I’ve experienced the hostile environment – that’s why I’m determined to end it

I arrived in the UK just over eleven years ago from Brazil, eager and ready to build my career and life many thousands of miles away from home.

Fast forward to 2018 and I have just received in the post my first British passport. Hooray? Yes, hooray now, but even though I was lucky enough to first “enter” the UK immigration system in pre-“hostile environment” times, the journey from being a Brazilian citizen to a British one hasn’t been easy.

There were the exorbitant fees – for a spousal visa, indefinite leave to remain, and finally citizenship – the intrusive document requests, the unnecessarily vicious questions from border security at airports, and the underlying feeling that nags away at most immigrants in the UK – the feeling that you are a second-class citizen.

Sometimes it is not just a feeling and your status is made very clear to you. For instance, when I gave notice of marriage a couple of years ago, because my indefinite leave to remain label was in an expired passport – which is allowed by the Home Office – the computer said “no” and the Home Office ignored the registrar’s note saying she was satisfied I had the right to be in this country. Cue, a letter arriving in the post notifying me and my husband-to-be that we are being investigated to ensure we are not about to embark in a sham marriage. It was only after I wrote my own strongly-worded letter back to them pointing out their mistake, that they decided to apologise and confirm we were actually not under investigation.

Why am I writing about my personal experience? Because that’s what motivated me to apply for the party’s immigration and identity working group. The work we have been doing for the last 18 months – with fantastic people from a range of backgrounds – has resulted in the policy paper that we are presenting at conference next month.

We spent months collecting evidence and consulting with interested groups and individuals. Many organisations gave evidence, among them British Future, who have been conducting research with Hope not Hate; the Refugee Council, who helpfully detailed some of the problems with the UK’s asylum and detention systems; and expert lawyers, who gave evidence about visa processes. As we were drafting the paper, I was grateful to see that the policy group was on the same page. We all wanted migration and asylum policies that were compassionate, positive, humane and realistic. After all, it is not inconceivable that the Liberal Democrats could be in government again, so our policies need to not promise things we can’t deliver.

But realism doesn’t mean being inhumane, xenophobic and cruel, the characteristics that have defined Theresa May’s period as Home Secretary and Prime Minister. We are proposing to scrap the “hostile environment” and implement structural and cultural changes that will see migrants, as well as asylum seekers and refugees treated fairly and with dignity.

We will also end the unfair spousal income threshold meaning British citizens will no longer have to prove they earn a certain amount and have property or savings in order to bring their husbands and wives to the UK. Liberal Democrats are not in the business of cruelly separating families and will put an end to this vile policy.

Recently, when applying for my first British passport, I was asked to give pages and pages of irrelevant information about my family, which I refused to do. Despite having already been granted citizenship, I was then summoned to attend an interview, so my identity could be confirmed. Up until that moment, I felt I was still being treated like garbage. I had to call the passport office a number of times to confirm my appointment and never received an email with details of what to do on the day.

Even though I am a British citizen and now have my passport, I still get this nagging feeling that because I wasn’t born here, I will continue to be seen as foreign for as long as Theresa May’s “hostile environment” exists.

For that reason, I was personally keen to push for language in our paper that reflected our intention, as Liberal Democrats, to create liberal and compassionate migration and asylum policies. We want to celebrate people who, like me, have chosen to make Britain their home. We are determined to care for those who turn to our country in their hour of need, and to strive to help communities to integrate and welcome all newcomers. I am confident we have achieved that.

* Thais Portilho is Head of Communications at ActionAid International and Vice-Chair of the Immigration and Identity policy working group.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and Party policy and internal matters.


  • Glad as I would be to see the spouse minimum income threshold done away with, what your policy does keep in place is the “no recourse to public funds” rule which applies not only to immigrants but to their British spouses. My husband worked for a company that went bankrupt soon after we married so he lost his job through no fault of his own. Thanks to having married me, he was no longer eligible for jobseekers’ allowance, we couldn’t get housing benefit or council tax benefit, and bailiffs were after us for years.

    No Recourse to Public Funds is an illiberal notion that causes unnecessary hardship. It has no place in a Lib Dem policy; we can do so much better than this.

  • James Belchamber 24th Aug '18 - 10:15am

    Thank you for your work, this is truly a much more Liberal policy than anything the opposition is pushing for and you should be proud of it.

