Windrush, hostile environment policies and shifting attitudes to immigration

Rosie Carter - 21 05 18

As revelations about the Windrush Generation scandal continue to emerge, many are calling the issue a pivotal moment in shifting attitudes to immigration. Resulting in Amber Rudd’s resignation as Home Secretary for having “inadvertently misled” MPs over targets for deporting undocumented immigrants, the scandal has ignited national outrage.

At a recent National Conversation on Immigration panel in Bedford, participants spontaneously raised the treatment of the Windrush Generation, unanimous in their view that the group had been unfairly treated.

Surprisingly, those who held strongly hostile attitudes to immigration, at times making prejudiced remarks about Muslims and stressing the negative impact of migration, were the most vocal in their support for the Windrush generation: “What about what they’re doing now to the Jamaicans that came over here and fought in the war, they’ve got no passports, and they want to send them all back?…”

The so-called ‘hostile environment’ policy behind the scandal, was established by Theresa May during her time as Home Secretary, as a deliberate political move – and introduced to reflect the public mood – by a government wanting to be seen as tough on immigration.

From “Go Home” vans to posters in doctors’ waiting rooms, to stop-and-search at bus stops and train stations, to inspections and harassment in businesses, schools, housing services and local communities, the “hostile environment” has singled out migrants and ethnic minorities and whipped up an anti-immigration atmosphere.

A go home can with offensive messages to suspected illegal immigrants
A go-home van driving around London

Attitudes to immigration in Britain are overwhelmingly negative but are slowly getting better. Our research has shown that immigration has become less salient following the EU referendum, with a broader liberal shift in attitudes, and many Euro-sceptics feeling that Brexit will solve the ‘immigration problem’.

Our most recent poll found that 60% of the public see immigration as a good thing for the country while 40% think its effects are negative. This reflects a positive shift since 2011 when 60% felt the UK suffered more than it benefited from immigration. Our polling also finds public attitudes remain hostile towards certain minorities, hardened towards Muslims and most are sceptical about diversity and multiculturalism.

Coverage of the Windrush scandal has given faces and human stories to migrants who have frequently been presented as a nameless mass, as “illegals” or “swarms”. It presents immigrants as people, as British, and exposes the cruelty of the “hostile environment” policy.

Just as the harrowing images of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on the shores of Turkey three years ago changed public attitudes on the refugee crisis, the Windrush scandal has provoked public anger and sympathy across the political spectrum. But sympathy for refugees faded fast from the initial reactions to Alan Kurdi and how much the Windrush crisis will affect public attitudes to immigration more generally is debatable.

Polling by YouGov in the aftermath of Windrush cases coming to light found that an overwhelming majority (78%) of British people wanted Commonwealth citizens who came to Britain many decades ago before immigration rules were tightened to be given the legal right to remain in the UK.

The majority (64%) also felt the government had handled the cases badly but, when people are asked about the “hostile environment” behind the Windrush crisis, polling indicates overwhelming public support for the policy. 71% of people support a policy requiring people to show documents that prove their right to be in Britain in order to do things like rent a flat or open a bank account while just 15% oppose it. It seems that immigration with a human face does not completely distract from broader resentments.

The resignation of Amber Rudd was meaningful for many who have long campaigned against the “hostile environment” as it sent the clear message that treating people decently and respecting the rights of migrants is important to the voting public.

Amber Rudd facing downwards
Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd

Sajid Javid’s appointment as Rudd’s replacement comes with pressures on the Home Office to resolve immigration cases like the Windrush. Javid, the Muslim son of a bus driver, was one of the first to speak out about the scandal, saying, “I thought that could be my mum … my dad … my uncle … it could be me”.

But, as Guardian journalist Gary Younge writes, while there is symbolic value to the appointment of the first ethnic minority Home Secretary, “there is nothing in Javid’s record to suggest his promotion will benefit others with similar backgrounds”. Javid has consistently voted for tougher immigration and asylum laws, including the “hostile environment” policy, and has indicated that he will continue to be “tough on illegal immigration”.

The Windrush crisis has been an important moment in exposing that changing public attitudes to immigration will require more than a smattering of human interest stories.

A name and a face might provoke public support, as shown by the National Conversation’s findings from Bedford, but those participants who were most sympathetic remained hostile to the unnamed and generalised masses.

Changing attitudes on immigration will take more. It will take strong political leadership that stands up for migrants’ rights and does not dive after the lowest common denominator of public opinion.

It will also mean tackling some of the drivers of anti-immigrant rhetoric; addressing discrimination and prejudice towards certain groups, specifically Muslims, better education on diversity, and addressing underlying resentments, like deprivation and inequality.

It is not enough to think revealing the Windrush crisis alone will change attitudes to immigration. If Javid is serious about his much trumpeted “deep concern” about the unfair treatment of migrants in Britain, this is where he must lead.


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