Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Live and Let Die: The Hostile Environment’s Colonial Logic



Time to read

4 Minutes

Post by Vidya Ramachandran. Vidya completed an MSc in Migration Studies at Oxford in 2020 with the support of the Rotary Foundation and St Cross College. She is the joint-winner of the 2020 Border Criminologies Master’s Dissertation prize for her dissertation,  A Logic of Subordination: (Post)colonial Women and the British Immigration System.


MANCHESTER – I meet Diya* in a café in town. To some, this might seem an awkward space for what we’re about to discuss. But Diya is accustomed to being interrogated about her most intimate experiences without much warning, in not-so-intimate settings. Since first claiming asylum at Lunar House, she has been asked – too many times to count – to prove she is deserving of inclusion in Britain, by going over this specific chronology: her experiences of domestic violence, her daughter’s experiences of sexual abuse, their ostracism by extended family, their escape to England. Until she can prove that she is “deserving”, her everyday life will be grim. She does not have the right to work, and is dependent on the meagre weekly allowance provided by the National Asylum Support Service. Like many women asylum seekers, she is acutely vulnerable to destitution, exploitation and abuse by an employer (if she works irregularly) or partner, and is disproportionately susceptible to various physical and mental ailments

What I find curious, though, is that Diya is an Indian national. And Noor, who I spoke to earlier, is Pakistani. For two centuries, both countries were ruled under the British Empire, which bled them dry: Utsa Patnaik estimates that Britain expropriated approximately $45 trillion USD from British India over this time. Pointing out that this wealth was poured into the metropole – funding the nation’s “healthcare system, welfare state, transport infrastructure, cultural and educational institutions” – Nadine El-Enany argues that access to these resources, conferred through political membership in Britain, “constitutes access to the spoils of colonial conquest”. While some suggest this wealth should be simply paid back to those who were exploited, Britain isn’t "rich enough" to give its former colonies in South Asia "even a fraction of what it took from them". For this reason, we might argue that those subjected to the inequities wrought by colonialism should have, instead, the right to enter and stay within the countries that have benefitted from their subjugation, and avail themselves of the benefits created by colonial exploitation (see work by Achiume, Amighetti and Nuti and El-Enany). Why, then, are women like Diya and Noor required to prove they belong in Britain? And why, while they await legal recognition, are they made to live so precariously? 

I explore these questions in my Masters dissertation, which is based on interviews with Diya and Noor, and a wide range of governmental, legal and third-sector resources. Drawing on the work of Tendayi E. Achiume, El-Enany, and Lucy Mayblin, I argue that UK immigration law perpetuates a continuing colonial logic, that enacts various forms of subordination against ‘(post)colonial’ peoples – defined as those who have been disadvantaged through colonial or neo-colonial relations – to extinguish their claims to the “colonially-acquired” benefits contained within Britain. 

This logic can be traced within the varied measures that prevent (post)colonial peoples’ entry to Britain, and thereby allow the British state to prevent their access to its spoils. Since the post-war period, UK immigration and nationality law has arguably evolved to exclude its former imperial subjects. Following decolonisation across many parts of the Empire, formerly colonised peoples retained their legal status as British subjects. While this was mainly intended to save some face following the rapid fall of Empire, these subjects retained their unrestricted rights to enter and stay in Britain. This all changed, though, when too many of these subjects – especially black and brown subjects from the West Indies and SouthAsia – actually started arriving on Britain’s shores. Over the consequent years, a seriesoflegislativemeasures stripped their subjecthood, while their entry to Britain was further prevented through violent and discriminatory practices. Women have their own place within this history: in the 1970s, many South Asian women were notoriouslysubjected to invasive ‘virginity’ tests to test their compliancy with the immigration rules. Preventing (post)colonial peoples’ entry into Britain, then, can be viewed as a means of restricting their “access to colonial spoils”, which remains the preserve of individuals seen to belong to its national community – which is increasingly restricted to white Britons – and so maintain its systemic global dominance 

Access to these spoils can also be restricted through other means, including by restricting (post)colonial peoples’ access to political membership in Britain, and enacting multipleforms of violence against them. Catherine Briddick reveals that today, women disproportionately carry the UK’s most “disadvantageous” immigration statuses, that confer weak rights and entitlements. I would add that many ‘weak’ legal statuses – including spouse and asylum seeker status – are also disproportionately assumed by (post)colonial peoples – which condition their lived experiences. It is well established that migrant women with temporary or insecure immigration statusare disproportionately vulnerable to gender-based violence. They may be further prevented from accessing critical support – including domestic violence refuges – due to the ‘no recourse to public funds’ condition that impacts all temporary migrants to the UK. Meanwhile, the UK’s ‘hostile environment regime’ – which has expanded and fortified internal border controls to encourage irregular migrants’ departure – has further precluded migrants’ access to social and economic networks, preventing access to safe work and housing, and making many wary of approaching even those services to which they are entitled – including the NHS – for fear of deportation. El-Enany suggests the British immigration system "reproduce[s] the ´let die´ logic of colonialism", evidenced in the case of N V UK, where a Ugandan woman asylum seeker with HIV/AIDS died from health complications after being denied medical treatment and removed from Britain. In my dissertation, I extend this argument to (post)colonial women’s everyday experiences in Britain, which, I highlight, are often punctuated with multiple forms of violence, that can quite literally kill – thus limiting their “access to colonial spoils”. 

As the hostile environment continues to ensnare countless (post)colonial peoples within incredibly precarious circumstances, postcolonial and decolonial critiques of immigration law convey a sense of urgency. Achiume claims ´Third World´ peoples are "political insiders" within the ´First World´ states that have benefitted from their subjugation, and that have, therefore, "no right to exclude them". Acknowledging that trajectories and experiences of migration exist within wider global relationships – particularly, (neo)colonial political and economic entanglements – allows us to reimagine frameworks for belonging that consider questions of accountability and redress for enduring injustices. Many of us have legitimate claims to inclusion in Britain, beyond those currently acknowledged by the state. My hope is they are one day given the recognition they deserve. 

*Names have been changed. I contacted Diya and Noor through Safety4Sisters, a Manchester-based domestic violence service for migrant women: https://www.safety4sisters.org

Any comments about this post? Get in touch with us! Send us an email, or post a comment here or on Facebook. You can also tweet us.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Ramachandran, V. (2021). Live and Let Die: The Hostile Environment’s Colonial Logic. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/02/live-and-let-die [date]

With the support of