  • Thais Portilho 24th Aug '18 - 11:13am

    Hi Andrew, many thanks for taking the time to comment. I’ll address your comments in bullet points:

    – the paper very clearly says we will end the “hostile environment” which is more than just a single policy, it’s a culture that permeates every government activity linked to immigration and asylum. And Lib Dem policy will be to end it.
    – I agree with you on the five-year rule and we will support any amendments that seek to change it to two years, which is a reasonable amount of time. To clarify, the “no recourse to public funds” in our policy categorically does not apply to UK spouses.
    – I very clearly want a system that is better than the one I’ve been through and our policy paper reflects that.

    All the best,

  • Thais Portilho 24th Aug '18 - 12:09pm

    Holly, hi! Thanks for the comment. I remember you shared your story with us at the meeting we had recently and I’m sorry you had to go through such a difficult time, it’s really upsetting. To make very clear, as in my above response to Andrew, the “no recourse to public funds” rule in our policy does not apply to the UK spouse, only to the spouse coming to join them. So under our policy, your husband would have been eligible to claim benefits. I hope that clarifies it.

    Best wishes,

  • Lorenzo Cherin 24th Aug '18 - 1:22pm

    Excellent piece from Thais.

    As Andrew discovers, and Holly, misunderstanding in this party is caused by hot heads and expression of this to people not needing such .

    Next time I refer to the decent Green and Libertarian parties, maybe the inviting me to join UKIP might be avoided, as I welcome the references both Andrew and Holly make, share their anger, but think it is not racist to listen and look into the mind set of people not of one’s own mind or view in order to find out about what is best for Britain.

    I cannot comment on crime in London if I do not find out about drill music and gang culture.

    To do this is not to like this. I loathe both. I loathe bigotry.

    I do not presume every young black male is in a gang listening to drill music and do not presume every supporter of Brexit concerned about immigration increases is a racist.

  • Adam Bernard 24th Aug '18 - 2:31pm

    The system proposed still retains means-testing – see §4.2.2: The rules before 2012 [which the paper proposes adopting] required the applicant spouse or partner to show there would be no extra recourse to public funds in the United Kingdom.

    Can you confirm that this is still going to mean that — for instance where both partners are unable to work due to disability — they are probably going to be forbidden to live together?

  • Tony Greaves 24th Aug '18 - 3:05pm

    You don’t get rid of a hostile environment from a body like the Home Office that is institutionally incompetent and culturally racist simply by saying you are getting rid of it. You get rid of it by clearly and explicitly removing all the policies that allow it to flourish.

  • “You don’t get rid of a hostile environment from a body like the Home Office that is institutionally incompetent and culturally racist simply by saying you are getting rid of it. You get rid of it by clearly and explicitly removing all the policies that allow it to flourish.”

    Indeed and exactly.

  • @Tony Greaves

    “You don’t get rid of a hostile environment from a body like the Home Office that is institutionally incompetent and culturally racist simply by saying you are getting rid of it. You get rid of it by clearly and explicitly removing all the policies that allow it to flourish.”

    Policy transferred from the home office to dept for business, dept for education, DFID. This is particularly important as departments for business and education will want to work with their sectors to ensure visa applications are pleasant.

    An annual debate in Parliament on the operation of migration – bringing to the fore the damning inspector’s reports on the process of decisions – particularly on asylum.

    A Canadian style system for work visas

    End arbitrary caps on work visas- abolish the net migration target

    Allowing international students to work here for 2 years after graduating

    A new unit in DfE to reduce costs and bureaucracy for student visas

    Teaching and projects in schools about migration

    New visas for elderly parents/grandparents including a two year visitor visa.

    Reduction in cost of child visas

    Proper training and skills and time for officials considering asylum applications in an unit within DFID and recruiting officials from outside the civil service

    A new unit to support asylum seekers

    The right for asylum seekers to work (after 3 months)

    Expand the Syrian refugee resettlement programme to other conflict zones

    And so on…. people can read the paper for themselves. I am sure that probably officials will continue to be jumped officious bureaucrats – we all know they can be all departments but there is reams of policy of practical steps to ending the hostile environment.


    I might have more time for Lord Greaves if he had bothered to turn up to the House of Lords to support amendments to the 2014 Immigration Act or if had resigned the Lib Dem whip during the coalition if he thought things were so bad.

    As to LDI’s proposals – some I have already dealt with in a previous comment, some are very vague, some might lead to racist outcomes. With the amendments for LD4SOS – half dozen extra recommendations and may be some other amendments this seems to me to be the basis for a reasonable policy. And as Suzanne Fletcher of LD4SOS has written we will be letting down many people in terrible circumstances if we don’t move forward.

  • suzanne Fletcher 25th Aug '18 - 11:26am

    I’ve just done a comment to this. spent quite a bit of time writing and most upset when I tried to post it said “go back and shorten” and it has all disappeared.
    I haven’t time to do that. posting this in case it is lurking in an LDV vault somewhere and I can split into 2.

