A Hostile Environment

We must not allow the concerns that some communities might have about migration to be exploited for political purposes or allow such concerns to develop into a xenophobic attitude; Christian communities must play their part in providing a genuine welcome to migrants and refugees.

Love The Stranger, Principle 10
Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales (CBCEW)

The UK asylum system is described as ‘one of increasing restrictions, controls and experimentation with various means of detention, dispersal and, above all, deterrence’[1].  Such restrictions are demonstrative of the hostile environment in the UK for those considered illegal immigrants and the last couple of years has seen the introduction of a number of policies which go further to expand the existing hostile environment[2].

The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 introduced a number of controversial policies, including the criminalisation of asylum which resulted in the Rwanda plan, and proposals for reception centres for asylum seekers, which would further isolate them from communities and the necessary support[3]. The Act was criticised by civil society for punishing those seeking protection but as small boat arrivals continued to rise, the Government felt the Act was not enough and subsequently passed the Illegal Migration Act in 2023, which further criminalised asylum by preventing those arriving illegally from claiming asylum, and placing a duty on the Home Secretary to remove them from the UK, thus undermining the fundamental right to asylum and further contributing to the hostile environment[4].

Harmful Rhetoric & Media Reporting:

The hostile environment is also evident in British media headlines and reporting, which fuels public hostilities and has resulted in numerous incidents and anti-migrant protests outside contingency accommodation, due to continued Government rhetoric about illegal immigrants[5].

This rhetoric of ‘crisis’ has been used by the Government to further their hostile environment and enact increasingly restrictive and harsh policies criminalising asylum and punishing those seeking sanctuary. Sensationalised news headlines employing scare tactics without providing any context or lived experience testimonies, whilst utilising incorrect and damaging terminology, have dehumanised refugees, and lent to fear-mongering across the country, further dividing communities[6]. The hostile environment and damaging rhetoric exacerbate the existing trauma of refugees whilst further emboldening the far-right in their harassment of migrants and refugees.

Hope Not Hate, an organisation dedicated to exposing far-right extremism, ‘found a 149% increase in messages on anti-migrant far-right channels on Telegram from 2021 to the first months of 2023’[37 but this extremism is not only limited to online chat forums and messaging apps, as reports have also linked inflammatory comments made by MPs to violent attacks against migrants and refugees[8].

In October 2022, a supporter of a number of far-right figures, firebombed a migrant processing centre in Dover[9]. Many like him consider themselves ‘migrant hunters’ and have been protesting outside asylum accommodation centres and hotels, inciting violence and harassing refugees and migrants across communities. A far-right demonstration outside Knowsley, Merseyside, in February 2023 resulted in the outbreak of violence and multiple arrests – it was reported that demonstrators turned up with the intention to cause as much damage as possible, resulting in the deployment of riot police and fears for the safety of refugees as well as that of police officers[10]. Following the violence in Knowsley, many from across civil society called out the Government for its ‘anti-asylum seeker rhetoric’[11] and the demonisation of refugees by politicians[12].

Hope Not Hate reported an almost 18-fold increase in far-right demonstrations in 2023 compared to the previous year, with 158 ‘migrant hunter’ accommodation visits throughout the year, with the infiltration of far-right activists within communities across the country to influence local politics and community engagement, including the set-up of anti-migrant camps outside proposed accommodation centres, such as RAF Scampton[13]. It is also to be noted that whilst there exist legitimate planning disputes regarding some centres, these disputes are taken advantage of by far-right demonstrators to protest against refugees and migrants, further creating division within communities.

Language and framing are of utmost importance in the discourse on migrants and refugees, as is context – we have seen the UK and European media refer to a refugee ‘crisis’, employing terms such as ‘invasion’ and ‘swarms’, however, 36% of those forcibly displaced are hosted in 5 countries, with Turkey hosting the largest number of refugees – Germany is the only European nation in the top 5. The majority of countries hosting large refugee populations are in the Global South and it is widely acknowledged that the vast number of refugees stay in their region of displacement, where they are hosted by neighbouring countries, with a low percentage travelling onwards to Europe and the UK[14].

Ongoing anti-migrant protests and far-right infiltration of communities has impacted community cohesion and prevented the welcoming and integration of refugees into the community, thereby further exacerbating the isolation and existing trauma of vulnerable individuals who fled persecution and conflict and are seeking sanctuary in the UK.

[1]  Darling, J. (2011) ‘Domopolitics, governmentality and the regulation of asylum accommodation’, Political Geography, 30(5), p.264. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2011.04.011

[2] Bailey, C. (2020) ‘Basic safety first: trauma-informed care in a hostile environment’, BJPsych Bulletin, 44(2), pp. 41–43. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1192/bjb.2019.91.

[3] https://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/information/refugee-asylum-facts/what-is-the-nationality-and-borders-act/

[4]  https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/illegal-migration-bill-factsheets/nationality-and-borders-act-compared-to-illegal-migration-bill-factsheet; 

[5] https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-merseyside-64955270; https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/feb/13/attack-migrants-knowsley-ministers-violence-asylum-seekers

[6] https://theconversation.com/uk-press-is-the-most-aggressive-in-reporting-on-europes-migrant-crisis-56083

[7] https://hopenothate.org.uk/2023/05/21/stoking_the_flames/

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2023/may/21/uk-governments-anti-migrant-rhetoric-is-feeding-the-far-right-claims-campaign-group

[9] https://hopenothate.org.uk/2022/11/02/dover-attackers-twitter-reveals-strong-support-for-far-right-migrant-hunters/

[10] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2023/feb/11/merseyside-violence-outside-hotel-housing-asylum-seekers-arrests#:~:text=Police%20arrest%2015%20people%20after%20violence%20outside%20hotel%20housing%20asylum%20seekers,-After%20the%20far&text=Fifteen%20people%2C%20aged%20between%2013,night%2C%20Merseyside%20police%20have%20said.

[11] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/feb/13/attack-migrants-knowsley-ministers-violence-asylum-seekers

[12] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2023/mar/05/uk-government-complicit-asylum-seeker-hotel-attacks-say-unions

[13] https://hopenothate.org.uk/state-of-hate-2024-shifting-terrains/

[14] https://www.unhcr.org/uk/about-unhcr/who-we-are/figures-glance