Countering the hostile environment

by Professor David Herd

19 Dec 2019

Growing out of the work of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, Refugee Tales exists to call attention to the fact that the UK is the only country in Europe that detains people indefinitely under immigration rules and in the process, to call for that policy to end. The way the project makes its call is by sharing the stories of people who have experienced indefinite detention. Three volumes of these stories have been published to date. The third returns to the story of a man who first shared his tale in the winter of 2014. The man in question was forced to leave his west African country when his life was threatened because he protested against female genital mutilation. On his arrival in the UK, he requested asylum. That was in 2007. Seven years later, his case was still pending. It is still pending now. As he told the writer Abdulrazak Gurnah:

I have been here now for 12 years. I am still not allowed to work.… I am 59 years old and I feel the time going away from me. I have constant headaches, high blood pressure and just recently I was diagnosed with diabetes. The doctor said I am depressed and prescribed me medication for it. I said, I don’t need medication for depression or stress, I need my freedom. Many days I don’t even go out.

This story reports the lived reality of an approach to asylum and immigration that, as Home Secretary, Theresa May named ‘the hostile environment’. There is much that now needs to be said about the construction and effects of such a hostile environment. It should be noted, for instance, that the UK government was singularly explicit in its purpose, with the Home Secretary announcing to the Telegraph in 2012 that the government’s express intention was to “create a really hostile environment for illegal migration”. It should also be noted, however, that the UK is hardly unique in displaying hostility to people who seek asylum. Whether from the US-Mexican border, or an island detention centre off the coast of Australia, barely a week passes without a reminder that we are living in a moment in which regimes of all kinds have defaulted to arbitrary and extended detention as a way of addressing human movement.

A passenger jet taxis past a security fence. Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

The research project I am collaborating on with colleagues from the UK, Italy, the USA and Canada is a response to this combination of facts. On the one hand, in the past decade the UK has embarked on a political experiment in which tens of thousands of people are subjected to profound and protracted prohibition: unable to work, unable to circulate freely, permanently vulnerable to detention and re-detention. On the other, this experience is not unlike that encountered by people seeking asylum elsewhere. One of the questions the project looks to investigate is whether such experiences are in key respects cross-border; that the hostile environment is a transnational space. Our approach is, at one level, documentary. As regimes across the world revert explicitly to policies of hostility, we need to understand the human costs of such an approach. To arrive at this understanding, the project will think comparatively to address the differences and interconnections between asylum regimes in the countries represented. We will compare the policy frameworks that constitute hostile environments. We will also consider how such environments are countered and mitigated, how spaces are created in which it is possible, despite the state’s energies, for autonomy to emerge.

At the heart of the project, however, is the question of stories. You don’t have to work for long with people with lived experience of the hostile environment to notice that communication of stories is somehow key. The clue here lies in the energy and deliberateness with which the stories of people who seek asylum are obstructed and disbelieved. What forms such active obstruction take in different national settings is one of the questions the project looks to ask. But one starting point for the inquiry is the UK asylum and immigration tribunal itself, the hearings of which are not courts of record. If it is integral, as we suspect, to the maintenance of the hostile environment that the story of the person who has sought asylum should not be heard, what would it mean to share such stories properly? And what form, or forms, would the sharing of stories take?

If this sounds like a cultural question, it is also a structural question. The hostile environment, in this sense, is a set of policies and forces designed to stop the person who has sought asylum from being able to speak. We need to find ways of hearing, to know what policy-driven hostility prevents and causes. And we need to know, as a matter of urgency, what it means after 12 years of state-authorised limbo, “to feel the time going away”. 

David Herd is a poet and professor of Modern Literature at the University of Kent. The project Hostile Environments: Policies, Stories, Responses is funded under the 2019 Tackling the UK’s International Challenges programme.


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