An assessment of the UK’s hostile environment: societal and policy implications from Windrush to the present day 

Stack of bound volumes on shelf with label 'oral histories'

Last year, we supported projects that had been awarded a grant from our partners at the John Rylands Research Institute and Library (JRRIL). In this blog post about one of these projects, Jon Davies, Rose Broad and Michelle Corallo (Department of Criminology, University of Manchester) draw upon three of the collections held at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre to explore how and why the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ has evolved over time. Focusing on the Windrush generation and their experiences in the Manchester area, the authors highlight the everyday experiences of systemic discrimination and inequalities, particularly in relation to working lives, housing, and community relations, all of which have been underscored by divisive immigration policies and legislation.  

For more information about future funding opportunities, please see the JRRI website.  

Authors: Jon Davies, Rose Broad, Michelle Corallo (Department of Criminology) 
Contact: [email protected]


The purpose of this blog post is to set out some of the long-standing challenges faced by migrants and ethnic minority groups within parts of the UK. We link these challenges to the UK’s ‘hostile environment’, which has gained traction in recent years but has roots going back to the Windrush generation – referring to the migrants who came to the UK post-World War II from Commonwealth countries to help rebuild the UK due to the labour shortage 

As part of this archival research funded by the JRRI, we examined three special collections that represent different areas of the Commonwealth, and from where many migrants first travelled to the UK: ‘Mapping Our Lives’ (Caribbean); ‘Roots Oral History’ (Caribbean and parts of Africa); and ‘Speaking for Ourselves’ (parts of Asia). The time periods that we examine from these collections run from the 1950s until the late 1990s, thereby providing a snapshot of peoples’ experiences over time. Many of the collections are specific to the area of Manchester or occasionally the North-West more widely, thereby providing a sense of geographic focus to our work. 

The ‘hostile environment’ in the UK 

The UK’s ‘hostile environment’, implemented in recent years, is a set of stringent immigration measures designed to discourage irregular immigration. This has included the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, as well as the Illegal Migration Act 2023, which, among other factors, make it more difficult for those entering the UK through irregular means to claim asylum. More recently, the Home Secretary Suella Braverman gave a controversial speech stating that “uncontrolled immigration, inadequate integration, and a misguided dogma of multiculturalism have proven a toxic combination for Europe over the last few decades”. 

However, the hostile environment has been widely criticised for creating a climate of suspicion and discrimination against migrants and ethnic minorities. This approach has had significant implications, ranging from the mistreatment of individuals to societal divisions, sparking ongoing debates about the balance between border control and human rights in the UK. 

In this blog post, we elaborate on some of the key themes that emerged from our analysis of the archival work – including within labour markets, housing and accommodation, as well as community and public perceptions. There are numerous challenges that we are unable to cover in a single post, such as perceptions of the police and participation in education – however, many recurring themes around discrimination and overall perceptions of ‘unfairness’ strongly apply. 

Labour market mobility 

The experiences of Ruby Innis and Barrington Young in the mid-20th century underscore the significant challenges faced by migrants in the labour market, shedding light on broader implications of labour market mobility and discrimination. 

Ruby Innis, who arrived in the UK in the early 1960s, encountered discrimination while working at a hospital. She was denied a new uniform, which is a symbol of unequal treatment and exclusion. Her case exemplifies how racial bias within the labour market can severely limit an individual’s career prospects and overall well-being. The denial of retirement benefits after 17 years of service further highlights the economic disparities faced by workers such as Ruby. 

Similarly, Barrington Young, who emigrated from Jamaica in the 1950s, faced racism from within labour unions. This institutionalised bias made it highly problematic for him to advance in his career, which for some may be surprising given that unions are commonly seen as important bulwarks against employer influence and control. A number of people from an Asian background in the labour market often found themselves relegated to inferior job positions, facing rejection and ridicule. Some were even forced to compromise their cultural identities, such as cutting their hair and removing turbans in attempts secure employment. 

These stories highlight personal hardships and systemic discrimination present within the labour market. Such experiences serve as important reminders of the ongoing struggle for equal opportunity and fair treatment within the workplace, highlighting the importance of addressing structural racism and promoting diversity and inclusion in labour markets to ensure genuine labour market mobility. 

GB3228.7/3/1, Roots oral history project, Copies of scanned photographs collected as part of the Roots project, Barrington Young in his British Rail guard’s uniform (1974).

Housing and accommodation 

The experiences of individuals who left Nigeria in 1937 and arrived in Liverpool before settling in Manchester reveal the pervasive racial discrimination faced by migrants. Frequent house relocations due to racial abuse paint a picture of the hostility, and a struggle to find suitable housing further accentuated these difficulties, often leading to overcrowded living conditions, in one case with up to 20 people in a small four-bedroom house. However, as time passed, many of these migrants managed to purchase homes, forming a close-knit community that maintained strong ties with other migrant groups, such as others from the West Indies. This illustrates how such challenges can foster a sense of ‘resistance’ and unity among marginalised groups, despite being under significant pressure. 

Edith Stanley’s story, arriving in Manchester from the West Indies in 1995, highlights the long-standing challenges faced by migrants. Her accommodation was in a poor state, with landlords seemingly driven solely by financial interests and having little regard for the well-being of tenants. The absence of government support reflects the need for improved regulations and assistance mechanisms for newcomers to ensure fair living conditions. These narratives collectively underscore the importance of addressing housing inequality, promoting inclusive policies, and fostering supportive communities for migrants in host countries. 

Community and public perceptions 

Referring again to Edith Stanley’s arrival in Manchester exposes the common misconception that many British people held about black migrants, lumping them together as ‘African’ despite their diverse backgrounds. This reflects a lack of cultural understanding and connects to the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ approach, which, through its strict immigration rules and rhetoric, has contributed to a climate of suspicion against migrants. 

Tomlin McKenley’s experience in 1957, where he faced hostility from white men in a fish and chip shop, underscores the racially charged atmosphere prevalent at that time. His ordeal serves as an example of how racial tensions and discrimination have deep historical roots in the UK, something exacerbated by the hostile environment approach that has made migrants more vulnerable to harassment and violence. 

The accounts of people realising that British people had never seen an Asian person before, and the initial friendliness of neighbours turning into hostility as the number of BAME residents increased, reflect how perceptions of migrants can change over time. Such attitudes, which can vary, tend to mirror the impact of government policies, which can foster division and resentment within communities, leading to increased hostility towards newcomers. These narratives highlight the importance of promoting tolerance and cultural understanding in the face of such challenges. 

Concluding thoughts 

The challenges faced by migrants and ethnic minority groups in the UK, linked to the ‘hostile environment’ approach, reveal a complex landscape of discrimination and associated challenges – whether in relation to labour market mobility, housing, as well as community perceptions. These narratives remind us of the ongoing struggle for social justice and the need for comprehensive policy reforms to encourage tolerance. 

In a similar vein, many expectations that the Windrush generation had (and migrants since then) around employment and prosperity remained unfulfilled as per the examples in this post. In turn, this has added to the context of how such groups have been treated and the longer-term damage that this has led to, such as contributing to divisions in society. The implications from this research and this blog post extend beyond immigration policy, urging us to address systemic racism, promote cultural understanding, and create supportive communities to ensure a more inclusive society. 

Collection References  

Fitzgerald, Kitty, Speaking for Ourselves: Sikh Oral History, MAN/HI.1/SIK, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre, Manchester.  

GB3228.7, Roots Oral History Project, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre, Manchester. 

GB3228.32, Mapping Our Lives, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre, Manchester.