The UK immigration system needs to stop hurting people

I need you to understand the cruelty of the hostile environment, and then write your MP to put an end to it.

I recently posted a 114-tweet long thread on Twitter on the spectrum of hurt caused by the UK immigration system’s hostile environment. This post is a copy of that thread in blog form.

I’m finally a permanent resident

After 9 years in the UK, I’m finally a permanent resident.

If your instinct is to congratulate me, don’t. Don’t congratulate me on surviving a cruel immigration system.

Instead, I need you to:

  • read this post
  • share it
  • write to your MP to end the hostile environment

Let’s change the narrative on immigration

I have been intentionally keeping my mouth shut on this topic because I didn’t feel I had a right or that it was safe for me to speak out while my life here was considered ‘temporary’.

But the time for keeping quiet is now over. I won’t shut up until this country stops actively hurting immigrants, and I need your help to stop it.

Moving to a new place is a very normal thing. When people do this within a country, no one says anything. But move across made-up borders and you’re suddenly judged on how valuable you’ll be to your new community.

I’m tired of the rhetoric around and treatment of immigrants. People who hate immigrants are very vocal, and their hatred drives policy in this country.

Let’s change the narrative. If you’re okay with us just living our lives, tell the UK Government that.

A system designed to hurt people

I need to start by saying I recognise I experience a lot of privilege in the UK immigration system. I’m a white, English-speaker from the US. This system wasn’t specifically designed to hurt me.

It was designed to hurt people, though. This system isn’t designed around the way people live their lives. We have to build our lives around the constraints of the system. And those constraints create a spectrum of hurt.

This post is about the different types of hurt on that spectrum - a spectrum that ranges from putting you through administrative hell, to people dying because of the system.

I’ll talk about my own experience and others’. Then I’ll tell you what to write your MP.

Note: This post is very long (over 4,000 words). If you don’t have time to read it now, come back to it.

Make the time to stand up for immigrants.

Background

The hostile environment refers to policies introduced in 2012 to make life so bad for unauthorised immigrants they’d voluntarily leave the UK.

These along with other immigration policies since 2012 make life bad for everybody, including British citizens.

Also, permanent residence is called indefinite leave to remain (ILR) in the UK. So when I say ILR, I’m referring to that.

The spectrum of hurt caused by the hostile environment

Racial discrimination

This is what I meant when I said the system isn’t specifically designed to hurt white women like me. It was intentionally designed to be a racist system to counter the consequences of colonialism.

The British Empire gave many people legal status to move to the UK, but this was taken away when Black and Asian citizens started making use of it.

Instead, schemes were created to make it easier for white Commonwealth citizens to move here.

To put it bluntly:

The racism continues today. Only this summer the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) won a legal battle to get the Home Office to stop using a racist algorithm that accelerated applications from white people.

In the UK’s immigration detention system, “Black people are detained significantly longer than white people”.

In housing, the Right to Rent scheme in England makes landlords check immigration status before letting a property. It was ruled unlawful by the high court last year because it “caused landlords to discriminate against British citizens from minority ethnic backgrounds”.

But the Home Office won an appeal this year, and so Right to Rent (and the discrimination it causes) persists in England.

Long waits without documentation

When I applied for a visa extension in 2017, it was back when you had to send away your passport and residency card with your application. The waiting time for a decision on my application was 2 months.

I made a ‘joke’ to my family at the time that I hoped no one died in those 2 months because I didn’t have a passport I could fly back with.

The ILR application wait time is 6 months. I was willing to pay £800 for a 1-day decision to not live with extreme anxiety for half a year, but that option has been suspended because of the pandemic.

There’s a new process in place that lets you keep your passport, but you can’t leave the UK until you get a decision. (Well you can, but it essentially means you withdraw your application.)

Not that I want to fly during a pandemic, but if something happened to a family member before I was granted residency, flying home wasn’t an option until I got a decision on my application.

Nothing happened to my family, thankfully, but others aren’t so lucky. The Home Office has made some immigrants wait YEARS for a decision, leaving them suicidal when they’re not able to visit sick relatives.

For one family, a 6-month wait meant having to wait to bury a husband/father overseas while paying £8k to secure their status to live in the UK after his death.

Financial hurt

Over the last 5 years, I’ve paid £5.4k in visa application fees and health surcharges.

My ILR application fee was £2,389. Yet the actual cost to process an ILR application is £243.

I am profited TEN TIMES over by this government.

Fees have skyrocketed since the hostile environment began. In 2010, an ILR application cost £810.

From 2015 to 2017, the cost of my further leave to remain visa application went from £549 to £993.

While I paid £2,389 for ILR in the UK, for permanent residence in other countries, I would have paid $500 (£294) in Canada, 269€ (£245) in France, and 135€ (£123) in Germany. See the difference?

