Britain's Hostile Environment

Supporting the ‘Who Are We? Project’

at theTate Exchange, London

Lizzy Willmington of Cardiff Law and Global Justice recently co-ordinated The Hostile Environment Collective at the Tate Exchange, Tate Modern. Part of the Who Are We? Project, the event gathered activists, artists and academics to run an exhibition and workshops about the real effects of Britain’s policy of actively discouraging migrants to stay in the UK. This includes denying their ability to meet basic needs like availing of health care, housing or even opening bank accounts. Under the banner, The Hostile Environment Collective Lizzy brought together members of the Art / Law Network, Hunger from Freedom strikers, Liberty, SOAS Detainee Support and Protest Stencil to develop interactive learning and guided tours of the exhibits.

The official policy of creating a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants is driven by the promise of successive governments to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands. The phrase was coined by Prime Minster, Teresa May in 2012, during her time as Home Secretary. It has come to wider public attention in recent months due to the ‘Windrush’ scandal, when it emerged that people from the Caribbean were barred from working, renting accommodation and free medical treatment on the basis that they couldn’t positively prove their right to reside in the UK. Some were held in detention and deported though they spent a lifetime building a life, a family and working here, coming to Britain as children and British citizens. The brutality of the immigration system came into public view on a larger scale than before, and the callousness of Home Office processes shocked many who have not been following for years.

Lizzy’s contribution drew on her doctoral research at Cardiff Law and Global Justice on the hostile environment which has largely been implemented through two immigration acts in 2014 and 2016. These laws criminalise undocumented migrants and demand collaboration by landlords, health care staff and council officers, with surveillance, enforcement and the denial of necessary services. But their foundations go back much further. Decades of increasingly restrictive immigration laws and policies have been justified through dehumanising rhetoric in the media and politics. It has seen an increase in the use of the criminal law and the widespread use of street stops on migrants to the UK.

The Who Are We? Project’s overall theme was the production of people and places. Lizzy worked with Counterpoints Arts, the project coordinators, to design and curate the tour. The tour was informed by Liberty’s work on immigration law and human rights. It highlighted where and how the hostile environment is enacted; making some people border guards and criminalising others, all the while collecting and sharing people’s personal data with the Home Office to create a web of immigration controls and surveillance in people’s daily lives.

Walking tours offered further perspectives on the ‘hostile environment’ and were led by Corey Stoughton, the Head of Advocacy for Liberty, and by Yasmine, a former detainee and Hunger for Freedom striker and Lizzy. The Collective also ran poster making workshops addressing the policy and its effects, including conditions at Yarl’s Wood detention centre and the hunger strike of detainees there. Videos and statements from people in detention were displayed from Detained Voices.

The Tour will also visit the Arts House in the City of Sanctuary, Wakefield and the Open University.