Will Theresa May's "hostile environment" become our "hostile nation"?

Madeleine Crowther
Conservative Party Autumn Conference 2015 - Day 3
Theresa May will be prime minister by this evening (Source: Getty)

At the moment, an hour is a long time in politics, but all being well Theresa May will be our next Prime Minister by this evening.

As pundits speculate on what will define her premiership, most assume it will be the priority to invoke Article 50 and initiate the Brexit process.

But it would be wise to return to her experience in the Home Office as well.

Traditionally the department is the graveyard of political ambition, where the goal posts are not just shifting but patently unrealistic.

Read more: Hands off: Why Theresa May shouldn't try to be a micromanager

With a target of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands, May's response during her tenure was to create the "hostile environment", a policy aimed at making life so awful for presumed "illegal immigrants" that they would leave the country voluntarily.

In practice, what this meant for the people I work with, who are vulnerable individuals seeking sanctuary from the genocidal government in Sudan, was destitution and homelessness as public funds were slashed, indefinite detention in the UK's immigration removal centres, often lasting months or even years without judicial oversight, or deportation following an unfairly curtailed asylum process - later ruled unlawful and suspended after a legal challenge.

Many others in the third sector have similar stories.

Hostile nation?

The aftermath of last month's pro-Brexit vote has seen May's "hostile environment" writ large.

There have been reports of xenophobic attacks by members of the public that have targeted Polish community buildings or mosques during Ramadan and Eid, as perpetrators graffitied the words "go home" on their sides.

No doubt our new Prime Minister has denounced these acts, but they are obvious echoes of her "go home vans".

Read more: MPs call on May to name cabinet before next week's summer recess

Tensions were also inflamed by her decision not to guarantee the status of EU nationals living here.

May’s narrative about migration framed the dismal climate that has made recent attacks possible; she cannot pretend they have nothing to do with her.

This outpouring of post-referendum vitriol has its counterpoint of course, in the many people up and down the country that want to extend a welcome to migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.

These are the individuals who take a keen interest in May’s worrying record on human rights.

She may have dropped her plans to withdraw from the European convention on human rights, but she is known to feel that human rights concerns bind the hands of government, and she has shown she is willing to work with pariah states before, not least in new plans to cooperate with the dictators of countries like Sudan and Eritrea to curb migration from the Horn of Africa.

As she is installed in the highest office at a time when tensions are running particularly high, we desperately need to confront her prior commitment to a "hostile environment", so that we do not continue down the path toward becoming a "hostile nation".