You might think high fees are inconvenient but not hurtful. I can assure you that when you don’t know the application fee is going to double by the next time you apply, and your only choice is to pay or lose your right to live here, it hurts.

Paying extra for the NHS

We also pay extra for the NHS, even though we already pay for it through taxes like everyone else.

I was ‘lucky’ to last apply when this ‘health surcharge’ was £200 per year. From 27 October 2020 it’ll be £624 per year.

You pay this whether or not you use the NHS, and you pay it all up front. Applying for a 2.5 year visa? You will pay 624x2.5 when you make an application from 27 October. That’s £1560 in NHS fees alone.

Under pressure, the Government removed the health surcharge for certain NHS workers this year.

That’s not enough. It needs to be scrapped entirely. We need to stop ranking immigrants in terms of who’s most deserving.

Being extorted for even more money

Sopra Steria are contracted by the Home Office to run the process around getting applicants’ biometrics (fingerprints and picture). This used to be a free process you did at the local post office.

Now there are centres across the UK where they do this - only 6 of which offer free appointments (and in very limited numbers). During lockdown these centres shut which created a backlog of applications.

When opening back up, Sopra Steria decided to profit off the increased demand by basically removing any free appointments and making those that were available cost £110-£810.

Let me remind you this is IN ADDITION to high application fees and the health surcharge.

Not to mention the Home Office makes you pay £19.20 for biometrics when you submit your application. So what do you pay Sopra Steria for then? Entering a building?

No safety net

Before ILR, immigrants have No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF). The Prime Minister seemed genuinely surprised to learn this in May when MP Stephen Timms brought it to his attention.

The PM said he would look into this. He did nothing. He said immigrants MAY be eligible for some funds.

Sure, you can access funds — if you can prove you are DESTITUTE. If successful, you wait longer to get ILR.

4 years into a 5-year settlement route? You’re placed on a 10-year route or have to start the 5-year route all over again when you become eligible.

Why must you literally have NOTHING before you can get help? And if you get help, why do you have to wait longer, keep paying more insane application fees before you are then somehow more worthy of the social safety net?

We’re in an economic recession. Are we really going to leave a million people at risk of no funds?

Bad stuff happens in life all the time. It shouldn’t have to be at a global scale for us to realise when people need help, we must help them. No arbitrary amount of time you live somewhere should somehow make you less deserving.

NRPF has extreme consequences, including:

  • Killing people’s mental health. How can you live here 11 years and be undeserving of help?

It’ll only kill more people during Covid-19 because many immigrants face the choice of working in unsafe conditions or going hungry.

Separating families

The family visa route is cruel. There is a minimum income requirement (MIR) (£18,600 per year) to sponsor a non-UK partner. More if there are kids needing sponsorship, too.

This thread explains MIR:

Working full-time on minimum wage earns you less than that. Maybe you only work part-time because of childcare. Maybe you just lost your job because we’re in an economic recession.

Don’t have an income? You can also meet MIR with savings - £62,500 minimum and you need to have that for at least SIX MONTHS before you apply.

I spent the start of the pandemic worried about job loss because it could’ve meant I was refused ILR. To think I could lose my right to live here after 9 years because a global crisis meant I no longer had the right financial evidence.

The Home Office literally refuses applications not meeting MIR on the grounds you can continue your relationship “through modern means of communication”. They think you can raise a family over a video call.

MIR separates families again…

…and again…

…and again…

…and again.

Surely the Home Office would remove MIR in an economic crisis? Nope. In June, they said you still have to meet MIR for 6 months. Their only ‘concession’ was if you lost your job between March and 31 July 2020, you could prove you met MIR for the 6 months prior to being let go.

In mid August, they changed that end date to 31 August 2020. ONLY LAST WEEK they updated it to January 2021. They keep delaying guidance until the last possible second, keeping families stressed, anxious, and demoralised.

Take the case of published author Gulwali Passarlay whose wife’s visa was initially rejected. After posting this thread, the decision was overturned.

The statement from the Home Office regarding the decision makes my blood boil. The Home Office spokesperson said: “It is right that there are minimum income requirements for family migration to prevent burdens being placed on the taxpayer.”

THIS IS A LIE. It’s hard to be a burden when we can’t get public funds, get taxed twice for the NHS, and pay taxes.

Demonising asylum seekers

The Government and media portray them as illegal immigrants, but you have to be on British soil to claim asylum. This idea being spewed that you have to claim asylum in the first ‘safe’ country - it’s false.

Yet the Government keeps perpetuating these lies: “Over and over again, civil society organisations have to tell ministers how the law works and explain their own system back to them.”

Even Ben & Jerry’s is trying to explain how asylum works to the Home Secretary - and that maybe we should show some compassion to people fleeing terrible situations.

While there is a refugee resettlement scheme, this was paused in March due to Covid-19 and has not reopened, despite other countries doing so.

