In 2001, the Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah published By the Sea, the story of Saleh Omar, a man who arrives at Gatwick airport as a refugee. The border official he speaks to says his parents also came to Britain as refugees, “But my parents are European, they have a right, they’re part of the family.” He goes on to say, “You don’t belong here … and we don’t want you here. We’ll make life hard on you, make you suffer indignities, perhaps even commit violence on you.”
Omar is far from unaffected, but he carries within him an important piece of knowledge: he knows that by the British government’s own rules he is entitled to asylum, and though the official might spew racist language he will have no option in the end but to stamp Omar’s passport and allow him through. As indeed he does.
I have read the novel twice, 20 years apart. The behaviour of the official becomes no less appalling but, even so, I read the Gatwick scene very differently the second time around. In Priti Patel’s Britain, I was struck by how fortunate Omar was to encounter laws that are better than the people whose work it is to enforce them.
This year, the year of the Rwanda asylum plan, we mark 10 years since Theresa May as home secretary introduced the hostile environment policy. Soon afterwards, the coalition government created the Hostile Environment Working Group which consisted of 12 government departments including schools, care services and health. What does it do to the fabric of British society if the NHS is required to pass on information to a Home Office as part of a hostile environment policy? What kind of country asks its doctors to spy for the government? A cruel one, for starters. The cruelty has become normalised to the point that it’s possible to read Saleh Omar’s racist encounter and think of the word “fortunate”.
To understand this normalisation better, it’s instructive to go back to 2013 and the government-sponsored billboards on the sides of vans, with the message “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest”. When reports of the vans first become public there was a heartening singularity of voice condemning the Home Office.
But within a few months, media outlets started to report the failure of the policy in terms of the number of people – 11 – who had self-deported as a result of the vans. Phrases such as “just 11 people” implicitly bought into the government’s own reasoning that more deportations mean greater success. What the media didn’t tell us about the “just 11” was their names, their stories.
Six years later, the Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman reported the story of Joycelyn John, who legally arrived in Britain aged four from Grenada, but who lost her passport with the “indefinite leave to remain” stamp that proved her status. She was classified as an illegal immigrant in 2014 and threatened with deportation in letter after letter from the Home Office, despite the 75 pages of evidence she had gathered to prove she had spent a lifetime in the UK. John lived for a further two years within the hostile environment, unable to work or use public services, until the terror of being shackled and deported, and the desperation of being in debt, turned her to self-deportation. She described herself as “suicidal”.
The eventual outcry about stories that came to be known as the Windrush scandal meant John was finally able to return to the UK. But “scandal” is far too mild a term to use about what happened. Windrush atrocity is closer to the mark. Surely the minimum we should be able to expect of our government is an acknowledgment of human dignity.
And now we have the thwarted, but not defeated, removals to Rwanda. The government has learned a little from the Windrush atrocity. It is aware that those being threatened with removal to Rwanda may turn out to be the kinds of people most Britons don’t want deported. For instance, the Iranian ex-police commander who refused to shoot protesters during an anti-government demonstration. The British government doesn’t want to have to explain why someone like that isn’t even having his case for asylum considered. So it keeps repeating the point that its real target is the “evil” of people smuggling.
Outrage and normalisation – this is the pattern we need to break. The outrage is around the Rwanda removals; the normalisation in process now is the one that divides asylum seekers into two tiers: those who enter by “safe and legal” routes and all others, who are categorised as brought over by people smugglers.
When I hear the phrase hostile environment, I find myself thinking about a man whose name isn’t John. I met this man via the Refugee Tales project, which pairs up writers with people who have had experience of the UK’s asylum system. He had been tortured and imprisoned in his former country, and didn’t want the government he had escaped from to return its attention to him. But he did want me to use his first name when I wrote about him. Just before the story went to press, he had a request. Could I change his name to John? His asylum claim had been accepted in the UK, but he had to reapply every three years for 15 years before he could become eligible for indefinite leave to remain. Now he was afraid that his mildly phrased words about the asylum system may be reason enough for his next application to be rejected. I think often about the man whose name isn’t John.
Then I think of myself and how fortunate I’ve been in my own path to UK citizenship: I was never an asylum seeker; I was never under threat of detention; I came to the UK on a visa for writers, artists and composers, and was easily able to switch to a tier 1 visa. The immigration official who granted my first visa extension was not just human but kind, and later responded to an email query with a PS to say he had heard me on Radio 4 and that I had “sounded great”. Despite all this, until I became a citizen I didn’t write fiction set in contemporary Britain, because the nature of my fiction is such that it can’t help but enter the realm of politics and, like the man whose name isn’t John, I was afraid my words may annoy the wrong person and my visa extension or citizenship application may be denied. Once I had my passport, in 2013, I thought, now I can write freely. But only weeks after I became a citizen, I read an interview in which May signalled her intention to vastly increase the use of citizenship-stripping powers.
And now we’re in the age of Priti Patel, when migrants and their children feel they may never be entirely and unequivocally secure in their right to go on living in Britain. There are moments, and writing this essay has been among them, when I feel the hostile environment inside me as a kernel of fear that never goes away.
Still, I’m grateful for that kernel of fear. It brings with it a sense of injustice, a desire for change. It allows you to cheer on the victories, of which the halt to the Rwanda flights is only the most recent. In 2018, schools stopped collecting information about students’ nationalities and place of birth, and NHS Digital announced it had stopped sharing data with the Home Office. Just last month, the government announced that under 18s who are looked after by a local authority will no longer have to pay the £1,012 fee for registration as British citizens. Activists have blocked deportations and deportation flights. Lawyers have secured release orders for so many of those in detention. Those who thought they were alone have discovered they are not.
Behind all the victories of the past decade, there are campaigners and organisations who have never given in to the luxury of despair or hopelessness. None of their victories have been “small victories”. Each one transforms lives.