Book review: Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Become Scapegoats, by Maya Goodfellow

Theresa May, who, as Conservative Home Secretary, introduced the Hostile Environment Policy with remarks including: "The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants." PIC: House of Commons/PA Wire
Theresa May, who, as Conservative Home Secretary, introduced the Hostile Environment Policy with remarks including: "The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants." PIC: House of Commons/PA Wire
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Maya Goodfellow’s study appears as the recent deaths of 39 immigrants in a refrigerated lorry continue to stir horror and outrage. But, as evidenced by the countless examples of atrocity that Goodfellow cites which have been overlooked or forgotten, it is only a matter of time before the public outcry dissipates. Her thorough and even-handed book will leave readers both unsurprised at the suffering of yet more immigrants, and shocked at the tower of complex, harsh and contradictory policy facing anyone attempting to enter the country by safer means.

Goodfellow makes her position clear in setting out to prove how badly immigrants have been mistreated in the UK and testifying to their suffering in human terms. The book is part revealing exploration of how immigrants came to be the scapegoats for all manner of societal ills, part impassioned attack on the harsh government policies informed by that false conclusion.


No side of the political spectrum escapes censure, and it often seems to be the Left’s hypocrisy that takes the lion’s share of Goodfellow’s criticism, perhaps because it is less well-recognised than the open hostility of many on the Right. The book is informed by quotes from a range of political figures, lawyers, support workers, union representatives and immigrants, all accompanied by conscientious reminders of who everybody is for ease of reading.  


A plethora of statistics and comparisons lay bare the hypocrisy at the heart of the anti-immigrant campaign (the government launching a public crackdown on health tourism after admitting it made up a tiny proportion of NHS spending, or ordering “virginity tests” on some female immigrants, for example).


Goodfellow also debunks the popular idea of a historically white Britain only recently beginning to contend with the “problem” of immigration, pointing out that Britain has never been as homogenous as some would like to believe, and citing examples of immigration hysteria from hundreds of years ago remarkably similar to the hostility witnessed today.


As Goodfellow writes, it is not bald facts but human stories that will change people’s minds, and the statistics are woven together with individual accounts of the toll taken by UK immigration regulations, some of which make for particularly painful reading.


Hostile Environment is not solely about the UK government policy of the same name, nor is it about Brexit, or the refugee crisis of 2015. It is a book made even more poignant by those recent events, but one whose reach goes much deeper: a thoughtful and eye-opening look at British colonial history and the question of what sets “Britain” apart from those seeking to join it, as well as a call to arms against the horrific way those immigrants are treated. Elsa Maishman

Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Become Scapegoats, by Maya Goodfellow, Verso Books, £12.99