  • @Andrew Hickey

    There are a number of points on this. Firstly the bumph at the end of papers says that not all working group members necessarily agree with the whole of the paper so it is unfair to blame Thais personally for that. Secondly I support the reduction back to two years and hope there will be amendment to that effect. The whole point having a draft policy that is put to conference to discuss and amend or reject.

    To say that we should have some rules around visas is not the same as having a hostile environment. There is a debate around whether there should be financial requirements and if so exactly what those should be. The pre-2012 position, though, is a very long standing one.

    @Suzanne Fletcher

    Your comments have been highly useful so if you can bear it and have time it would I am sure be very useful if you could retype it. I am not technical but it is probably unlikely that it got uploaded anywhere. As a tip – as I have lost comments with my browser crashing (and it is really, really irritating!) especially for long ones, you might want to type it into a word processor and then copy and paste it. (RIGHT clicking on the mouse in the comment box should give you menu allowing you to paste or press CTRL and V). I normally also copy and paste between the comment box and a word processor just before uploading (or at regular intervals) – just in case something goes wrong.

  • suzanne Fletcher 25th Aug '18 - 3:24pm

    Briefer version of what before, without re-reading comments, so hope makes sense.
    Thank you Thais for sharing your experiences and thoughts. Important for those of us who want to understand and have had the relief of not having gone through them.
    My problem is the tone of much of the wording of the policy paper, and motion, and it would have been so much better if it reflected such as Thais is talking about. There however good policies in there, and that is what we need to concentrate and build on.
    I’ve come across a lot of issues this week with asylum seekers and new refugees, around awful housing problems; long waits for decisions so life in limbo for years and years; Christians that fled because of their belief not being believed; Less than 28 days not being long enough to find accommodation and enough to put in to be able to live; a group working with gay asylum seekers who cannot “prove” they are gay. Yesterday I saw 2 large Border Force vans filling up with petrol and even peace loving, law abiding, me had the urge to slash the tyres. They would be picking up asylum seekers not believed and taken to an immigration detention centre where they would be detained and have no time limit. Some would be sent back to dangerous places. More than half would come back into the community after months or years of being kept there at huge expense, had a traumatic time and for no good reason.
    Policies in the paper, enhanced by those in the LD4SOS amendment a at http://libdemfocus.co.uk/ld4sos/archives/1371 , would deal with all of these issues, and many more – these were just some I happened to come by in the last few days. We aren’t going to be coming to Government soon, but we can promote our policies, campaign on them, work with others on them, and most of give hope to those in these dreadful situations that a body of people do care, are angry at the present system, and have good and workable solutions. Not utopia, not the ideal, but very possible indeed.
    (to be continued)

  • suzanne Fletcher 25th Aug '18 - 3:25pm

    (continued from last comment, sorry long – but important I feel – and apologies for those with expertise in other areas it concentrates on asylum and refugee issues – but that is what LD4SOS is about).
    Our amendments have not taken out half the motion – but have clearly and constructively improved the wording, and could be taken as drafting amendments. Others are building on or proposing new policies. We are very disappointed that we have not had the chance to discuss this in any way with the movers of the motion, but not given up hope quite yet. Most importantly, we have not given up on giving HOPE for those that need it most. They are not bothered about wording of motions, they and people working with and for them are extremely interested in the actual policies, and we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  • Thanks firstly for some useful posts which genuinely I found useful and helpful. It is a little difficult to disentangle all of this. Let me try with an example. And that is suppose the party was looking at benefits including the sanction regime around job seekers allowance etx. Now I have known and helped many people as part of a job I had for 15 years with problems around benefits and have been in severe hardship because of sanctions and even personally lent them money to tide them over. I think most people claiming benefits would say that they are at times treated officiously and as second class citizens by the DWP.

    How would I judge such a policy being as hopefully I am a liberal? Hopefully that it took steps to treat claimants better. That it had policies to improve the benefits system generally. Suppose it kept but liberalised the sanction regime. I would have to judge whether this went far enough, was “reasonable” and what amendments were put in on it to conference.

    I, you and all Lib Dems have to make a similar judgement over this immigration policy. As outlined above I think there is a large amount that is very good about it. As I have previously said I couldn’t support a policy that didn’t restore proper legal aid to asylum seekers – and @Suzanne Fletcher outlines why this is important.

