When I campaigned for Brexit way back in 2016, I was part of a faction deemed the ‘Liberal Brexiteers’. Our vision was of a post-Brexit Britain that proactively advanced free trade, globalisation and the international rules-based system and welcomed people here to make a life for themselves. This vision died a long time ago, there is no stronger evidence of this than the hostile environment about to envelop the EU nationals that have made Britain their home.
Despite the obviously xenophobic and anti-immigration contingent present within the Leave coalition, we liberal Brexiteers were naïve in thinking that we lived in a fair minded and decent country that would treat EU nationals pragmatically and humanely. We issued reassurances that now ring so hollow as to be a shameful embarrassment to us all.
We had the assurance of the official Brexit campaign group Vote Leave, which promised EU citizens in 2016 that they would be ‘automatically’ granted indefinite leave to remain and would be ‘treated no less favourably than they are at present.’ This pledge was signed and has been broken by our now Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Home Secretary Priti Patel, a particularly zealous champion of draconian immigration laws and border enforcement.
Such promises were a major theme of mainstream Brexit campaigning, designed to reassure EU nationals but mostly to encourage more liberal inclined Eurosceptics to take the plunge and vote leave. Such rhetoric was typified by Daniel Hannan’s now deleted 2016 tweet which read: “It’s irresponsible to scare EU nationals in the UK by hinting that their status might change after Brexit.” When Boris was Foreign Secretary, he went so far as to unilaterally declared to EU citizens living in the UK that “your rights will be protected whatever happens”. It wasn’t to be.
Today, the Guardian reported on the latest example of the problems faced by EU nationals caught in the trap of the Home Office’s backlog of 500,000 unprocessed applications. A Spanish woman who has lived in England for 44 years lost her job in a care home because she was unable to prove she has the right to work in the UK. There will be more of this to come as employers struggle with post Brexit right to work regulations.
The woman came to Britain as an 11-month-old baby and has never left the country. She claims to have tried to contact the Home Office helpline over 100 times and has not yet been able to speak to an adviser. She has done everything right, applying for EU settled status within the deadline but finds herself part of a vast backlog the Home Office has yet to process. She has two children and finds herself unemployed, unable to prove her right to work and struggling to afford to feed herself and her family.
Is this really what we voted for?
This case is far from unique; it is not the first and it is far from being the last. People stuck in the application backlog have been turned down for employment, told to take unpaid leave and even sacked. This could be the beginning of an ugly chapter for post-Brexit Britain.
Back in April 2018, I called for EU nationals to be given citizenship and warned that we were heading for a “Windrush” style disaster with EU nationals:
‘If the government can’t manage the immigration status of a relatively small number of longstanding British citizens, how they will they cope with 3.7 million EU citizens?’
I wish I had been wrong (I often am). The Windrush crisis happened because the ‘hostile environment’ persecuted a group of migrants that had been granted citizenship rights, had no previous need for paperwork and documented evidence of their rights and didn’t consider themselves ‘migrants’. Sound familiar?
The gatekeepers of the hostile environment will soon begin systematically persecuting EU nationals, not out of spite, but to comply with the law and protect themselves. The landlords, employers, hospitals, banks and other agencies and organisations will carry out the immigration checks and enforcer restrictions that leave people out in the cold and at the mercy of the merciless Home Office.
The nature of the hostile environment will encourage overzealous enforcement and bias against EU nationals because these citizen border enforcers know they face fines and/or prosecution if they show leniency, acting harshly therefore simply becomes a means of self-preservation. This then leads to the denial of services, employment, and housing.
Now, if you’re an employer or landlord trying to avoid a fine or prosecution, you are likely to adopt a very cautious approach. This caution will manifest itself in discrimination. That foreign accent or dark skin will ring alarm bells, but white people with a British accent and name will seem to pose far less risk. Thus, the system becomes discriminatory and racist.
We are being complacent as a country. The incompetence and insensitivity of the Home Office has already led to the national disgrace of the Windrush scandal, a direct result of the ‘hostile environment’ policy and deputising immigration enforcement. Once again, we have a large group of people with an uncertain immigration status facing the same threat. Are we just going to allow it to happen?