This Kent migrant crisis proves it: the cruel ‘hostile environment’ policy lives on

How can our leaders celebrate the lives of migrants who arrived 50 years ago, yet be so inhumane towards those who need help now?

This Kent migrant crisis proves it: the cruel ‘hostile environment’ policy lives on

Yesterday, I attended an event at Buckingham Palace to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Britain welcoming about 30,000 Ugandan Asian refugees. It was remarkable to be among the many parliamentarians, business leaders and leading cultural figures who have emerged from a community that arrived in the UK with almost nothing.

But the celebration of the welcoming stance of a Conservative government in 1972 and the achievements of a community that the new king has called one of Britain’s “great successes” is in stark contrast to the sickening approach of the current government to refugee arrivals. And there’s the bittersweet irony that Priti Patel, a child of Ugandan Asian immigrants and also present at the event, was the pioneer of some of the most regressive migration policies Britain has seen.

This week’s horrific news about the treatment of immigrants in Kent suggests that the UK government has little regard for the fundamental human rights of people seeking asylum and remains intent on furthering the hostile environment it seems proud to have created. But, just as importantly, from all that I know about migration policy, there are at least three key reasons why this government’s approach – one that shows neither the compassion nor the welcome to which Rishi Sunak laid claim this week – is doomed to fail.

First, making arrival conditions as awful as possible is not only dangerous – evidence shows that it does little to deter people desperately seeking refuge. Nor does threatening to send them to Rwanda, as Patel tried to do. Deliberately not booking sufficient hotel accommodation won’t lead to a reduction in the number of arrivals, but, as reports from Manston show, it does result in dangerously overcrowded reception centres, outbreaks of scabies, diphtheria and other diseases, and an increase in the number of asylum seekers who “disappear”, leaving themselves without formal support and highly vulnerable to exploitation. It also drives up the cost of the asylum process and, since these costs are offset against spend overseas, it leaves aid budgets bearing the brunt.

Second, unilateral approaches to managing migration are hopeless. If ever there was a policy area that demands genuine, deep cooperation between countries around the world, then surely it is this. Headline-grabbing agreements with Rwanda are a ploy to distract us from the failure of our politicians to achieve meaningful cooperation with our nearest neighbours. Relations with France on asylum flows have been bad for decades, but post-Brexit and with numbers attempting to cross the Channel expected to rise from 28,500 people in 2021 to more than 60,000 this year, they have never been worse.

Third, demonising migrants fans the flames of hatred and division, with dangerous consequences. This week, our home secretary, Suella Braverman, described Britain as being under “invasion” from migrants, language that suggests we must redouble our efforts to repel some advancing evil. In 1972, there were many voices that spoke out against the arrival and settlement of Ugandan Asians in the UK. But there were enough of us, Oxfam included, that supported their welcome and facilitated their integration. If we want the story of this generation of immigrants to be as much one of community cohesion and richness as previous ones, we need to demand a new approach – one that meets people with dignity and compassion, rather than criminalisation and hostility.

The Nationality and Borders Act, passed into law in April this year, makes a mockery of internationally recognised rights for people fleeing war and persecution and, amid current moves to impose conditions on arrivals, puts the UK at risk of breaking international law. For years, the Home Office has been vowing to make the Channel crossing route “unviable”, yet the number of people with no choice but to make this dangerous journey has continued to rise. Indeed, the only thing the government appears to have done in the Strait of Dover is to wash its hands of its international obligations. Lives continue to be lost and organised criminal networks continue to profit from human desperation.

We need to change the record. Instead of seeking to exclude and brutalise refugees, migrants or those seeking asylum, we need a protection system that reflects the value our society places on human lives, on the protection of liberties and rights and on the rejection of persecution and segregation.

We need to challenge hostile anti-refugee laws and call for alternative, long-term solutions that put in place new safe, legal routes for people fleeing war and persecution to claim asylum in the UK. We need to be protecting, not punishing those who seek asylum; providing the help they need to build new, productive lives, not imprisoning them in cruise liners in the Channel in the hope that they might become someone else’s problem.

This event was a celebration of the contributions made by the Ugandan Asian community, of their creativity and their resilience and the gratitude that many of them feel for the warmth and generosity with which they were welcomed into communities across the UK. It is a story of compassion and of human solidarity that, if enough of us join forces, we can begin to tell again today.