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Combatting the Hostile Environment: the role of NGOs

By Freya Corcoran

A look into the hostile environment that has been created towards refugees and asylum seekers in the UK and the role of NGOs in combatting it

Painting over Mickey Mouse murals might seem like the most minute of government actions to get fussy about. But immigration minister Robert Jenrick’s instructions to get rid of the cartoons on the wall at an asylum seeker reception centre for children is truly the most representative of actions. It would be difficult to be blind to the hostility that the UK government shows to refugees and asylum seekers and, though a tiny and somewhat trivial action, Jenrick picking a fight over a Mickey Mouse mural in order to make the centre ‘less welcoming’ to asylum seeking children, seems to completely sum up the nature of the government’s attitude towards those who have fled to the UK.

The ‘hostile environment’ that the UK government has created in the last 13 years concerns more than just a mural, and manifests into all areas of policy, rhetoric and actions towards refugees. The term is sometimes used specifically when referring to the introduction of a handful of policies in 2012 by then Home Secretary Theresa May which, in her words, aimed to create “a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants“. But, in the 11 years since that statement was made, the policies of the Conservative government have significantly increased the hostility that the government, and therefore the UK as a whole, show to refugees and asylum seekers. Now, the term ‘hostile environment’ no longer refers to just Theresa May’s 2012 policies, but rather to all government rhetoric, actions and policies which develop or contribute to the anti-refugee sentiment that characterises the Conservative government. 

The impact of the hostile environment, whilst having become a bit of a buzzword in the realm of government immigration policy, should not be trivialised. The implementation of Conservative government policy is to blame for the deaths of refugees and immigrants who did not access emergency medical care in fear of being deported, it’s to blame for employment exploitation, illnesses as a result of overcrowded unsanitary accommodation, rough sleeping, benefit restrictions, and the mistreatment and demonisation of refugees by the media and members of the public. These policies have had a huge impact on the mental and physical wellbeing of those who have arrived in the UK, but there is no evidence to suggest that the policies have achieved their stated aim of forcing people out of the country, or in discouraging refugees from coming to the UK at all. 

In a bid to tackle the hostile environment that has been created by government actions, the role of NGOs and small grassroots and societal organisations has grown to be more and more vital to the appropriate treatment and integration of refugees in UK society. After an abandonment and subsequent complete failure on the government’s behalf, the responsibility has turned to individuals and groups around the UK to support refugees, whether that be through distributions of clothes and other items, or conversation clubs, language exchanges and other efforts to promote integration and allow refugees to have a welcoming social outlet. Organisations like Student Action for Refugees (STAR), and Glasgow-based Refuweegee provide support in material and social capacities. Between them, organisations like these are filling the gap of government provisions of money, clothes and hygiene items, and creating a space that is welcoming and supportive for asylum seekers and refugees to use and socialise in. Small, community based groups and charities like STAR are essential in combating the hostile environment that has been created by the Conservative government, but on top of the services they provide to refugees and asylum seekers, their advocacy and awareness efforts play a huge role in shifting the public narrative surrounding refugees who are arriving or already living in the UK. 

Another significant issue surrounding the rhetoric that current cabinet ministers are using about displaced peoples is the impact that it has on wider public opinion and behaviour towards those that government policy is seeking to impact. The use, particularly by the Tory governments of that last 13 years, of anti refugee rhetoric has been seen to feed the far right. There are significant correlations between the rise of anti-refugee hostility within society and the use of negative and aimed language towards refugees by politicians and the media. The role of NGOs in advocating for refugee rights, even just the promotion of positive ideas surrounding refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, is central to increasing positive attitudes and behaviour towards a group of already incredibly vulnerable adults and children. 

Social and societal integration is absolutely essential for refugees in every country, in order to maintain their dignity and mental and physical wellbeing, but also to encourage and maintain social cohesion and minimise the ability for a sense of an ‘other’ to be created towards them. The UK’s asylum accommodation system makes it incredibly difficult for refugees to integrate and involve themself in the communities they are based in, especially considering the restrictions that the government has placed on NGOs accessing asylum accommodation like Weathersfield barracks, but still in Weathersfield, and all around the UK, NGOs and small charities are making huge efforts to ensure that integration and socialisation exist for the refugees who are being housed in dispersal accommodation. 

This is true also for those who have been granted asylum in the UK. It is difficult, in your second language, in a country where you know very few people, in an often randomly allocated place, to be proactive about integrating yourself into the community in which you are living. This is amplified by the hostile environment that has manifested into areas of public opinion towards refugees. But the vitality of cohesion, integration and socialisation, and the importance of creating a welcoming space for refugees to insert themselves into, is so key both to maintaining the positive mental attitudes of refugees, and subsequently in encouraging positive attitudes from society towards them, and the maintenance of those spaces and opportunities comes down to the roles that NGOs play in integration and advocacy efforts. 

All of this is representative of the strong and widespread desire by the conservative government to increase hostility towards refugees. But, much like painting over Mickey Mouse murals, none of their efforts seem to achieve anything of their intentions. Rwanda, the Bibby Stockholm, the Illegal Migration Bill; none of the government’s efforts are enough to put people off their dream of coming to the UK. None of it is worse than the things they’ve endured at home, and so it achieves nothing. Nothing but mental and physical discomfort, significant mental health declines, suicide atttempts, physical illnesses, and refugees on hunger strike. So maybe the Mickey Mouse mural wasn’t the worst of Jenrick’s actions at all, and in comparison with the Rwanda policy – which was this week deemed unlawful by the supreme court – it seems incredibly minor. But looking at the wider scope of government actions towards refugees and asylum seekers, Mickey Mouse seems to sum it up completely. 


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