Roy’s Story and the Hostile Environment Turned Toxic

by Dawn M. Sanders

As the UK Conservative party has recently been preoccupied with a leadership crisis, scandals, gross mismanagement and their own ideological policies, particularly over the last twelve years, the human fallout of such ideologies and precarious positions many have found themselves in, has been swept aside with callous and malice. This is one man’s story of getting caught up in the trickle-down ideological consequences of policy then cultural trends.

I just pray for all the other people out there who are going through this and facing all the nightmare, crazy people who really don’t give a damn about them – they just look at a piece of paper and make a decision. I hope they open their eyes and look at that person – seeing that person as human.” Roy Harrison

Photo of Roy Harrison standing in a flat. Photo by Jezebel Romaine
Photo by Jezebel Romaine

Roy Harrison, 44, is a Londoner born into shaky beginnings in Jamaica and was brought here to live at age 7. His upbringing with a cruel and abusive aunt (who had come here during the Windrush period) meant he spent his formative years in and out of foster care and children’s homes. He managed to move through life, school and college, as things were okay, before his world was turned upside down. He had a place of his own and was creating a gardening business. 

During the 2011 youth riots, Harrison entered a shop looking for his son, who wasn’t there and he emerged empty-handed. He had been caught on CCTV leaving the shop. Some two years later, as footage during the riots from CCTV had been plastered on billboards – signposted everywhere, on his way to a gardening job, he was pulled over by a police officer, arrested and taken into custody. The only reason he was given for being charged; was he was caught on CCTV coming out of the shop empty-handed. Harrison’s account of parts of his life are blurred with bewilderment and patchy recollections due to trauma, so a mutual friend, wishing to be known as M has filled in many blanks, as she fulfilled an unofficial advocate’s role and solid support as a close friend during Harrison’s harrowing ordeal. Despite his innocence and according to M, Harrison was coerced into pleading guilty for something he didn’t do, inevitably resulting in a miscarriage of justice – prolonging his incarceration. 

After serving roughly 9 months in Belmarsh Prison, a notoriously harsh regime with the most violent offenders, thinking he was up for release, he was moved to an immigration detention centre. He says: “From there I was moved from one place to another – touring the country. It was always somewhere where friends or loved ones couldn’t get to.” Immigration officials informed him a deportation order had been issued and: “That is when my whole world was turned upside down –already upside down having been taken into custody.

At the time of interview, in M’s high rise flat in the heart of London, just down the road in Westminster, yet another Tory government had disintegrated, as Liz Truss had just resigned the shortest, most shambolic premiership in British history. Days before that latest collapse, Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, had been ousted. However, weeks before, at the Conservative party conference, Braverman had announced her dream of seeing a plane load of asylum-seekers on their way to Rwanda – a continuation of the infamous ‘Hostile Environment’ of her predecessor, Priti Patel handed down by the architect of the programme, Theresa May, Home Secretary from 2010-2016.

In the 25 years during the Windrush Generation, 1948-1973 the JCWI (Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants) reports the destruction of landing cards by the Home Office, of a willing workforce of mainly Caribbean citizens transported to the UK, to rebuild after World War II. This destruction of crucial identification and granted legal status, would inevitably pave the way toward the present and prevailing Hostile Environment. It reflects an underlying prejudice, undermining and devaluing of the lives of those brought here to start afresh as commonwealth citizens – contributing to the infrastructure and economic wellbeing of the UK.

The above JCWI cites the failed Windrush Lessons Learned Review; commissioned by Home Secretary Sajid Javid (during Theresa May’s premiership) and the fact only 5.8% of Windrush victims have received compensation, coupled with 23 deaths from stolen livelihoods, due to the domino-effect of such harsh policies. Homes, jobs, bank accounts and lifelines, such as medical treatment were lost or cut off from people, as they had their legal records deliberately destroyed within the shredder of a discriminatory system. Therefore, as Wendy Williams, HM Chief Inspector of the Constabulary, pointed out in an independent report – given the sabotaging of legal status of many from the Windrush generation, the scandal was no accident. This piece in the Guardian, highlights a chronology from policy implementation, resonating through the ranks of the police, judicial system, into wider society – creating cultural divisions, not to mention unrest among migrants or communities of colour. 

Unfortunately for Mr. Harrrison, as M has unearthed in recent years to try and reinstate his settled status, during his years in care when it came to his leave-to-remain, forms were marked as N/A. At some point his British passport had been lost, making him an easy target for an attempted deportation during his incarceration. He described appealing for bail many times, but officials would often cite unsubstantiated reasons to keep him in, such as ‘he was a danger to the public’. They would ask the same things repeatedly, but as far as they were concerned, he was lying about everything.

