Beyond the ‘hostile environment’? Rethinking UK immigration control

Over the past three decades, the UK government has gradually shifted from a reliance on external borders to internal control. This has taken the form of ‘outsourcing’ control to a range of service providers and social systems, who effectively become gatekeepers, monitoring migrants and/or limiting their access to key services. This started in the 1980s and 1990s with carrier sanctions and employer sanctions, followed by the introduction of ‘sponsor status’ for employers and higher education institutions in the 2000s. It has culminated in the so-called ‘hostile environment’ introduced by the Home Office in the 2010s, which now implicates health, education, banking and private housing suppliers in controlling irregular migration.

In one sense, the shift from external to internal control aligns the UK with its continental neighbours, who have long relied on checks on immigrants within their territory. However, internal checks in the UK are not based on the type of ‘police and patrol’ methods that characterise most continental European countries. There is no requirement for residents to register with local authorities, to notify authorities of their whereabouts, or to carry ID with them. Police have a limited role in control, and do not carry out the sorts of spot checks seen in many other European countries. Instead, checks are outsourced to the range of social services that immigrants access: transport carriers, who enable entry into the UK; employers, who act as the gatekeepers to labour market participation; but also, more controversially, education and health providers, banks and landlords.

In many ways, this is an astute move for a government keen to limit irregular work and stay. Immigrants who are staying for a prolonged period of time, and especially those with family, rely on such services to sustain a viable life in the UK. It is difficult, arguably impossible, to lead a decent life without being admitted into these social systems.

However, the UK approach of relying on social systems and service providers carries risks. It implies that control only kicks in once migrants access relevant services: once they require health care, or education, or more stable accommodation, or a longer-term job. This may not apply when they first arrive, but may well become a requirement they are settled, or once they have children. This is in contrast to the continental model, which front-loads immigration control by requiring immediate registration and spot checks.

In this sense, outsourcing control to service providers disrupts the long-standing UK approach of combining restrictive entry with a tolerant approach to immigrants once they are here. On the new approach, immigrants may enter more readily, but may be caught out by internal checks several years or even decades into their stay.

There is a further risk that imposing barriers to accessing services will encourage people to slip beneath the radar. If people have strong reasons to stay in the UK, then they may simply circumvent regular structures and services (whether housing, health, education, employment), and rely on informal structures or go without any support at all. But falling back on informal, irregular systems will expose immigrants to more abuse and exploitation, making them more vulnerable to ruthless landlords, or exploitative employers. It will also deprive them of core rights to education and health. And in the long-term, the upshot will be that they are more vulnerable and less integrated into UK society.

Both factors mean that we may well see more Windrush-type cases, where immigrants with unclear status or without the relevant documentation either avoid, or are caught out by, immigration control only at the point that they begin to access much-needed services. This may well become a serious problem in the case of EEA nationals after Brexit, many of whom may not be able to supply the required documentation to achieve settled status, or may not be willing or able to put in an application (see also Mike’s blog on lessons from the Windrush scandal).

So what is the answer? How might the UK government go about managing irregular stay without jeopardising the welfare and integration prospects of long-term residents?

The UK government has toyed with the idea of rolling out universal ID cards since the 1990s, but has faced strong opposition on logistical and civil rights grounds. Neither is it clear that such a system would solve the problem. In the absence of a more systematic approach to registration and checks – such as the one operating in Germany – simply being required to show an ID card at the point of accessing services would not address the challenges above. It would also imply a huge investment in terms of infrastructure, and would jar with the a long-standing political culture of minimal (at least formal) state control of residents.

If control measures are not the answer, there are other approaches that could help address the problem. First, the UK could do more to reduce the incentives of both employers and immigrants to resort to irregular employment. In particular, the UK needs to think seriously about how to meet demand for lower-skilled labour after Brexit, when the supply of EEA nationals to lower-skilled jobs is likely to be restricted. If immigrants are permitted to meet demand for such labour through regular routes, with access to appropriate residence rights, then there will be less incentive for unauthorised work or stay.

Second, and linked to this, UK public authorities need to be more robust about regulating labour in the sectors most vulnerable to informal work – such as domestic work, hospitality, construction, and areas of manufacturing and agriculture. Germany and Sweden are examples of countries with more robust checks and controls, which reduce the incentives of both employers and workers to use informal channels. And since work is the area most likely to be immediately accessed by immigrants, it lessens the risk of gatekeepers identifying irregular migrants once they have been residing for a prolonged period of time. It also avoids deterring immigrants from services that they should be actively encouraged to access while they are in the UK, such as health and education.

Third, the UK should consider options for regularising longer-term residents. If outsourcing immigration control implies delaying immigrant control until migrants are already settled, then the government needs to be more accommodating in allowing amnesties for longer-term residents. Regularisation of status need not be high profile, if there is concern about creating a ‘pull factor’ for would-be beneficiaries. Instead, the Home Office could develop more systematic guidance for granting amnesties on a case-by-case basis, dependent on length of stay, family status, degree of integration, and so on.

No country has a perfect system for controlling irregular immigration. Each government has to work within the constraints of its existing infrastructure, resources, humanitarian obligations and political culture. The UK has traditionally relied on external controls, but has increasingly acknowledged it needs to focus management on internal measures. But it has become patently clear that the ‘hostile environment’ is not the solution. Nor is a continental style ‘police and control’ system. Instead, the UK government should focus on addressing the problem at its source, through reducing incentives for irregular employment; channel more resources to support the key gatekeeping function of employers, rather than other social services which immigrants should be encouraged to access; and creating a more accommodating approach to regularisation for those migrants who are identified only once they are already settled.

This blog was first posted on the ESRC ‘Seeing Illegal Immigrants’ website.

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