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8 May 2018

What’s behind the Hostile Environment?


Theresa May’s anti-migrant “Hostile Environment” policies caused misery for years before hitting the news over the Windrush scandal. And they are part of a longer trend. Labour governments passed five major immigration acts in 1999-2009. These dramatically expanded the detention and deportation system, and cut away asylum rights.

Yet, after 20 years of escalating anti-migrant policies, the Government is no closer to its stated aim of “getting control” over immigration. Net migration to the UK has been positive in every year since 1994, peaking at over 300,000 in 2014 and 2015.

This leads us to ask: what really drives the mass deportations, NHS passport checks, workplace raids, rough-sleeper round-ups, and other vicious but ineffective measures? Corporate Watch’s new report “Who is immigration policy for?” examines this question in depth. We look at how politicians, media, right-wing hate preachers, and corporate power interact in escalating the racist clampdown.

Our first conclusion is that immigration policy isn’t really about “getting control”. It’s a show, a spectacle, an emotive performance. It goes after vulnerable “low value” scapegoats: “asylum-seekers”, so-called “illegals”, and others who fall between the cracks. This fits fine with the demands of big business. For example, the City lobby group London First, whose meeting with Amber Rudd was cancelled a few days before her resignation, wants less immigration controls for students and workers. But it also calls for a “clampdown” on “low value migration”.

Secondly, this show is for narrow audiences. Attacks on migrant scapegoats are largely directed at two groups of older, white “target publics”. One is made up of working class people hit hard by poverty and social tension, often living in run-down neighbourhoods in the North or Midlands. The other are comfortable “middle Englanders”. The first have personal economic and social troubles to blame on migrant scapegoats. The second often have little contact with migrants at all. But what both share is a general anxiety about migration as a “cultural threat”. Together they only make up about 20% of the population but, in the UK’s electoral system, they can be pivotal voters – particularly when governments feel threatened by the “populist” right.

Media and politicians collaborate closely to attract these target publics, and to shape their views. After the 1999 Sangatte asylum panic, and race riots in 2001, Labour made a conscious strategy of scapegoating asylum-seekers to “neutralise” the electoral threat from the BNP. The same moves play out today, with UKIP taking the BNP’s role. Since 1999, surveys report the proportion of people concerned about immigration has doubled. Meanwhile, a long line of Home Secretarie have made their names with ever tougher measures against “illegal migrants” – as well as other media phantoms.

Beyond the “public debate”

How we counter this propaganda machine? Our analysis calls into question some currently popular approaches. Campaigners often aim to get alternative views and voices into the liberal media sphere, trying to influence the “public debate” on migration. But there is no “public debate on immigration”: this idea is a mask that obscures how power really works. There is no one “public”, but many different people having many different conversations. And it’s not a debate, it’s a propaganda war, fought not with facts and reasons but with emotive stories. As Conservative campaign guru Lynton Crosby says: “when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins”.

When the current scandal blows over, the raids, detentions and deportations continue. To make effective strategies, first we need to understand how the enemy works.

Click here to read the new Corporate Watch report “Who is immigration policy for?”