Rudy Schulkind, Research and Policy Manager for BID (Bail for Immigration Detainees) a London-based organisation, describes the bail process for those being held in detention centres: “If you’re in detention you can apply to be released on bail, either to the home office whose detaining you or the tribunal. We help people applying to the tribunal, because we think that’s your best chance of actually getting out.” Schulkind describes how BID assist in the application process – the application is listed with the court and a hearing is set, both with a barrister representing the detainee and a representative from the home office. Successful applicants are granted bail and released when they have accommodation lined up – unsuccessful applicants must wait 28 days before reapplying.   

Harrison recounts being released and recalled – in and out too many times to count. Ill-treated while in detention – staff entering his cell without knocking, repetitive interrogation and him avoiding medical treatment with the prospect of being chained to a hospital bed. It must be remembered, he is not a refugee, but a child of a legal guardian of the Windrush generation. While the Hostile Environment was created to deter immigrants seeking refugee status in the UK, it would inevitably supersede to the Windrush generation and their children. In fact, as teachers, employers or landlords were encouraged to question anyone looking or sounding foreign, irrespective of whether they were born here or not, it would ultimately create a culture war and all out-witch hunt. As the above chronology points out, parts of London were patrolled with Caven vans saying, ‘go home.’ So pervasive was the creation of policies which led to the Hostile Environment – even those who worked within the apparatus of government, not only knew the strategy wouldn’t work, but despised putting it into practice, as the system was dehumanised by automation and a succession of home Secretaries all too happy to continue the status quo.

When considering alternatives to the detention system, Schulkind says: “I think it’s quite simple – shut them down and put people in appropriate accommodation if they don’t have it.” He carries on citing, creating opportunities for liberty, dignity and the chance to participate in their communities, working better for the individual, society and the government – avoiding the high cost of detainees and creating a more humane environment of social cohesion.  

According to the Migration Observatory, latest figures suggest it costs £107 per day per detainee or as of March, 2022, 94 million in the last year. Despite the home office citing detention as an administrative process, migrants are criminalised and routinely report inhumane conditions. Most relevant, the home office reports up to 112 members of the Windrush generation may have been held illegally from 2002. Although the above source suggests a decrease in detainees, between 2016 and 2019, during the Windrush scandal, the UK still operates the most draconian detention system in Europe, as only recent measures introduced automatic bail applications after 4 months. As our friend M pointed out, at least in prison you know when you will be released, but with detention, you do not. Also, according to the Observatory, The Joint Select Committee on Human Rights, implemented more face-to-face contact between case workers and detainees and more scrutiny of decisions by case workers, but by that time, Harrison and scores of others, had already served a prolonged detention.

When asked how he copes with daily life, as he spoke with stoicism and a refusal to be broken, Harrison said: “At the moment, I’m still hoping and waiting to get my medical issues sorted. Basically, I’m not entitled to anything, nothing at all – no benefits or anything. I’m literally supposed to just curl up and die and I refuse to do that, I’m sorry! I just get on with it – maybe it’s just pride and determination.” Despite being free for 4 years, Harrison still hasn’t had his leave-to-remain status reinstated, so currently lives in a caravan in someone’s garden, while working an allotment and other odd jobs to survive. It creates living on tenterhooks, uncertainty and languishing in limbo, being deprived of his once legal status.

Despite any manoeuvres to rectify the Windrush debacle and the harm it caused to those of that generation and their children, the appointment of Priti Patel as Home Secretary under Boris Johnson, introduced a toxic element to the Hostile Environment, with a hard-line stance on immigration and other human rights concerns. Suella Braverman, reappointed under Rishi Sunak, after Braverman’s brief fall from grace under Truss, has seemingly taken the toxicity to new and dangerous heights. After inflammatory remarks preceding a visit to Manston Migrant Detention Centre, cloaked in derision and shunning the media, the former Attorney General, signals a continuum of Patel’s lack of compassion with no pretentious rhetoric to veil her willingness to defy international law, which comes as an added blow to human rights in the UK

I just pray for all the other people out there who are going through this and facing all the nightmare, crazy people who really don’t give a damn about them – they just look at a piece of paper and make a decision. I hope they open their eyes and look at that person – seeing that person as human.” – Harrison said. 

Unfortunately, as long as there are people at the top of the ruling-class of a mentality which harbours a kind of unyielding racism providing the very bedrock for policy programmes, such as the Hostile Environment in all its implications, things aren’t looking hopeful, culturally, socially or politically. Fortunately, by the same token, there is a wealth of advocacy and support within communities and small organisations –alive with strength and resilience, manifesting in people like Roy Harrison.      

© 2022

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