Refugee week: Countering the hostile approach

by
15 June 2018

On the eve of Refugee Week, Christine Miles asks the former politician Sarah Teather about the lessons of the Windrush scandal

Ingrid Guyon/2017/fotosynthesis/JRS UK

Sarah Teather chats to a visitor to the Jesuit Refugee Service UK’s weekly day centre

Sarah Teather chats to a visitor to the Jesuit Refugee Service UK’s weekly day centre

I ARRIVE at the day centre for destitute asylum-seekers run by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) UK at 11.30 on a weekday morning. People are already tucking into a hot meal. Others are drinking tea and reading papers.

It sounds foolish to say it, but they don’t look destitute, whatever I imagined that to look like. It makes me wonder how many others I pass every day, unaware of their pre­carious existence.

I am here to see some of what JRS do, and to meet Sarah Teather, formerly a Liberal Democrat MP and a Minister for Children and Families in the Coalition Government, who took on a short-term contact with JRS International immediately after leaving Parliament. In January 2016, she became director of JRS UK.

Ms Teather entered Parliament to cheers: at 29, she was Britain’s youngest MP, and had won the 2003 Brent East by-election, overturning Labour’s 13,047 majority. Ten years later, she announced her decision to leave politics at the next election.

In July 2013, two months before that announcement, she broke ranks with the Government by revealing in an interview with The Guardian that an internal working group on immigration had existed, the “Hostile Environment Working Group”.

The group was renamed the “Inter Ministerial Group on Migrants’ Access to Benefits and Public Services”, after Lib Dem objections, but her revelation underlined the direc­tion of travel in which the Home Secretary at that time, Theresa May, intended to take the UK.

THE “hostile-environment agenda”, as it has become known, embedded in the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts, put into law a culture of distrust and suspicion of migrants, and turned ordinary citizens into frontline immigration officials by requiring landlords, NHS staff, employers, and banking and DVLA staff to check the immigration status of migrants who sought access to housing, health care, employment, bank accounts, and driving licences.

It is this policy that was directly behind the traumas that the Windrush generation were subjected to (Comment, 13 April, News, 20 April). Despite the row that blew up in April, forcing the resignation of Mrs May’s successor at the Home Office, Amber Rudd, the policy is damaging the people whom JRS UK are serving.

In particular, the 2016 Act intro­duced fines, and the threat of a five-year prison term, for landlords who breach legislation that restricts the rental of property to people who do not have documentary proof of their right to remain in the UK.

“If you’re destitute, you’re probably not going to be renting property anyway,” Ms Teather says. “But you might well be staying with friends, and that creates a whole murky question of whether it’s OK for you to stay with friends in rented property, and a real climate of fear.

“You are [also] liable to be detained; so people live in incredible difficulty. What happened to those who came in the Windrush era is what is happening to the people that JRS serves — that is the reality of their life.”

The Government still employs the knock on the door in the night. “Yes, people are hauled out late at night or early in the morning. They may be kept in detention, and then they may well be released. But it’s not like you’re released from detention and go back to normal: you just can’t process it, and it may happen again. They don’t know whether or not it’s going to happen the next day, and they’re living in destitution.”

picture-u.net/JRS UKSarah Teather giving her key note speech at the Faith Matters talk series in 2017, in which she emphasised the importance of welcoming the stranger

SARAH TEATHER grew up in a small village in Leicestershire, one of three children. Her mother was an Anglican, and one of Ms Teather’s earliest memories is standing on a choir pew next to her.

“Faith is an animating feature of my mum’s life, and always has been hugely important to her. So faith was kind of knocking around in the background of our lives — as was, similarly, an attitude towards service and community involvement.”

Ms Teather was received into the Roman Catholic Church at Cambridge, where she read science. “I knew instantly, the first time I went to a Catholic mass, that that was where I wanted to be, and I’ve never changed my view. It was about sacramental presence; it was about the eucharist; and I knew that if I was to journey towards God, I needed to take that step. It was really clear; it was really obvious to me at that moment.”

She did “all sorts of things” after university, but it was while she was working in the policy unit at the Royal Society that she became more politically active.

Besides becoming “really active” in the RC Church, Ms Teather became involved with the East London Citizens Organisation (TELCO) and the Lib Dems — particularly with the London Mayoral campaign at the time. “It comes out of my mum’s worldview, because there was always this expectation that you do something where you live.”

