Our house, in the middle of the street
If we want to dismantle the Hostile Environment our movement needs to start locally
By County Councillor for Abbey, Cambridgeshire County Council Dr Alexandra Bulat
Wednesday 18 May 2022
I first lived in the UK for a few months in 1997 when I was a small child. My dad worked in the NHS near Leeds for some months, but my family had to return to Romania in 1998. I think the early, few, but positive memories I had of the UK shaped my plans to move back to England when I turned 18. So in September 2012 I moved to Brighton to study at the University of Sussex and the UK has been my home since, for almost a decade now.
Growing up in Romania, I almost exclusively heard positive things about the UK. When I was in college, the UK was always portrayed as one of the best, if not the best place to study. The UK had an image as a multicultural, and most importantly, welcoming country.
But although the Hostile Environment term was coined under Theresa May as Home Secretary in 2012, the beginning of restrictions to migrants’ rights, such as the introduction of No Recourse to Public Funds, increases in visa fees and limiting family reunion rights, started long before then, under successive Governments of different colours.
2022 marks 10 years from the Hostile Environment policy as we know it. It also marks 10 years of my life in the UK. As an EU migrant, I have not been affected in the same way as my non-EU friends, although after Brexit we can see much more clearly how the Hostile Environment impacts this group.
What the Hostile Environment means in practice for me is that as migrants, we have to justify our existence at every step of our everyday life. It means migrants’ life is made deliberately more difficult by the Government in a bid to reduce the number of migrants, when in fact in increases exploitation and bad conditions for people. It means a delegation of responsibility from the state to the individual, with unequal access to information and thus the ability to exercise rights.
The Hostile Environment created a “papers please” culture every time migrants get a job, rent a flat or access welfare if they have this right attached to their immigration status. And these “papers” are an ever more expensive, complex and lengthy process.
My long term relationship with the Home Office ended the day I attended my British citizenship ceremony a couple of years ago. But I will always remember that day on my 24th birthday when I opened my emails in a work break to see a message from the Home Office that my Permanent Residence was rejected because some evidence I submitted was considered “unsatisfactory”. A few months later the EU Settlement Scheme was opened and I applied again to stay in my home, this time successfully getting settled status.
My experience is a privileged one. I speak English well, I know what my rights are in the UK and I am confident using digital systems. Volunteering as an adviser for the EU Settlement Scheme, I saw first hand the diversity of migrant stories. Just because an immigration application may be not too difficult for some, it does not mean it is easy for everyone.
I got involved in migrants’ rights campaigning after realising in 2016 that decisions taken in the UK affect my life directly. But exposing the damage the Hostile Environment does to migrants and campaigning to end it is not enough. Migrants make up over 10% of the UK population, but our politics does not reflect this. Although some MPs and local politicians have been passionately speaking for the rights of migrants, it usually does take a migrant to be in the room to raise certain issues that can be best understood through lived experience.
I represent everyone in my ward, regardless of where they are from. Although immigration policy is decided by Westminster, not locally, councillors have an important role to play in shaping the debate. I was really proud to pass a motion at Cambridgeshire County Council this year on residence based voting rights for local elections, and to work on a motion with another Councillor on local support for EU citizens who need to apply for the scheme after the deadline.
These may be small changes in the big picture, but if we want to dismantle the Hostile Environment, our movement needs to start locally – organising migrant communities, having a voice in local democracy and, crucially, having representation.
Dr Alexandra Bulat is the first English county councillor of Romanian background, elected in the 6 May 2021 local elections. Alexandra is also a research consultant and migrants’ rights specialist.