Farrukh Sair is £80,000 out of pocket so far. That’s how much he’s had to shell out in fees for applications and lawyers for him and his young family to stay in the UK. His debt shows no sign of decreasing anytime soon.
An IT worker from Pakistan who worked for the NHS throughout the Covid pandemic, Farrukh has had two children here; he hopes they will continue in their primary school and build a life here, but he still does not know if he will be granted indefinite leave to remain. “I can’t buy anything for the house to decorate or for the children to play with,” says his wife. “We may be told to leave tomorrow.”
Sair’s story is one of the central features of Sonita Gale’s debut documentary as director, writer and producer. Her film, Hostile, explores the human consequences of the government’s Hostile Environment Policy, focusing on the indignities and iniquities of a system operating without much media scrutiny.
The so-called Windrush scandal is the most high-profile example but, as Gale found out, it was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the nightmarish scenarios many thousands of people are caught in now, particularly after the ravages of the pandemic and its lockdowns.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Gale tells me. “I started out wanting to make a film about what was on the streets in the migrant communities during the pandemic, what was happening to the factory workers, the taxi drivers, the food banks and the community kitchens, and I discovered so much more. I didn’t even know the phrase NRPF – no recourse to public funds – which is a key label the Home Office sticks on migrants and which leaves them totally in limbo with no aid, no health, no housing, nothing. And it became an investigation for me into a world I had no idea was co-existing within our own.”
Hostile made the Bafta longlist for Outstanding British Debut, remarkable for a self-taught director. But Gale’s film is remarkable in its clarity and its ability to discover nasty shocks and ugly facts along the way. It focuses on families and individuals crippled by a system that appears designed to cause as much confusion and hardship as possible. There are myriad forms to fill in, each demanding fees of over £1,000 a pop, plus health checks and legal fees and, for many, translation fees. According to the film, the Home Office recoups over £500m from applications, many of which are repeat attempts after multiple rejections, some on technical issues such as the slightest error in filling out the form and some on glaring bureaucratic error.
Illustrating the Kafkaesque process, Farrukh is filmed in his attic room surrounded by piles of papers and three old photocopiers. “These machines are essential for any immigrant,” he points out. “Because you have to print out all the time at the shortest notice for a new application, so I never want to be in an emergency because I’m out of ink, or something.”
Even after completing his forms correctly, Farrukh has been refused many times, twice through errors, and twice after being deemed a “threat to national security”, under section 369. The lunacy of this is apparent as soon as you begin to wonder: would any self-respecting terrorist pay over two grand to make themselves known to the authorities?
“I see dozens and dozens of cases like this every week,” says Akram Salhab from the action group Migrants Organise, who also features in the film and who joined me for a post-screening Q&A session at the Rio cinema in Dalston. “But why the film is so important is because it puts a human face to the statistics and you watch people’s lives being ruined through no fault of their own. And you see that the way Britain treats migrants is disgusting. There are over a million undocumented people here and with the state of the world, it is going to grow and this system is not working for anyone, not at all.”
The film is indeed gaining some traction. At another Q&A, in Finsbury Park’s new Picturehouse, I’m somewhat taken aback to find former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the audience with his hand up. Of course, I let him ask his question, which ends with the words “where has the humanity gone in our society?”
Gale also follows up on the case of Anthony Bryan, whose story became
emblematic of the Windrush scandal when it was turned into the award-winning BBC drama Sitting in Limbo, starring Lennie James.
Bryan, a 62-year-old painter and decorator who worked mainly in Kensington and Knightsbridge, was suddenly taken from his family and placed in a detention centre. He was about to be marched on to a plane back to Jamaica (which he had left at the age of nine) when a last-minute legal reprieve came in.
He is still here, but the experience of the hostile environment has left him traumatised, officially diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and he has been unable to work since his time in detention, which he describes as “a hell”. His health, mental and physical, is deteriorating and he is still awaiting any sort of compensation. At least he is still alive – so far, 21 Windrush victims have died after the devastation and stress of the hostile environment ramped up under Theresa May’s home office in 2015.
What’s interesting about Hostile is its desire to dig ever deeper. Not content with highlighting the obvious indignities and cruelties of how the policy operates and how it leaves victims in desperate circumstances, but into why it is there in the first place. Gale examines how it has been built up over decades of government decisions around British citizenship, going back to the age of Empire and the creation of the Commonwealth, from Partition in the 1940s to Caribbean immigration in the 1950s and the influx of South Asians fleeing Uganda in the 1970s.
“I learned that the path was quite clear,” says Gale. “It took me back to Empire and the construction of institutional racism, the influence from slavery and the colonies informing how legislation was drawn up in the 20s and 30s and then post-war. The first instinct was always to stop immigrant rights and this has informed the present-day hostile environment.”
It becomes patently clear that such legislation and the defining terms of British citizenship have long been drawn up along racial lines, beginning with the assumption that white people are superior and any immigrant will be inferior and should be treated as such. “This is the starting point of our country’s attitude,” states the academic and writer Maya Goodfellow in the film: “It is layers and layers of bad legislation piled on top of itself, a mountain of bad policy that doesn’t work and that immediately sets up immigrants as scapegoats.”
My own initial reaction to the film was one of shame. I don’t like to know my country is like this. Perhaps I’ve been naive in not really recognising it. But in whose name is this all being conducted? Is it really a vote-winner? “That’s the whole point,” says Gale. “I didn’t know it either because they don’t want you to know, it’s not advertised and clear policy. It’s a system designed to set us against each other, part of the divisiveness of politics, and I found it diverging hugely from what the majority of people really think. Britain is hostile now, yes, but it doesn’t come from us,” she says. “It comes from policy, system and government.”
I do wonder, given the hostility towards migrants, why anyone would still want to come here? Quoting the writer Ian Sanjay Patel and the title of his 2021 book, We Are Here Because You Were There, Akram Salhab told me: “The people I see in my work at Migrants Organise come because they need safety and a better life, because their countries have been ravaged by colonialism, post-colonial policies and neo-colonialist corruption, and global warming largely caused by Western industry. That’s why they come. It’s not for the weather.” Salhab adds that in some ways, news of the environment is spreading and Britain’s reputation as a safe place is dwindling rapidly.
This might be something, then, that does please many voters here. “Certainly, there was hostility involved in Brexit,” agrees Gale. “The colonial concept of ‘divide and rule’ is still going on and people in power seem intent on systems engineered to tear us apart. For example, there’s a move now to
exploit the white working class and set that traditional section of society in direct opposition to immigrants. That is classic, divisive political behaviour and it’s deliberately engineered by those in power.”
It’s strange, however, that for all the suffering and the brutal consequences it shows, Hostile isn’t a bleak film. Instead it rattles along with sensible energy and a clear-eyed anger because it also feels full of hope, inspired by a feeling that things can change.
I ask Gale where she found that positivity. “In the people I met,” she says. “In the people who offer help and rally to show their generosity and compassion. And even in the people who are treated so awfully, they still want to achieve their dream of a better life here because they still believe in our country and what it can be. And all this hostility, it doesn’t come from
normal everyday people – at ground level, I found only kindness and respect and a will to help.
“And I grew convinced that if that’s the case, then with action, discussion and a grassroots activism, through people power, we can come together to force a review of the system and agitate for change. It can still be done.”
Hostile is touring UK cinemas now – to find out about screenings, Q&As and discussions visit www.hostiledocumentary.com