Illegal immigration has long been a problem across the Western world. Despite being rather remote, the UK has proved to be a popular destination for those tempted by promises of wealth and comfort. In 2005, the Home Office estimated the number of unauthorised migrants to be somewhere between 310,000 to 570,000; by 2017, according to the Pew Research Center, the figure had risen to 800,000-1.2 million. Some overstay their visas; others forge their documents, and those most adventurous jump into trucks or board rubber boats. In 2020, according to the BBC, about 8,400 people crossed the Channel illegally, and 1,850 more had arrived the same way as of 28 April 2021.
The British public viewed the unfolding immigration crisis with growing disquiet. Recognising the growing trend, in their 2010 manifesto the Conservatives promised to reduce the number of migrants to tens of thousands. Two years later, Theresa May, then the Home Secretary, introduced the policy known as ‘Hostile Environment,’ aimed at encouraging illegal immigrants to leave the country.
The legal basis for the policy was provided by the Immigration Act 2014, which amended the deportation requirements and introduced several important rules. Illegal immigrants were banned from renting premises, being employed, opening bank accounts, receiving driving licenses, or using the NHS charge-free. The Act also endeavoured to combat the practice of sham marriages and civil partnerships. In 2016, another act introduced more criminal sanctions aimed at property owners, employers, and their illegal employees.
With the law in place, the government proceeded to implement its announced policy. Immigration control increased. Landlords, agents, financial institutions, and medical personnel were encouraged to report the unauthorised migrants they encountered. In the summer of 2013, the Home Office launched a project called Operation Vaken, informing the illegals of their imminent arrest and offering them safe departure. The advertisement campaign included posters and leaflets distributed around six London boroughs, as well as the infamous “Go Home” vans. The project was subsequently cancelled, but not before inducing 125 migrants to leave the UK.
But what about the refugees? Surely nothing short of mortal danger can force thousands to cross the Channel in small and unsteady boats? No. It turns out most of them are economic migrants. According to the Home Office, as reported by the BBC, 36,000 people applied for asylum in 2020, but only 10,000 of them proved eligible for protection. The government is looking to put further checks on the abuse of the system: the Home Secretary’s new plan includes removing those who “travelled through a safe country first in which they could and should have claimed asylum,” as well as depriving illegal immigrants of the right to settle.
Naturally, the left-leaning press has met the policy with a wave of righteous anger, claiming that it was “tearing families apart,” calling it callous and inhumane, citing the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and interviewing migrants searching for emotional anecdotes. The main arguments against it included its alleged racism, its adverse effect on legal migrants, who faced additional scrutiny, and its overwhelming complexity. “[T]he Government’s ‘hostile environment’ immigration policies have scapegoated and negatively stereotyped migrants,” concluded the UN Special Rapporteur. But this was just the beginning. The most significant scandal erupted in 2018, six years after Theresa May’s announcement. It centred on a group of West Indian migrants, known as the Windrush generation.
In 1948, Caribbean workers arrived in Great Britain aboard HMT Empire Windrush; more followed over the years. As deportations of illegal immigrants continued in 2017, it was discovered that a majority of these arrivals lacked official documents confirming their right to live and work in the UK. Some were detained or removed, which caused a public outcry. After further investigation, victims of wrongful removals were identified and compensated, but the Pandora’s box had already been opened. The hostile environment policy was criticised yet again, and the government was accused of explicitly targeting ethnic minorities. “[T]o look at the Windrush scandal is to vividly see institutional racism at work,” wrote a writer in The Guardian. “May was playing into an aggressive and, yes, racist anti-immigration narrative that has been allowed to develop alongside the rise of the alt-right,” pointed out his colleague from The Independent. Countless similar articles were written, adding to the political pressure.
Nonetheless, the situation raised an important question to consider: what to do with the immigrants who have spent their entire life in Great Britain? A study by Oxford University reports that “120,000 irregular migrant children live in the UK.” As minors, they did not actively choose to break the law and cannot be responsible for their parents’ actions. They also have no other home. But since they do not meet the legal requirements, the only logical answer is to deport them—or change the law, allowing more opportunities for abuse. The state sometimes shows leniency but reasonably denies it to criminals, who present danger to society. The left claims that illegals are thus “dehumanised,” while the right actually treats them like people capable of responsibility for their actions.
When deciding upon a policy, it is best to be governed by a set of principles and common sense rather than empathy. A migrant sob story may stir up emotions; it is written to be colourful and relatable. However, emotional decisions are rarely prudent. A statesman who allows himself to be swayed by momentary feelings, or, worse still, by fear of social media criticism, risks forgetting the interests of the country he represents. The hostile environment policy may have generated controversy, but it sends a clear message that lawbreakers will not be tolerated.
With countless boats swarming in the Mediterranean and with thousands storming the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, it is not the time to relax the measures. A country that refuses to defend its borders, culture, and citizens faces a bleak future. So the government must remain firm on the issue, however harsh the criticism may be. There is, on this issue, a lot still to be done.