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Hostile Environment by Maya Goodfellow review – how immigrants became scapegoats | Books


Nora arrived from north-east Africa in 2001 when she was 17. Desperate for their daughter to escape civil war, Nora’s family managed to sell enough of their valuables to buy her a one-way ticket to the UK. Not long after her 18th birthday, her application for asylum was rejected for the fifth time. Without a work permit, any form of identification or state support, she became homeless for the first 10 years of her adult life. About five years in, she realised that her only means of survival was to return to the place that had jeopardised it in the first place. But when Nora arrived at the embassy, she was told that she could not return without the relevant asylum status proving where she came from – the very status she had been denied. It turned out that the Home Office was not telling her to “go home”. They were telling Nora to disappear, condemning her to a life of statelessness and invisibility.

This is just one of many raw experiences that Maya Goodfellow sensitively navigates with explosive effect in Hostile Environment. From Winston Churchill to Windrush and Tony Blair to Brexit, this archival critique and collection of interviews is one of the most profound deconstructions of UK immigration policy that exists.

Goodfellow teaches us that racism does not just arise out of thin air. When a country gets high on the global enslavement of black and brown people, the least you can expect is a stinking colonial hangover. Clement Attlee signed the 1948 British Nationality Act; nationals of British colonies were given the right to live in Britain as citizens. Hailed by many as an end to the colonial treatment of labourers, in reality this was a desperate attempt to hold together what remained of the British empire. Citizenship was extended primarily as a means of facilitating free movement between “old” Commonwealth countries – the “White Dominions” such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The arrival of 500,000 non-white people from the Caribbean was merely an unintended consequence.

Successive governments did everything they could to maintain Britain’s image as a global Commonwealth power without jeopardising racial purity. The 1962 and 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Acts significantly limited their right or entry, effectively reducing those already living here to second-class citizens. And in 1971, Commonwealth citizens lost their automatic right to remain in the UK. Most significantly, the burden of proof of this status was shifted entirely on to the individual, even though it was the government who had called it into question.

By the time Theresa May said she wanted to make Britain a “hostile environment” for those whom she called “illegal migrants”, the legislation was already in place. Goodfellow forcefully dismantles the idea that the Windrush scandal was a deviance from the norm. Rather, it was the latest chapter in a longstanding quest to “Keep England White”. In explaining how the history of modern Britain is, in part, a history of white supremacy, her book is both brave and powerful.

There’s no greater proof of this bravery than the breadth of the author’s critique. Not only does Goodfellow condemn years of anti-immigrant rhetoric, she also targets the dominant discourse that has not done enough to resist it. She does this by spelling out a conundrum – and it’s done with incredible clarity. She acknowledges that progressive actors have made a compelling economic case for immigration. In doing so, they have valiantly challenged myths that seek to scapegoat immigrants for home-grown problems, the kind of falsehoods that contributed to the Brexit referendum result in 2016. However, she also delivers an urgent caution: we cannot allow immigrants’ worth to be defined by their economic contribution. That’s because, first, this does nothing to challenge the kind of system they are contributing to. If we spoke out against the way in which multinational companies seek out the most exploitable workforce, we could more powerfully resist the fable that immigrants are the ones driving down wages. Goodfellow’s writing is a rallying cry for working-class communities and people of colour to fight together against injustice, defying those who would rather they fought against each other.

Second, our political responsibility towards migrants is not dependent on fiscal value. Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are not commodities to be imported; they are people with human rights. Goodfellow has a talent for harvesting outrage into action; she lays the foundation for an immigration policy that’s grounded in humanity – an immigration system that legislates for the needs of migrants, not just British citizens. An immigration system; that shows compassion for human beings in need, rather than illegalising their existence; that scrutinises our borders, rather than demonising those who are desperate enough to cross them.

The concluding chapter, a radical manifesto, foreshadows many of the proposals that came out of this year’s Labour party conference. Ending the hostile environment, closing down detention centres, extending the vote to migrants, reforming our curriculum and increasing legal aid. And it’s only because of such people as Goodfellow that these proposals made it into this year’s Labour manifesto – that policymakers are beginning to put humanity at the centre of immigration reform. She has proved herself a champion of migrant justice; we would be foolish not to keep listening.

Hostile Environment is published by Verso (RRP £12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.

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