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Our broken immigration system needs to change

Our broken immigration system needs to change
4 min read

Fail to end the Tories hostile environment for once and for all and the scenes of Glasgow last week will soon become the scenes of Manchester, Birmingham, London or Cardiff.

Much has been written and said about Theresa May’s time in the Home Office and the “hostile environment” that she created in the field of immigration and asylum. In fairness to Mrs May, the environment was far from benign when she took on the job in 2010 but what followed formalised much of what she had found and then built on it.

It was one of the constant areas of disagreement in the coalition with Nick Clegg in particular having to play whack-a-mole, putting down ever more illiberal initiatives like the “Go Home” vans as they emerged from the Home Office. 

In 2015 with the election of a majority Conservative government, the brakes were taken off completely until, in 2018, the Windrush Scandal laid bare the dreadful consequences of the policy. Thereafter, the hostile environment was disavowed, and it was consigned to the dustbin of history. Except, of course, it wasn’t.

The quality of initial decision making is poorer than in almost any other government department

Our immigration and asylum systems remain hostile to applicants in all but name only.  The same officials in the same department take the same approach with the same outcomes.  Any MP caseworker, legal practitioner or advisor in a Citizens Advice Bureau will tell you the same story. Any ambiguity, no matter how slight or how nuanced, will always be construed against the interests of an applicant. The quality of initial decision making is poorer than in almost any other government department. For those applicants able to appeal the success rate at appeal is astonishingly high. The system is broken.

The consequences of that broken system hit the streets of Glasgow and the news headlines last week when crowds gathered in Kenmure Street to stop the deportation removal of two local men.  This is one of Glasgow’s most diverse and multi-cultural areas and as its substantial Muslim community was celebrating Eid then a modicum of sensitivity would have alerted you to the possibility of this ending badly – and it did.

Police Officers and immigration officials quickly found themselves at the heart of a hostile environment of a completely different kind as the van in which the men were being carried was surrounded and halted.  Eventually the divisional commander in charge of policing took the only decision he could have done in the circumstances and ordered the release of the men to defuse the situation.

The Home Office response was as swift as it was predictable.  The crowds were branded “a mob” and media were briefed on the immigration histories of the men involved. 

Equally swift and predictable was the response of Scottish Nationalists who managed to turn this from an issue about immigration into one about Scottish independence citing this as yet another thing that would never happen in an independent Scotland.  Welcome to Scottish politics 2021.

I am sure I am not the only person who felt some unease seeing the way events unfolded.  For all its insensitivity, the removal of these two men was on the face of it a lawful act.  Police were placed in an uncomfortable position, particularly when the threat from the coronavirus pandemic remains acute.

The rule of law is an essential part of any democratic society – and that is precisely why our immigration system has to change. Because the rule of law cannot be maintained through the belligerent enforcement of a system so broken, and with so little credibility and integrity, that it produces a reaction of this sort.

The only certainty in all this is that we cannot allow this to continue.  That way lies anarchy.  Now is the moment to bury the hostile environment for once and for all and replace it with a system rooted in respect, fairness and (if necessary) compassion.  Fail to do so and the scenes of Glasgow last week will soon become the scenes of Manchester, Birmingham, London or Cardiff. 


Alistair Carmichael is the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland.

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