By Natalie Bloomer and Samir Jeraj

It was on the streets of British towns and cities that the 'hostile environment' first took hold. Immigration officers, sometimes working with homeless charities and local authorities, would head out at night to track down foreign rough sleepers and detain them. If they were undocumented they were often given the opportunity to leave the country voluntarily. If they refused, they could be forcibly removed. Then in 2016 the Home Office introduced new rules which meant that rough sleeping was to be considered an 'abuse' or 'misuse' of an EU citizens' right to freedom of movement. It was no longer just undocumented migrants being targeted but also those who came to the UK legally.

Now, thanks to a tireless campaign from the organisation North East London Migrant Action (NELMA), a judicial review of the policy began at the High Court yesterday. And it's not the only fight the government is facing over its 'hostile environment' agenda.

There are currently two legal challenges against policies that have been introduced in the NHS. The first, which reported on recently, is a case brought by the Migrants' Rights Network against the sharing of patients' personal data between NHS Digital and the Home Office for immigration purposes. A crowdfunder set up to help with the legal costs of the case has so far raised more than £7,000 of a £10,000 target.

"We have been gravely concerned that immigration enforcement is creeping into our public services, especially the NHS," Fizza Qureshi, director of the Migrants' Rights' Network, says. "We felt it was important to challenge this data-sharing agreement because it will lead to discrimination and the erosion of people's trust in public services."

Photo by Alice Facchini

The second case relates to new guidelines introduced in October which mean that migrants who are not entitled to free NHS treatment will be charged upfront for non-urgent care when they visit a hospital. Last week, during a debate in the Lords, it was confirmed that there would be a full review of the rules.

"This legal challenge argues, among other things, that the government failed to assess the impact of these measures on those at most risk, and on public health in general," Adam Hundt, a solicitor at Deighton Pierce Glynn, who is acting in the case, says.

"The review was announced on the same day that the government formally responded to the case. In the absence of any details as to what it will involve, you have to wonder whether the review is tokenistic or an attempt to shut the door after the horse has bolted."

This week, the organisation Against Borders for Children (ABC) launched a crowdfunder to help fund another legal challenge – this time against schools collecting nationality and country of birth data from children. When this practice was first introduced, the government intended to hand the information over to the Home Office for immigration enforcement purposes. After a public outcry, it was forced to back down, but the data continues to be collected.

"All too often people feel powerless when faced with this kind of racist policy-making," Alan Monroe, a teacher and member of ABC, says. "But the truth is we can fight it."

There has been little formal opposition to many of these policies from the Labour party. Terrified of being labelled as soft on illegal immigration, even those MPs who privately object to much of the 'hostile environment' will not say so publicly. It has been left to others to take the fight to the government. And that's exactly what these groups are doing.

Over the last few years, May's 'hostile environment' has seeped into every area of life. Now, little by little, these campaigners are pushing it back.

Natalie Bloomer is a journalist for You can follow her on Twitter hereSamir Jeraj is a freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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