The departure of Amber Rudd as home secretary has increased the pressure on the government to wind back the hostile environment, although without much hope of success, given that its architect remains prime minister. Less debated is that the hostile environment is essential to the success of Brexit on the government’s current terms, so is unlikely to be touched unless Brexit is abandoned.
Defenders of the hostile environment describe the thousands of immigrants caught up in it as the collateral damage of a system designed to root out illegal immigrants. But the system is designed to affect anyone in regular contact with government offices, doctors, landlords and so on. Its purpose is to reduce immigration below the Tories’ arbitrary targets by making everyday life so difficult for immigrants that fewer will come and more will leave, either voluntarily or involuntarily.
The end of EU freedom of movement will shrink the pool of EU migrants prepared to accept low wages, and leave a landscape where no migrant can afford to accept low wages because of the steep minimum income requirements now set by the Home Office. The hostile environment will create additional pressure on migrants to leave, or not to settle here in the first place.
The only recourse for unscrupulous employers seeking the cheapest labour will be (a) robots and (b) illegal immigrants—and robot technology can’t cover everything yet. Or the government could remove all protections for UK workers, and cut welfare, to force desperate people into working for pennies, but who could imagine any Tory government doing that? (Oh. Right.) A Labour government, at least, might be expected to protect welfare and workers’ rights, but will therefore need to turn a blind eye to illegal immigration—or police it.
Cross-border trade in Ireland has been a key Brexit stumbling block for the UK government, but nobody is talking much about how an unpoliced Irish border will continue to allow the free movement of people into a country which has rejected the legal protections of Freedom of Movement. Without a Trumpian wall along its entire 499km, let alone around the entire British coastline, the only way to police that movement will be to maintain a hostile environment that affects every migrant: an environment where anyone who looks or sounds as if they don’t belong is asked for their papers, by the police, the authorities, or their proxies, willing or unwilling.
Such a system will encourage, rather than discourage, illegal immigration of the most extreme kind: not just overstaying of tourist visas, but people smuggling. Any unscrupulous employer intending to use illegal immigrant labour in a hostile environment has to go all-in, controlling every aspect of where and how those workers live to keep them out of sight. In such an environment we’re likely to see more, not fewer cases of people being kept in slave labour conditions.
The expansion of the EU may have been one of the triggers for Brexit, but it also kept a lid on these contradictions by providing the UK with a pool of cheap labour when its booming economy wanted it, avoiding any immediate need to find it elsewhere. Without it, governments may have been forced to confront them much sooner.
Tighter controls on legal migration, in a capitalist economy that depends on low-wage workers, lead to the erosion of welfare and workers’ rights, or increased illegal immigration, or increased automation with associated loss of jobs, or all of the above. Increased illegal immigration can either be ignored or policed; if policed, it creates a hostile environment for migrants—which drives down legal migration, leads to the erosion of welfare, etc.
Some Leave voters on the left may have hoped that leaving the EU would highlight these contradictions, trigger a crisis of capitalism, and lead to a socialist Britain. But socialism isn’t the only possible endpoint of such a crisis. In an anti-migrant atmosphere, where every resident is watching or being watched by every other, another endpoint is fascism.