    I might come to the conclusion over benefit policy that a proposed reform of the sanction system was if not my liberal ideal, it was reasonable and a good step in the right direction – and I can understand in general why you might have sanctions. In general my view is that the spousal visa system proposed with the reduction to two years is reasonable. I think it not unreasonable for example for people to consider if a spouse was to lose their job – how they would cope with what benefits the British spouse is entitled to – with two years this is a relatively short period of time to plan for. It was the tradition in this country that people didn’t get married and live together until they could afford to – a tradition I appreciate that probably has disappeared. I take on board the view of the ECHR that there is not an absolute right to a private life. And I note that many spouses for many reasons live apart. That is not to say that my heart does not bleed for those that get in to difficulty or have to live apart for a time because it does or to blame those that get into problems because of the benefit restrictions because I don’t.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 25th Aug '18 - 4:27pm

    Andrew Hickey

    I often dislike your tone and sometimes disagree with your views.

    If you improved one you would make the other more heard.

    You for example do not say you disagree with the view in favour of the centre ground, you often insult “centrists” as dull, unimaginative etc and far more .

    I am in the radical centre and moderate centre left.

    I do not think it is pandering to racism, or thus, racist, to listen or look into the hearts and minds of people I might disagree with, who are mainstream in their stance, or consider themselves this, in that most would not say or do anything on the basis of race, in fact, it is white Europeans they are often concerned have come here in too great a quantity.

    I feel understanding is the key to many things.

    I understand you here to be someone though providing much knowledge and strong arguments on immigration.

    On immigration where there is a connection based on love, ie married people, or a situation based on fear, ie seekers of refuge, I value your efforts and support your stance.

    On economics, the need for often unskilled labour, freedom of movement as practised by this country rather than the EU, not as in agreement, as my view is, the needs of society are not matched in our country with the ready cash or infrastructure, as we are neither social market driven, nor social justice, but in a laissez fair socialistic tug of war in mindset or effect.

    I think we can improve these policies over time and should, as with the policy herein.

  • @Andrew – the failure of the hostile environment policy with respect to the Windrush generation is a rather specific one, and to be fair, not one foreseen when legislated. That said, the Home Office was clearly made aware of what was happening and did nothing, and that’s the damning thing about the policy.

    ‘Awful implementation’ like this has been a big part of the issues with immigration policy over the past few years, and I’m glad the immigration paper has a number of ideas to fix this.

    But unclear why you want the practice of employers checking people have work rights to cease. Having gone through it – hardly a terrible inconvenience if you actually have work rights (again, the Windrush group were in a peculiar situation in not having the ability to prove this AND the Home Office being unwilling to resolve this properly). If the Home Office had a more reasonable outlook – what’s the issue?

    Not sure what the point of having a work-rights visa system is if it is not enforced. And the alternative to having employers check, is to be far more unwilling to grant tourist, student and other time+work-right limited visas on the off chance people overstay and attempt to work. I’d rather not deny people these visas on flimsy grounds.

  • @Andrew Hickey

    Thanks for your further comments. A useful discussion and I now have a defence when people accuse me of being a bleeding heart liberal 🙂 !

    Firstly my view of the spousal visa policy as being not unreasonable
    1. I am not saying this is very liberal policy – just “not unreasonable”.
    2. It has to be viewed in the context of I as Lib Dem member will be asked at conference to consider whether to agree to or reject the whole policy as amended– as @Suzanne Fletcher says there is a lot of very good policy here.
    3. It has to be viewed in wanting the OPERATION of visas – for everyone but particularly asylum seekers and family members to be better. For most of these THAT will be what will make the difference – see below.

    Some points:

    A British spouse with a disability such as DLA/PIP/ESA etc. do not have to meet the financial requirement – see for example https://www.thomaschaseimmigration.com/spouse-visas-disability-living-allowance/

    It is impossible to say exactly but for those that lose their job during the 2 years then benefits for a single person may be 2/3rds –3/4 of those for a couple – JSA for a single
    person for example is £73.10 against £114.85 for a couple or 63%. There are a number of ways couples can plan for that – increase their savings, take out insurance in case of unemployment etc. If this was 2 years rather than 5 then this would be a relatively short period of time and relatively easy to do.

    Spouses that are apart can get visitors’ visas to visit each other and it is incredibly cheap now to stay in touch with each other over the internet with skype, facetime etc etc. As I say a lot of spouses do live apart because of jobs etc.

    I am minded that it was traditional that spouses didn’t marry and live together until they could afford to – although I appreciate this may have changed.

    There are some detailed changes in the “details” that I hope that a Lib Dem government would implement but may be too detailed for an amendment. That savings could count more and also a firm offer of employment for the non-British spouse in this country could count towards the financial requirement – I think that it did but I don’t think it does any more.

    Taken together I would contend “not unreasonable”.

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