Her mother, the Revd Jenny Hill, was ordained priest in the Church of England after Ms Teather left university. “She is probably my most important influence.”

During her time in Parliament, Sarah Teather served as business spokesperson and housing spokesperson. From the formation of the Coalition Government, in May 2010, until the 2012 reshuffle, she was Minister for Children and Families.

During the 2013 Parliament summer recess, Ms Teather went on a 30-day Ignatian retreat, during which she made her decision to leave Parliament.

After her announcement, she spoke of her struggles with her party’s acquiescence in the benefit cap; and its stance on bail-like payments for certain immigrants. The language involved seemed to imply criminality.

Ingrid Guyon/2017/fotosynthesis/JRS UKA JRS UK volunteer welcomes a refugee friend at the day centre

THOSE alongside whom JRS UK works “have found themselves made destitute, or detained, by the asylum process”, Ms Teather says. “They have no access to any form of funding, including asylum benefits called Section 95 support. They may be preparing a fresh claim, [may have] exhausted their appeal rights, or are trying to regularise their immigration status through other avenues of law.”

She cannot bear the language of “illegals”, she says, which the Government and tabloids use to harden public opinion and which, again, implies criminality. In particular, those deemed “illegal” by the system are often victims of a process that, in April, the Law Society warned was so flawed that it was undermining the rule of law. “People find it very, very difficult to get a fair hearing,” Ms Teather says.

People whose applications for asylum are based on being a convert, or on their sexuality, face an even higher possibility of injustice. “People are asked the most absurd questions. [And for] people whose cases are based on coming from a particular denomination that’s persecuted in their own country — the Home Office process is not nuanced enough to take any of that into account.

“It faces everybody off with this hermeneutic of suspicion. . . So, if the nature of your case is particularly difficult, or private, or controversial, or little known, the chances of getting your case heard fairly [become] less and less. Many people will get their objection overturned on appeal, which demonstrates how poor the decision making really is.”

Almost half of UK immigration and asylum appeals are upheld: “clear evidence of serious flaws in the way visa and asylum applications are being dealt with”, the Law Society president, Joe Egan, said.

He also drew attention to many cases in which adults and even children were forced to wait years for a decision, “And, while they wait, their life is on hold: they cannot plan, may not be allowed to work, travel, or access a wide range of state support.”

The prohibitive cost of appeals, and loss of appeal rights for other claimants, causes him further concern.

“These grave problems in our immigration and asylum system undermine the rule of law, while also damaging our country’s reputation for justice and fairness. We need an immigration and asylum process that is fit for purpose, and that makes lawful, timely, consistent decisions.”

“UNFIT for purpose” was how, in 2006, the then Home Secretary, John Reid, was reported to have declared the immigration section of the Home Office (a statement that he later attributed to a senior civil servant). Does Ms Teather consider it so?

“There are self-evidently problems being exposed continuously, particularly on the asylum decision-making. But the point is, this is politically led, and ministers have to take responsibility for that. . .

“If you drive through a policy of ‘Reduce the numbers at all cost,’ then the people who work for you have got to try and implement it. And there are a limited number of ways in which you can implement it with humanity. So, the politicians have to take responsibility. It’s no good blaming the civil servants who work for you. If you’re elected, it’s your job. Stand up and take it.”

Ultimately, responsibility for that policy now lies firmly with Mrs May. “To be fair to her . . . it didn’t come out of nowhere. The agenda of hostility rather than hospitality is an old one in government policy-making. Detention massively went up under the Labour Government, and especially the detention of children. . .

“But this systematic focus of employing lots of different areas of civic life in immigration enforcement — that’s Theresa May; that’s the hostile environment agenda. That’s very different, and I think it has a damaging effect on British ethos, on national identity: it damages relationships and damages community, trying to engage everybody in the same activity, of [the] hermeneutic of suspicion. That’s not a recipe for community, is it?

“It’s not even [about] money, because it doesn’t save money: deten­tion doesn’t save money. . . Barring access to the health service and charging people up front — well, what are you going to do if the people that you’re charging are destitute? It’s meaningless. It’s effective only if it’s viewed as a tool of immigration enforcement, and that’s the point: all sorts of other areas of civic life, of governance, have become co-opted into immigration enforcement.”

Megan Knowles/JRS UKThe volunteers of JRS UK’s detention befrienders after a training day

JRS WAS founded in Italy, in 1980, in response to the plight of the Viet­namese boat people. What JRS UK is seeing on the ground, as a result of the hostile environment, is that “homelessness is getting worse”, Ms Teather says. “Our numbers are going up, but we don’t heavily advertise, either; so we know we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.”