Asylum seekers are put through a gruelling process to gain refugee status. This thread talks about how LGBT applicants are often re-traumatised through having to share explicit details of sexual violence they incurred.

It often takes over 6 months to decide on a claim. A time during which they can’t work and are given less than £40 a week to live on.

All that waiting time for nearly 75% to be granted refugee status by the Home Office in the end.

Detaining people for no purpose

The detention system is meant to hold people the Government wants to remove from the UK. But more 60% of those detained are eventually released, putting people through great distress and trauma for nothing.

You can be detained indefinitely in the UK system - only country in Europe to do so.

Yet “when someone is detained for over 28 days their chances of being removed actually decrease”.

On Monday Tory MPs voted against plans to limit detention to 28 days.

Detention literally kills people. From 1989-2017 there were 34 deaths in immigration removal centres. I share a heartbreaking example in the following quote. Note: trigger warning for content on suicide.

Maybe if detention didn’t exist anymore, the Home Office wouldn’t have to worry about producing a 21-page PDF guide on how to deal with deaths in detention.

Pushing people out of legal status

People can come here legally but then lose their status because extortionate visa costs price them out of the system or they ‘break’ the complex rules.

For example, a person’s visa renewal was rejected because they went to Malaysia to bury their dad, breaching their residency requirements. He couldn’t afford to reapply, had a baby on the way in the UK, so became an overstayer.

Once you lose status you “wait 20 years before you’re eligible to start regularising your status, a process that will take you at least another decade”.

Are we really okay with a system that punishes people for 30-plus years because life is “messy and doesn’t fit neatly into boxes”?

Setting up people to be criminalised

I’ll let this tweet from BID explain itself.

Dehumanisation

The ILR application asked if I had any friends in my birth country or any other country I have lived in.

If yes, provide their name, location, and what contact you have with them. If no, “explain why you do not have friends”.

This sent me into tears and made me feel like utter crap.

Screencap of indefinite leave to remain application form asking you to name your friends in your birth country.
Screencap of indefinite leave to remain application form asking you to name your friends in your birth country.
If you select that you do have friends in your birth country, you are asked to provide their personal details and how you keep in contact with them.
Screencap of indefinite leave to remain application form question asking why you have no friends in your birth country.
Screencap of indefinite leave to remain application form question asking why you have no friends in your birth country.
If you select that you do not have friends in your birth country, you are asked why you do not have friends.

I was prepared for the questions that essentially ask, ‘do you really have to live HERE’. I was not prepared for, ‘give us personal data about 3rd parties we have no right to know, or explain what a lonely loser you are’.

The ILR app should just be a formality. If it’s okay to have lived here long enough to reach the settlement stage, you should just be granted settlement. We shouldn’t have to keep proving whether we deserve to live here.

Wrongfully deporting people

You may know about the Windrush Generation: post-WWII immigrants from the Caribbean who came here legally as British subjects. But they didn’t have documentation that specifically said this.

So when the hostile environment started coming into play, they were denied legal rights and in some cases wrongly deported because they didn’t have the ‘right papers’ to prove their legal status.

This led the Home Office to shift tone from saying ‘hostile’ to ‘compliant’ environment, but a review from IPPR (the Institute for Public Policy Research) found “that most policies that caused the Windrush scandal were still in place”.

The goal of this shifted tone “is to continue to make anti-immigration policies a lucrative vote-winner but retreat from the explicit cruelty, lest it dawn on voters that they are complicit in it”.

Putting EU citizens at risk

The next Windrush-like scandal is about to happen next year to the EU citizens that live in the UK. This is because the Government is making EU citizens apply to a settlement scheme by 30 June 2021.

If they don’t, they lose their legal status.

If you’re thinking it’s your own fault if you don’t apply, please check your privilege. A report from the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford shows how vulnerable groups might not know they need to apply or might not have the paper trail evidence to prove their residency in the UK.

This includes:

  • parents who mistakenly think their UK-born kids are citizens
  • digitally illiterate residents
  • young people in care
  • victims of modern slavery
  • people paid in cash

Even if only 1% don’t apply, overnight more than 30,000 lose their legal status on 1 July 2021.

For those who apply to the settlement scheme, they will be negatively affected by the Government’s decision to give digital-only proof of status. Not a physical residency card like I have.

There are consequences to having digital-only proof of status. For instance, not all people who need to check residency status might have the required digital skills to do so.

If a landlord isn’t digitally savvy, who do you think they will prioritise renting to? The Brit with a passport or the EU citizen whose status is hidden behind a technical barrier they don’t have the required skills to access?

Not to mention landlords and employers aren’t aware of this. The transition period isn’t even over yet, and EU citizens are already facing problems.

TL;DR

The UK immigration system hurts people. The hurting needs to stop. Help me stop it.

