The offices of local authority social services departments are rarely the most welcoming places, yet it is doubtful that they are intentionally hostile. As a goal of social policy, hostility is reserved for one group of people above all others – irregular migrants – as summed up by Theresa May in an interview with The Telegraph in May 2012: “The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration.” Although restricting access to basic services – free secondary healthcare, public housing, benefits and support from statutory social services – predates the coalition government, Britain’s current government is seeking to consolidate this approach through restrictions to primary health care and the right to rent accommodation in the private sector.

In theory, denying basic rights and services to irregular migrants is supposed to force the issue of return; in practice, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, with many people remaining in Britain in spite of these restrictions. From my experience of working with migrants in social services, many people remain for years, if not decades, often with children born and brought up in the UK. But little thought is given to what implementing this so-called hostile environment means in practice, including for those who have lived unlawfully in Britain for so long. What actually happens when people and their children are in need of basic services such as financial help and accommodation, and what happens when those basic services are refused?

It is not uncommon in the waiting rooms of local authority social services offices to see families from abroad: parents, their children and their suitcases. Homeless children in Britain are ‘children in need’ according to laws governing local authority practice, and they cannot lawfully be left to live without a roof over their heads, in spite of this being an impact of central government immigration policy. Here, then, begins the administration of the hostile environment, a festival of bureaucracy, of lengthy legal justifications for or against the provision of services. It is the site of brinkmanship between a parent and the state, mediated by his/her advocate and the duty social worker. There is a plethora of legal and practical considerations to be made: the best interests of the child, the definition of ‘destitution’, the strength of a family’s claim to remain in the UK. The outcome of the assessment can result in statutory services being provided anyway, an offer of tickets to return to the parents’ country of origin, or a referral to friends, a charity, or a place of worship for the provision of informal support.

In order to understand how fraught this process can be, it is worth looking at what happens to families before they arrive at the offices of the local authority social services department. This narrative cannot speak for the heterogeneity of Britain’s irregular migrant population, nor can it clarify what is often a confused and unquantifiable construction of the ‘illegal immigrant’. However, it illustrates the policy dilemma as it relates to families who have been living unlawfully in Britain for some time, a situation that I saw again and again when working in social services. Up to this point, these individuals have been neighbours, colleagues, fellow pupils, friends, and family members. The bonds families create over the years in their communities, in their place of worship, on their street, in school or workplace, constitute a network of support that can prop people up for years, until a crisis situation (an argument, rent arrears, loss of employment, domestic violence) forces them into precarious housing and living situations and into the offices of their local social services department or voluntary sector advocate.

It is perhaps in court where these issues have been considered in most depth. Many cases have found that the strength of families’ bonds with their communities has the effect of creating a legal obligation for local authorities to provide services. In looking at whether Birmingham City Council had breached article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 – the right to private and family life – in its decision to withhold accommodation and support from a destitute family that had been living unlawfully in the UK for years, the judge in Clue (2010) said:

The right to private life entails considerations far wider than the right to family life. Importantly, private life includes the relationships and the social, cultural as well as the family ties that a person forms.

The case of ZH (Tanzania) illustrates the added complexity of families with ‘mixed status’, in this case relating to children in the care of a Tanzanian refused asylum seeker, but with a British father:

They are British children; they are British, not just through the ‘accident’ of being born here, but by descent from a British parent; they have an unqualified right of abode here; they have lived here all their lives; they are being educated here; they have other social links with the community here; they have a good relationship with their father here. It is not enough to say that a young child may readily adapt to life in another country. That may well be so, particularly if she moves with both her parents to a country which they know well and where they can easily re-integrate in their own community…. But it is very different in the case of children who have lived here all their lives and are being expected to move to a country which they do not know and will be separated from a parent whom they also know well (2011).

The story of people’s relationship with their community, with friends, family, neighbours, fellow worshipers – irrespective of their immigration status – shows that implementing a hostile environment has social as well as legal limitations. It begs the question of whether Britain can be so easily made into such a hostile place after all.


Birmingham City Council v Clue (2010) EWCA Civ 460.

ZH (Tanzania) (FC) v Secretary of State for the Home Department (2011) UKSC 4.

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