SONITA Gale’s British immigration documentary Hostile played to a capacity audience at City Screen, York, on Tuesday evening.
Made during the pandemic, with contributions from George The Poet and composer Nitin Sawhney, her debut film highlights the UK’s complicated relationship with its migrant communities.
Told through the stories of four participants from Black and Asian backgrounds, the feature-length documentary reveals the impact of the evolving “hostile environment”.
“This is the term used by the British government in 2012 to illustrate the atmosphere they wanted to create for migrants, with the intention of provoking them to leave of their own accord,” says Sonita, who was born in Wolverhampton into a working-class migrant family from India.
Hostile explores how the lives of international students, members of the Windrush generation and ‘Highly-Skilled Migrants’ have been affected.
The stakes are high. An NHS IT engineer has spent tens of thousands of pounds on visa applications and is still waiting for settled status. A member of the Windrush generation has not recovered from detainment due to a lack of paperwork, in what came to be known as the Windrush Scandal. International students, now destitute, face deportation, and community organisers are struggling to feed these vulnerable communities without government support.
Archival footage is used by Gale to depict the history of the British Empire, as well as charting the UK’s immigration policies over recent years to illuminate how we arrived at the situation we are in today.
“After decades of hostile immigration policies, Britain has reached a crisis point,” says Sonita. “With Brexit, the Points Based Immigration System and the Nationality and Borders Bill taking effect, the film asks: once the ‘hostile environment’ has targeted all migrants, who will it extend to next?”
That question was among those addressed by Sonita in a question-and-answer session hosted by CharlesHutchPress editor Charles Hutchinson, who opened out the discussion to the audience for further questions and comments, not least from Paul Wordsworth, co-ordinator of York City of Sanctuary.
Since 2016, this charity has played a vital role in supporting and welcoming people who come to York – the UK’s first Human Rights City – seeking a new life.
“More than ever we need to work together to help people fleeing war, persecution, poverty and climate change,” says the charity’s website. “The necessary steps of financing specialised legal help, finding accommodation and work, plus education and language support, are just a few of the ways in which we lead.”
Reflecting on Tuesday’s screening and Q&A, Sonita says: “What a special evening for me. The evening was a sell-out and we had a very engaged audience. Questions were around legislation, bills, accountability and where we are heading. There was a genuine positive feeling that progression is ahead if we collectively come together.
“We were asked by older audience members how they could see Hostile on the TV and when it would be out as they want their families to see it. People also spoke of their own experiences, which was very heartfelt.”
Sonita reports screenings continuing to sell out across the country. “Please check out our ticket page at www.hostiledocumentary.com/tickets to see when there’s a screening near you,” she advises.
“They will continue until the end of March, and then the ‘impact tour’ begins for Hostile across April, May and June. We’re really hoping for a broadcast deal soon to continue to get these stories out there.”
What is the Hostile Environment?
“The UK Home Office’s hostile environment policy is a set of administrative and legislative measures designed to make staying in the United Kingdom as difficult as possible for people without leave to remain, in the hope that they may ‘voluntarily leave’,” says Sonita. “The term was coined in 2012 by the then Home Secretary, Theresa May.
“Since 2010, the Government has launched a wave of attacks on the human rights of undocumented people – meaning people who can’t prove they have a right to live in the UK.
“The idea is to make life in the UK as unbearable as possible for migrants by blocking access to public services and pushing them into extreme poverty. Under the hostile environment, employers, landlords, NHS staff and other public servants have to check your immigration status before offering people a job, housing, healthcare or other support.”