What you need to do

I’ve told you what you need to know. Now let’s move on to what you need to do.

(And I know this has been a long post, but let me tell you I’ve had to carefully edit down what I wanted to say. This is only a fraction of the hurt this system causes.)

Find your MP

Find your MP and get their contact details.

Learn how to write to your MP

Read this advice from Content Design London on how to write your MP (second tweet):

What to tell your MP

The following are the actions I want to see happen. You might not agree with all of them. You tell your MP what you want to.

But make sure you make it known you do not support an immigration system that actively hurts people.

1. Scrap the Minimum Income Requirement

Families should not be separated by an income requirement. In 2015, 40% of working Brits were earning less than £18,600. That percentage increases for certain demographics.

2. Scrap the Immigration Health Surcharge for all immigrants

We already pay taxes for the NHS like everyone else. Stop the double taxation that’s now about to skyrocket to £624 per year.

3. Eliminate appointment fees charged by UKVCAS (the service run by Sopra Steria)

We already pay £19.20 for biometrics in our application. A 3rd party company should not be able to charge us extra for a compulsory service that we used to do for free at the post office.

4. Reduce application fees

Applications should not cost thousands of pounds per person, when it only costs the Home Office a fraction of this to process. Immigration should not be a for-profit system.

5. Pay immigrants back

Once fees are reduced, those of us who have already paid the ridiculous fees need to be compensated. Our savings should not be compromised just because we had to apply at a time when the Home Office thought they could get away with charging us crippling fees.

6. Scrap No Recourse to Public Funds

We’re in an economic crisis. We can’t deny immigrants support simply because they haven’t lived here the arbitrary number of years needed to access the social safety net. This is not about handouts; it’s about security.

7. Faster application decision times

It should not take half a year (or more) to decide on an ILR application - a time when we can’t travel, access the safety net, or do anything that requires documentation to prove our right to live or work here.

8. Safe and legal routes for asylum seekers

JCWI have policy recommendations on this topic, including introducing humanitarian visas. We should not make asylum seekers risk their lives to make it to British soil to claim asylum.

9. Regularise the legal status for immigrants without it

There are 400k-1 million people without legal status in the UK - many forced out of status by the hostile environment. The Home Office accepts the vast majority will do nothing wrong. Let’s legalise their status.

10. Ensure no EU citizen loses their legal status

We cannot have tens of thousands of EU citizens lose their legal status to live in the UK next July. The onus should be on the Government to protect status by default, not for EU citizens to apply.

11. Provide physical proof of right to live in the UK

Passports aren’t going away, so we cannot create a two-tier society where Brits and non-EU residents have physical proof of their right to live in the UK, while EU citizens only have digital proof.

12. Reinstate 2-year settlement route for families

Spouses and families must wait 5 (and sometimes 10) years to get permanent residency in the UK. It used to be 2 before July 2012. A 2-year route needs to be reinstated to rectify the harm done to families in the last 8 years.

13. End the Right to Rent scheme

Landlords are not border control agents. It was ruled to cause racial discrimination, which led to the scheme being halted from coming to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It should not continue to exist in England.

14. End immigration detention

It causes unnecessary harm (including death). We don’t need to lock people up while their immigration case is being decided. There are community-based alternatives to detention.

15. Create an immigration system co-designed with immigrants

Removing hostile environment policies won’t fix everything. We need a complete overhaul. A system FOR immigrants needs to be designed WITH immigrants.

If you have a voice, use it

I told you not to congratulate me on getting ILR. Equally, after reading this, don’t tell me you’re sorry I had to go through this system.

Tell me you’ll take action and write to your MP.

If you think nothing is going to come of you writing to your MP, let me tell you this: Nothing will happen if you do nothing. But something might happen if you do something.

If you’ve never lived with the feeling that it’s not safe for you to say something, don’t squander that privilege. Use it to create a better society for those who can’t speak out.

If the idea of writing to an MP about a topic you just learned about seems daunting, let me help you. I’m happy to read over what you write or even help you write it.

Stay educated on the topic

After you write your MP, keep educating yourself about what’s happening to immigrants in the UK. Follow organisations like JCWI and Migrant Voice on social media.

If you want to read a book on the subject, I recommend ‘Welcome to Britain: Fixing Our Broken Immigration System’ by Colin Yeo.

If you prefer listening, check out Colin talking about the system on an episode of the Borderline podcast.

A pedantic ending

I’d like to end on a pedantic note. If you know anyone on the digital team at the Home Office, could you tell them there’s a missing apostrophe in the SET(M) form?

They’re so concerned about immigrants’ English language abilities after all.

Screencap of question in SET(M) form missing an apostrophe.
Screencap of question in SET(M) form missing an apostrophe.
Missing apostrophe in the phrase ‘you and your partner’s’ on the SET(M) form.

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