There have been other rule-changes. “The Home Office has stopped the courts from attaching an address to bail applications; so they can just be released into destitute homelessness. That’s new.

“If you’ve been destitute, and you’ve been detained . . . the impact on you is immense, and then you’re released just on to the streets: no address, no support, and you’ve got all of that trauma.”

In January this year, JRS UK released a report, Out in the Cold, based on destitute asylum-seekers’ experiences of homelessness in London. One of its findings was that 62 per cent of the day-centre users surveyed for the report had experienced street homelessness in the previous year; and 36 per cent of those staying with others did not feel physically safe in their accommodation.

“We’re leaving them open to abuse, either because they’re on the streets or because they’re living with people whom they don’t feel safe to be living with. And these are young women; old men; pregnant women; people with serious illnesses; people who have had traumatic histories. The process of the hostile environment is designed to be deliberately crushing of people’s lives. It should be a matter of shame that we do this to people.”

LAST week, the new Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, said that he would review the Home Office’s “hostile environment” policy towards immigrants in the wake of the Windrush scandal. He that said he wanted to replace it, however, with a “compliant environment” that distinguished between illegal and legal immigrants.

Ms Teather says that the immigration system needs root-and-branch reform.

“While an embarrassed retreat from front-footed evangelism in favour of hostility is a step forward from the Government, we need more than just a rebrand of cruelty. Subjecting those without immigration status to an inhumane web of pressures designed to make their lives crushingly difficult is wrong, regardless of what you call it.”

Before she left Parliament, Ms Teather chaired the joint All-Party Parliamentary Group’s inquiry into the immigration detention system, whose report recommended, among others, an end to indefinite deten­tion — which is unique to the UK among EU countries. The campaigning work on the detention of immigrants continues. In February, Ms Teather was among other religious signatories to sign up to a new campaign, launched by Liberty, pushing for a 28-day limit (News, Comment, 16 February).

She believes that church leaders have an important part to play in speaking out. What’s missing in the debate, she says, is a Christian anthropology. “The hostile environment doesn’t even take into account a utilitarian perspective. The hostile-environment agenda is a ruthless focus on statistics, where all other values and priorities of what might make a good society have been reprioritised against this one focus of reducing numbers. . . It’s important to hear Christian voices, who have a wider view on what a human being is for, and what human flourishing really looks like.”

And she suggests that individuals can do much: contact MPs, support local migrant organisations, become befrienders, join hosting schemes, support people in congregations whose immigration status is precarious, and “gently challenge” negative views about asylum-seekers.

Her hope is that the Windrush scandal will shine a light on the issues of a hostile environment, and “begins to it open up to some disinfectant. . . As public scrutiny rises and people . . . get a sense of what immigration enforcement is like in practice, that will open up an opportunity to rethink the direction of travel.”

Refugee Week 2018 runs from 18-24 June www.refugeeweek.org.uk

To sign Liberty’s petition for an end to indefinite detention, visit www.endindefinitedetention.org.uk.

 

Ingrid Guyon/2017/fotosynthesis/JRS UKA man collects some toiletries at the JRS day centre

Walking alongside

THE mission of the Jesuit Refugee Service centres on accompaniment. At the day centre, for which people must register with JRS to gain access, people are known by name, and can come not only for sandwiches, a hot meal, or a cup of tea, but also to pick up toiletries, a weekly travel allowance of £10, and, some­times, as on the day I visit, a food bag.

It provides a place of safety, too, where people can pop in, or stay all day, relax and sit quietly, or chat to friends. It is also where they can get help and advice from JRS staff, and find out about a range of activities. (JRS has a refugee choir which is run with the Soul Sanctuary gospel choir; there have been drama projects and photography workshops.)

Staff and volunteers try to stay in touch if someone is taken into detention, although “there’s a limit if somebody is detained a long way away from here.” They will refer people on to other befriending groups, “but we try to make sure we stay in touch with them, especially if they go to Heathrow.”

JRS UK runs the befriending service for detainees in Heathrow’s immigration removal centres (Colnbrook and Harmondsworth), which together house about 1000 men.

JRS UK also runs a small hosting programme, which facilitates three-month stays, for some of their day-centre users, with members of religious communities and some host families.

To find out more, visit www.jrsuk.net.

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