A decade of hostility
Daring to hope that Global Britain would be a place of sanctuary 

By Wales Co-ordinator for City of Sanctuary UK and
Head of Policy & Programme Development at the Welsh Centre for International Affairs, 
Hayley Richards
Tuesday 21 June 2022

Imagine having to flee your home in fear of your life. Fear of war or conflict, persecution because of your politics or calls for freedom or maybe because of your faith or nationality. You do not want to leave your home but the thought of what might happen if you stay is terrifying.

Now imagine there is no legal or safe route out. No embassy, no visa, no plane ticket, checkpoints at every border. Any journey you make will be dangerous, expensive and will rely on strangers. You scrape together the money for the journey. You take the horrendous decision to leave your wife and child at home. It is too dangerous for them and you only have enough money to get one person out. You will make the journey and bring your family to you once you are safe. You cling to your wife and child. You walk for 3 days to meet the people smugglers who provide your only route out. They take your money, your phone and your papers. For a week or more, you lose track of time, you are bundled under the cover of darkness from one vehicle to another. The only food and water you have is what you brought from home. You leave dry land. You are floating, trapped in a metal box in the bowels of a ship. You think this journey will kill you. You pray. There are other people crying. You wake up, the back of the truck is open, it is dark and there is no one around. You emerge in an unfamiliar place in the middle of nowhere. 

You are taken away in a police car. A blur of immigration offices and hard faces. They take your finger prints. Harsh voices you don’t understand. There is an interpreter but you are not sure if they are translating what everyone is saying. So many questions, over and over. Where have you come from? Which countries have you passed through? Where are your papers? How did you get here? How many others? Who helped you? Why did you leave? Where is your family? You are crying. You are so tired and you can’t think clearly. You are worried about your wife and child. They will think you are dead.

You are taken to a house in another city. You share this with 6 other men who all speak different languages. The housing manager gives you a piece of paper with some phone numbers on it. This is the start of another journey where, once again, your fate lies in the hands of others. The words human, person, man no longer apply to you. They say you are illegal. You are an asylum seeker, a Home Office Reference Number. Government policy dictates that you are met with hostility, systemic racism and mistrust. This journey is like a sickness that will never pass. You travel in circles while your asylum claim is processed, refused and appealed. Around and around answering the same questions. 

You are not permitted to work. The days are long. You spend as much time as possible out of the house. The house depresses you. You are supported by kind people from the community. You learn basic English. You walk the 6 miles to and from the English class because the £5.83 per day you are given to live on is not enough to pay for the bus. The roof of your house is leaking and there is mould growing on the wall but you don’t report this in case it affects your asylum claim. Immigration Officers come in the middle of the night and take another man from the house. You cannot sleep. Every time you hear a door slam you think they have come for you. You haven’t seen your wife and child for 2 years. Whenever you think about them you feel sick. You are the victim of a racist attack in the street but you are afraid to report it to the police in case it affects your asylum claim. You do not go to the hospital in case they contact the Home Office. You feel like everyone is watching you. You go to the GP who gives you some medication which makes you feel numb. You are alive but not alive. 

This is the ‘hostile environment’ introduced in 2012 by then Home Secretary Theresa May, with the aim of making life unbearably difficult in the UK for those who cannot show the right paperwork. Or, as she said at the time; “The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.”

In the decade that followed this ‘hostile environment’ has systematically dehumanised vulnerable people who dared to hope that Global Britain would be a place of sanctuary. Systematically preventing people seeking asylum and other undocumented migrants from accessing essential services like healthcare, education or the police. Enlisting doctors, teachers and police officers to conduct immigration checks and share data with the Home Office. Fuelling a culture of suspicion and undermining trust in vital public services. 

