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The Home Secretary's idea to house migrants on Atlantic Islands suggests the 'hostile environment' is here to stay

In the second of a series of blogs for Black History Month, international solicitor Hugh Johnson-Gilbert looks at migration and why it appears the UKs 'hostile environment' is here to stay.

Posted on 15 October 2020

In a 2012 interview with the Telegraph, then Home Secretary Theresa May outlined her plans to create a “really hostile environment” for illegal migrants in the UK. That intention manifested in a series of divisive policies, such as the infamous ‘go-home vans’ or those that effectively forced doctors and nurses to start checking patients’ immigration statuses before offering treatment.

It was an environment that fanned the flames of nationalist sentiment and was one of the reasons that the Windrush Scandal was allowed to occur.

Towards the end of 2017, stories began to break of long-settled, retirement-age, black UK residents being aggressively pursued by the Home Office over their immigration status.

This moral, legal and political fiasco came to be known as the ‘Windrush Scandal’. Over the course of many months, story after story emerged of UK residents being threatened with deportation, held in immigration detention centres and denied their basic rights. The scandal was, at least in part, a result of the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ policy.

That policy mutated, with devastating consequences for many. It led to enormous embarrassment for its architect, Theresa May, the resignation of then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, and the acknowledgment that thousands of affected individuals were entitled to compensation.

Speaking in the House of Commons on 21 July 2020, in response to the publication of Wendy Williams’ independent review into the Windrush Scandal, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced her ambition for a “fair, humane, compassionate and outward-looking Home Office”.

Two months later, the Financial Times reported that she had asked Home Office officials to explore the feasibility of building an asylum processing centre on either Ascension Island or St Helena, two British overseas island territories in the middle of the south Atlantic.

This troubling policy proposal suggests two things: firstly, that the hostile environment is here to stay; and secondly, that an ‘Australia-style’ immigration system (the panacea promised for the UK’s unshackled post-Brexit future) potentially extends beyond adopting a ‘points-based system’ and includes mirroring Australia’s approach to asylum processing. Both are of grave concern from a human rights perspective.

Since the early 2000s, the Australian government has deployed the ultimate hostile environment – detention centres on Nauru and Manus Islands in the Pacific. Asylum seekers are detained in appalling conditions on these desolate islands with no promise of ever having their asylum claim processed.

As documented by Human Rights Watch, “Many have dire mental health problems and suffer overwhelming despair – self-harm and suicide attempts are frequent”. In 2016, a 23-year-old Iranian refugee set himself on fire in Nauru, in protest at his continued detention.

Australia’s offshore detention centres have been the subject of a raft of legal claims. In June 2017, the Australian Government settled a class action brought on behalf of nearly 2,000 refugees in respect of their detention on Manus Island.

The Australian government and its contractors, including private security company G4S, agreed to pay compensation of A$70m to the claimants. More recently, in June 2020, the Australian government and G4S settled a claim brought by a security officer who claimed that riots at the detention centre on Manus left him with severe psychological injuries.

The last British politician to deposit a problem on St Helena was Lord Liverpool in 1815. Writing to his Foreign Secretary on the subject of where to exile the deposed Emperor Napoleon, the Prime Minister suggested that “At such a distance and in such a place, all intrigue will be impossible, and at such a long distance from Europe, he will be quickly forgotten”. 

To house asylum seekers and refugees on the same island would no doubt achieve some of the same insouciance.

However, it would also be expensive, impractical, morally bankrupt and likely result in litigation. If the Home Secretary is genuine in her stated desire to preside over a fairer and more humane post-Windrush Home Office, she should publicly abandon the suggested policy.


Hugh Johnson Gilbert
Corporate accountability

Hugh Johnson-Gilbert

Hugh Johnson-Gilbert is a solicitor in the international department.