Symbols of the hostile environment

Published by The i paper (7th September, 2020)

Clapton Girls’ Academy has a motto to inspire pupils in one of the poorer parts of London: “Arrive with a dream, leave with a future.” And Chrisann Jarrett seemed to embody its vision after coming to this country aged eight from Jamaica and ending up head girl with a place to study law at the prestigious London School of Economics. “Yes, I was a goody two shoes,” she laughs down the line when we chat. But her dreams were dashed. Despite feeling as British as her classmates, and like them seeing London as her home, this hard-working teenager was told she must pay fees of £17,000 a year since the university saw her as an international student.

This was impossible for the daughter of a single mother, working as a carer with three children. They could not afford holidays, so had never bothered applying for passports, while the Home Office had lost their papers and, discovering they were technically undocumented as a consequence, was trying to formalise their status. “I watched as everyone else went off to university and felt so low,” said Chrisann, who had hit the buffer of harsh reforms to reduce migration introduced by David Cameron’s coalition government. “I even went to the introductory lecture for my course and then realised I was being hopelessly naive. I felt different and ended up wondering if I was to blame, since I thought I had done everything right but was not being accepted as British.”

Eventually she won a scholarship and completed her degree. But while waiting, Chrisann volunteered at a legal charity for children and found she was not alone. “I saw there were so many other kids like me who had lived here and then suddenly discovered they could not go to university since they were not seen as British.”

She is right: one study this year estimated there are 215,000 children living here without immigration status, half of them born in the country. So this determined woman set up a charity to fight for their cause – and now We Belong has published a damning indictment of systemic failure that is blighting young lives. “Normality is a Luxury” is based on interviews with 14 young adults under 25 that have between them spent 198 years in Britain. It shows how lives are “distorted and damaged” by a callous bureaucratic system that sows division, hurts mental health and condemns families to more than a decade of massive financial strain.

Talk to these young adults and you hear tales of life on the edge as they are pitched into a Kafkaesque process that is complex, intrusive, often incompetent, demands huge and constantly rising fees – yet make one mistake and, like a dystopian game of snakes and ladders, applicants slide back down to start the torturous 11-year process to citizenship again.

Ijeoma Moore was born in Nigeria but brought up in Britain since she was two. She knows no other home. But she discovered she was different to her classmates when officials turned up at her home one morning and carted her family off to a detention centre, unlawfully trying to deport them. Then she saw teenage school friends go off to university, but could not join them.

The fragility of her situation, the need to keep winning fresh consent to stay every 30 months, the costs running into thousands of pounds each time, have harmed her mental health – as well as sparking an ambition to become a child psychologist to help others put through this migration mincer. “It puts you in a very bad place with anxiety and depression,” she said. “Even though I’m a legal resident, it feels like they can take it away any time.”

It is horribly cruel for the state to play with young lives in this way, labelling them “temporary migrants” despite strong bonds with Britain. It is also unjust when the only people forced to spend more than a decade rather than the standard five years on the road to citizenship are those on this kind of Limited Leave to Remain. And it perpetuates inequality to demand people from struggling backgrounds pay at least £11,727 in fees before permitting them to become fully-fledged members of their own society.

Some of these fees have more than doubled over the past five years – while families often end up also paying lawyers to help navigate the legal mazes. These energetic people could not be further from phoney stereotypes of migrants milking the system. Yet they are exposing not just their own plight, grim as that is, but something even more disturbing. Their stories show how the evils of the hostile environment, unleashed by Theresa May during her awful stint in the Home Office, still devastate many lives despite such such furore over the Windrush Scandal.

This is underlined by Welcome to Britain, a book by barrister Colin Yeo, that dissects with forensic precision how self-serving politicians deliberately created a costly and complicated system to deter people coming to our country by making their lives as miserable as possible. No doubt Yeo would be dismissed as an “activist lawyer” by Priti Patel since May’s successor aims to stop others following the path taken by her parents.

Yet no one should be fooled: the horrors of the hostile environment have not faded, despite the Government being caught deporting elderly folk in its flawed, discriminatory system. The scandal drags on today – and among its more depressing effects is the impact on many decent young people who find themselves trapped in limbo amid a terror of being ejected from their land. “No matter how much good work we put in, it feels like they are not listening,” said Ijeoma. Sadly, to our collective shame she is right.

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