Asylum support rates of £5.83 per day effectively lock people into poverty, sometimes for years, with 84% of people saying they cannot afford to buy enough food, only 2% of people have enough to buy shoes and clothes and 95% of people unable to afford to travel on public transport. The quality and safety of accommodation provided for people seeking asylum continues to be an issue with local government and communities cut out of a system delivered by 3 private sector companies in receipt of £1billion of public money over a 10 year period. In an interview about asylum accommodation in January 2022, Tim Naor-Hilton the CEO of Refugee Action said ‘I’ve worked in this area of work for nearly 20 years. And I’ve never seen it as bad in terms of the housing and the accommodation that people are experiencing. Our partners across the sector are also reporting very similar things. We are very, very worried that there is going to be some catastrophic incident at some point, somewhere in the country.’

The asylum system is broken. Under the current Home Secretary, delays in the system have tripled and the backlog of undecided cases has increased by tenfold in the last 5 years.

But let’s be clear that the functioning of the UK asylum system is modelled on the practical application of the Government’s own hostile environment policy. This policy has not only broken the system but it is designed to break people too. It does this by:

  • treating them with contempt, hostility and mistrust,
  • putting them in the poorest quality housing,
  • preventing them from accessing services,
  • not allowing them to work,
  • preventing them from accessing education,
  • keeping them apart from their families,
  • scapegoating them in the media,
  • turning society against them,
  • limiting their access to legal support,
  • driving down positive decision making on their asylum claims,
  • moving them around so they can’t build connections,
  • keeping them in poverty and destitution.

After 10 years, when we thought the environment for people seeking sanctuary couldn’t get anymore hostile, we have seen vulnerable people fleeing war and persecution forced to live in shared dormitories, during a Covid pandemic, in disused, military barracks at Napier and Penally. These accommodation plans showed flagrant disrespect for the advice of local and devolved government, police, health experts and local people and went ahead despite all the evidence indicating that far right extremists would target and terrorise people housed there as well as seeking to influence the local community.

Despite all opposition, we have seen the Nationality and Borders Act become law.  Among other instruments, this legislation introduces a two tier asylum system meaning that people who arrive in the UK via irregular means will have less protection and support.  The Law Society has concerns that a number of the Act’s measures are incompatible with international law and damage access to justice, with particular concerns that penalising refugees arriving in the UK by irregular means is incompatible with the Refugee Convention 1951.

For almost all people fleeing desperate circumstances, hoping to reunite with family members in the UK or seeking security and a better life in the UK, there is simply no application form that exists and no process that can facilitate a safe, regulated journey. In reality, unless you are Ukrainian or Afghan there are no such routes. And even if you are Afghan, the resettlement scheme only opened for applications in March 2022 with a cap in the first year of 1,500 places. The UK has two routes open for people from Ukraine with 77,200 people arriving as of 13th June 2022.

On 14th June 2022, we saw the first attempt to offshore our responsibilities for people seeking sanctuary in the UK to Rwanda, on a Privilege Style Lineas Aereas flight (reportedly the only airline company that would agree to do it). Bishops from the Church of England warned that, ‘This immoral policy shames Britain’ and the UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs, said the Rwanda scheme was ‘contrary to the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention’ and that ‘People fleeing war, conflict and persecution deserve compassion and empathy. They should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing.’ The European Court for Human Rights (which incidentally has nothing to do with the European Parliament) intervened at the eleventh hour. An intervention which will be used by the UK Government to further demonise lefty lawyers, reinforce Brexit and add fuel to forthcoming plans for abolishing the Human Rights Act. Is this the image of Global Britain that we want to portray to the rest of the world?

