our common humanity is all that matters, that doesn't seem to apply - to a lot of people actually - those who seem to be undesirable, and migrants.

R: Yes, I feel this feeds into the “good migrant” trope. I understand the argument that migrants are a net benefit to the economy is both true and well intentioned, but even if a migrant isn’t, does that deny somebody the right to be able to to move or change their place of home?

Totally. What I often think about that argument is for some people who are migrants, all they might hear is that they don't contribute, despite them working three jobs and contributing. But there's also a real issue with speaking about people in this way. I often ask: do any of us really want to be talked about only as economic contributors who are socially or economically useful? It can move us further away from recognising people's humanity.

R: You mentioned a little bit about how the hostile environment impacts health, both in terms of people being able to afford to pay the NHS surcharge and in terms of people feeling comfortable to be able to approach services in the first place. How else has health been impacted by the hostile environment?

M: Something that came up time and again by so many who were interviewed for my book, was how poor their mental health was. Everything about the process: rejections, losing asylum status, being treated badly (whether by officials at the home office, or lawyers), or just not knowing what’s going to happen. The uncertainty too, with a lack of clarity, long waiting times and your cases not being listened to. And on top of that is the financial cost, and the inability for many to be able to work, with the kind of accommodation you’re in.

And there is this broader drive that is baked into the hostile environment, which is that you have to show your paperwork to be able to access certain forms of health care. When the message of hostility is put out from the government, people are scared, even if they maybe have the so-called rights to be able to access certain forms of health care. People are scared that they will be slapped with a massive bill. What I found doing research at the beginning of the pandemic was, even though there were certain exemptions being able to go and get tested or treated for COVID, if the test then comes back as negative and you need treatment for something else, then you pay. And the issue with these exemptions was that the government didn’t make them very clear. So there was just a total lack of clarity around what the rules were and they were changing day to day. It was a time of high fear, anxiety and stress for many.

R: The policing bill is obviously contentious, and I'm reading about it a lot in terms of its limitations on protest. But it's also got additional measures that are going to greatly impact on immigration, including, for example, the ability for immigration officers to be able to extract information from electronic devices. What do you think?

M: As I've said, it's not like the UK has this rosy history on immigration, and various governments have long used surveillance techniques to police populations and people they see as undesirable. One of the arguments that you often hear from human rights organisations like liberty is that people should be aware that often things are trialled out on populations that seem acceptable, like migrant populations. I don’t think that should matter as in and of itself it’s important. This is not the direction that we want to be going in, and paired with the nationality and borders bill, it’s a real worry that the government is making the immigration and asylum system which is already incredibly, strict and tough, even more difficult for people to move through.

R: Any final messages for our readers?

M: There is hope in that there are loads of people involved in resisting much of these policies. But, we also need to not get fixated on what is happening in the moment - for instance, the borders bill is very bad and should be resisted (as it is), but we also need to think beyond just responding as when we do, we may play into the good refugee versus bad migrant framing that the government rolls out, about having an immigration system that works the economy. As I already mentioned, that is so deeply exploitative and dehumanising.

There are people doing both: thinking about the broader horizon as well as immediate resistance. And so, if those reading are like minded, there are groups to support and get involved in, like local anti-raids groups, Docs Not Cops, and bigger organisations like the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI).


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