Social worker or border guard? Ethics and values in the ‘hostile environment’ of UK immigration policy

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This paper is concerned with contemporary global discourses that promote ‘anti-immigration’ rhetoric, underpinned by ‘anti –illegal’ polices and practice. In 2017, a record 68.5 million individuals were forcibly displaced due to persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations (UN Refugee Agency, 2018). In the midst of this, the criminalisation of immigration has been accentuated, from the US ‘War on Terror’ to the borders of ‘Fortress Europe’. This has resulted in increased immigration law enforcement in order to protect notions of national security (Golash-Boza, 2009). Within the UK, the ‘hostile environment’ has been the subject of much controversy and critics have argued that immigration policies have extended ‘everyday borders’ into daily life (Yuval-Davies et al, 2018). This paper seeks to contribute towards exploring this context and draws from PhD research to interrogate how social work ethics and values are challenged within the ‘hostile environment’ of UK immigration policy. Drawing from ethnographic research located in Glasgow, UK at The Women Asylum Seeker Housing Project (WASH), I delve into the detail of the ‘hostile environment’ to explore the tensions between immigration legislation and statutory social work. Humphries (2004) has argued that little attempt has been initiated by social work to fully comprehend the realities of how the profession maybe potentially complicit within the immigration system. The issue of ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF), a legal condition imposed upon those subject to immigration control, is testimony to this and NRPF emerges as a devastating form of state violence with this research. Therefore, this paper aims to provide a detailed examination of the damaging impact NRPF has for families and social work practice. Key findings will be discussed in order to tease out ethical concerns that arise as access to social services support is curtailed and families are affected by notions of ‘illegality’ and ‘criminality’ alongside a ‘genuine’ versus ‘bogus’ dichotomy. Subsequently, rights and entitlements to state support are severely restricted and margins of exclusion are enacted as social workers become co-opted into performing the role of an immigration ‘border guard’. In this climate of suspicion, a sub issue to arise from this environment are ‘gatekeeping’ tactics implemented by social services that ‘deliberately reduce the number of families to whom a local authority must provide support’ (Threipland, 2015). The impact of such practices can be seen within the assessment process and lack of support provided to NRPF families. Consequently, there are significant tensions between UK immigration legislation and social services statutory duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of destitute NRPF families with children. Ultimately, the ethical implications for social work are vast as the profession becomes drawn into assuming the role of an everyday ‘border guard’ and immigration concerns overshadow child welfare.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 9 Sep 2019


  • immigration policy
  • discrimination
  • social work
  • ethical aspects


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