Meanwhile, in Wales, a small, brave country committed to becoming a globally responsible nation, there is cross party consensus for a vision of Wales as a Nation of Sanctuary. This vision is modelled on the City of Sanctuary movement working to embed welcome and compassion so that wherever people seeking sanctuary go they will find people who welcome them and understand why they are here. It is no co-incidence that the vision for Wales to become a Nation of Sanctuary began in 2012 as a direct response to the hostile environment and in recognition that Wales would continue to try to mitigate its impacts on refugees and people seeking asylum dispersed here. While Wales does not have devolved powers over immigration, powers under education, health, housing, social services and transport can all be used to make a difference to the lives of people seeking sanctuary. Welsh Government has a policy of ‘integration from day one’ which tries to ensure that people receive the support and help they need to settle in and be part of the community as soon as possible after arrival, regardless of which route people took to get here. Their 2019 Nation of Sanctuary Plan, co-produced with frontline support organisations and with input from sanctuary seekers themselves, included measures to ensure access to education, healthcare, language, employment and legal support, plus a dedicated multi-lingual information portal. The Plan was endorsed by the UNHCR Representative to the UK. Additional measures have been put in place, particularly during the covid pandemic, to ensure people in asylum accommodation in Wales have access to wifi, are not left homeless and can access discretionary funding in times of destitution. 

Alongside service provision to mitigate the impacts of the hostile environment on people living in Wales, Welsh Government has used its voice to make absolutely clear that we operate differently here in Wales. We have a rights-based, people centred approach. Welsh Government opposed the use of the Penally military barracks as asylum housing, opposed the Nationality and Border Bill and First Minister, Mark Drakeford said that the Rwanda deportations were ‘a cruel and inhumane response to those seeking safety and sanctuary in our country. It is in stark contrast to Wales’ position as a nation of sanctuary.’ 

Wales’ globally responsibility goal, its Nation of Sanctuary vision alongside practical measures to welcome, support and defend people make Wales a country to be proud of on the global stage.

Remember the man who had to flee his home? Let us not forget that it is fellow human beings that are impacted by the hostile environment – desperate people who have had to flee unspeakable horrors – men, women and children, fathers, husbands, sisters, daughters. People who should be nurtured and cared for. Instead, the hostile environment steals years from people’s lives as slow and poor quality decision making delays their claim. The resilience people need to make the journey to the UK needs to be coupled with enough strength to survive its hostile asylum system. Travelling around in circles, with no end in sight, constantly watching your back and the threat of deportation hanging over your head will take its toll. For already traumatised people, the UK asylum system can cause depression, paranoia and drive some people to suicide.

Let us not forget Eyob Tefera (left hand side of photograph above) who took his own life in Swansea after his asylum claim was refused for the second time. Charity workers believed he was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and a mental health liaison nurse said he had admitted he was “tired of life” due to his refused asylum claims and having an “unsuitable housing situation”.

Let us not forget Mustafa Dawood (right hand side of photograph above), who was refused asylum and who died after falling from a roof while fleeing from Immigration Officers in Newport. The jury found that officers ‘were not appropriately trained in pursuit procedures and this could have contributed to Mustafa’s death’. The Coroner said, ‘No one in court this week can have been unmoved by the problems Mustafa faced in Sudan’. Of Sudan, his mother said ‘there is so much killing every day, so many young people are killed or disappeared – that’s why our young men have to flee to avoid the same destiny. My son was not a thief or a murderer, he was just a young person asking for safety.”

The mitigation measures put forward by Wales as a Nation of Sanctuary were no match for the devasting impacts of the hostile environment on Eyob and Mustafa. 

It doesn’t have to be like this. Let’s travel forward another decade and journey to 2032. Imagine this decade is a time of profound change in which old institutions fall away and are replaced by new ones. In which change previously thought unimaginable becomes unstoppable. In 2032 imagine a world in which we have all, from schools to universities, institutions to businesses, individuals, communities and governments worked together to create an immigration and asylum system that enables us all to thrive, where safe and regular routes are expanded, where people are welcomed and supported, in a county which celebrates our different languages, cultures and beliefs, a country where we can all share our skills and make a valued contribution, a country respected across the globe for its humanity as a nation of global citizens who show kindness and solidarity with our friends and neighbours in distant lands.

Imagine the next 10 years are a decade of welcome in which immigration and asylum systems are deliberately redesigned so that the whole of the UK becomes a Nation of Sanctuary! That would be a decade to be proud of.

Hayley Richards is the Wales Co-ordinator for City of Sanctuary UK and Head of Policy & Programme Development at the Welsh Centre for International Affairs.