In 2001, Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah published By the Sea, the story of Saleh Omar, a man who arrives at Gatwick airport as a refugee. The Borders officer he speaks to says his parents also came to Britain as refugees: “But my parents are European, they have a right, they are part of the family”. He goes on to say, “You don’t belong here…and we don’t want you here. We are going to make life hard for you, make you suffer indignities, maybe even do you violence.
Omar is far from indifferent, but he carries with him an important knowledge: he knows that under the British government’s own rules, he is entitled to asylum, and although the official may spit racist language, he does not will finally have no choice but to stamp Omar’s passport and let him pass. As indeed he does.
I read the novel twice, 20 years apart. The behavior of the official does not become less appalling but, all the same, I read the scene at Gatwick very differently the second time around. In Priti Patel’s Britain, I was struck by how lucky Omar was to encounter laws that are better than the people whose job it is to uphold them.
This year, the year of the Rwanda Asylum Plan, we mark 10 years since Theresa May, as Home Secretary, introduced the Hostile Environment Policy. Soon after, the coalition government set up the Hostile Environment Task Force, made up of 12 government departments, including schools, care services and health. What does it do to the fabric of British society if the NHS is required to pass information to a Home Office as part of a hostile environment policy? What kind of country asks its doctors to spy for the government? Cruel, to begin with. Cruelty has become normalized to the point that it’s possible to read Saleh Omar’s racist encounter and think of the word ‘lucky’.
To better understand this normalization, it is instructive to go back to 2013 and the government-sponsored billboards on the sides of vans, with the message ‘In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest.” When the van reports were first made public, there was an encouraging oddity of voices condemning the Home Office.
But within months the media began to report the failure of the policy in terms of the number of people – 11 – who had self-deported because of the vans. Phrases such as “only 11 people” implicitly adhered to the government’s own reasoning that more deportations mean more success. What the media hasn’t told us about the “just 11” are their names, their stories.
Six years later, The Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman reported the story of Joycelyn John, who arrived in Britain legally aged four from Grenada, but lost her passport with the ‘permission to indefinite stay” which proved his status. She was classified as an illegal immigrant in 2014 and threatened with deportation letter after letter from the Home Office, despite the 75 pages of evidence she had gathered to prove she had spent her life in the UK. John lived another two years in this hostile environment, unable to work or use public services, until the terror of being chained up and expelled, and the despair of being in debt, drove her to the auto -deportation. She describes herself as “suicidal”.
Eventual outcry over the stories known as the Windrush Scandal allowed John to eventually return to the UK. But “scandal” is far too soft a term to describe what happened. Windrush’s atrocity is closer to the mark. The minimum that we should be able to expect from our government is certainly a recognition of human dignity.
And now we have the thwarted, but not defeated, returns to Rwanda. The government learned a little from the atrocity of Windrush. He is aware that those facing deportation to Rwanda may turn out to be the sort of people most Britons do not want to deport. For example, the former Iranian police commander who refused to fire on protesters during an anti-government demonstration. The UK government doesn’t want to have to explain why someone like that doesn’t even have their asylum claim considered. Thus, he keeps repeating that his real target is the “evil” of human trafficking.
Outrage and normalization – this is the pattern we need to break. Outrage over deportations from Rwanda; the current normalization is now one that divides asylum seekers into two tiers: those who enter through “safe and legal” channels and all others, who are classified as brought in by smugglers.
When I hear the term hostile environment, I find myself thinking of a man whose name is not John. I met this man through the Refugee Tales project, which pairs writers with people who have had experience of the UK asylum system. He had been tortured and imprisoned in his old country, and did not want the government he had escaped to pay attention to him. But he wanted me to use his first name when I wrote about him. Just before the article went to press, he had a request. Can I change his name to John? His asylum claim had been accepted in the UK, but he had to reapply every three years for 15 years before he could qualify for indefinite leave. Now he was afraid that his lightly worded words about the asylum system would be reason enough for his next application to be denied. I often think of the man whose name is not John.
Then I think of myself and how lucky I was on my own path to British citizenship: I was never an asylum seeker; I have never been threatened with detention; I came to the UK on a writers, artists and composers visa, and was able to easily upgrade to a tier 1 visa. The immigration official who granted my first visa extension was not only human but kind, and then responded to an email query with a PS to say he had heard me on Radio 4 and that I had “sounded good”. Despite all this, until I became a citizen, I did not write fiction set in contemporary Britain, for the nature of my fiction is such that it cannot help but enter the politics and, like the man whose name is not John, I was afraid that my words would annoy the wrong person and that my request for a visa extension or citizenship would be refused. Once I got my passport, in 2013, I thought, now I can write freely. But just weeks after becoming a citizen, I read an interview in which May signaled her intention to dramatically increase the use of citizenship withdrawal powers.
And now we are in the era of Priti Patel, when migrants and their children feel they may never be fully and unequivocally sure of their right to continue living in Britain. There are times, and writing this essay is one of them, when I feel the hostile environment within me as a core of fear that never goes away.
Still, I am grateful for that kernel of fear. It brings with it a sense of injustice, a desire for change. It makes it possible to acclaim victories, of which the cessation of Rwandan flights is only the most recent. In 2018, schools stopped collecting information on pupils’ nationality and place of birth, and NHS Digital announced that it had stopped sharing data with the Home Office. Last month the government announced that under-18s who are cared for by a local authority will no longer have to pay the £1,012 fee to register as British citizens. Activists blocked evictions and deportation flights. Lawyers obtained release orders for so many of those in detention. Those who thought they were alone have discovered that they are not.
Behind all the victories of the last decade, there are activists and organizations that have never given in to the luxury of hopelessness or despair. None of their victories were “small victories”. Everyone transforms lives.
This is an edited version of a lecture for Migrants organize themselves. The full text can be found here. Kamila Shamsie’s most recent novel is Home Fire, winner of the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction