Landlord Checks on Migrant Status Breaches Human Rights, U.K. Court Rules

LONDON — Ordering landlords to check prospective tenants’ immigration status leads to racial discrimination and breaches human rights, Britain’s High Court has ruled, in a judgment that deals a blow to migration control measures championed by Prime Mininster Theresa May.

The mandatory checks are one plank in what has become known as the government’s “hostile environment” policy, which aims to force people in the country illegally to leave by blocking their access to jobs, bank accounts and free medical care, among other things.

The policy has been criticized as imposing heavy burdens on legal immigrants and British citizens who are not white but are obliged to prove their status repeatedly. It has brought particularly harsh consequences for the “Windrush generation” of migrants encouraged to move from the Caribbean after World War II to help with Britain’s reconstruction, many of whom never had — or previously needed — the sort of documents demanded.

Landlords said the mandatory checks made them “unwilling border police” and discouraged them from renting to anyone whose migration status might not be straightforward.

The judgment does not strike down the 2014 legislation that imposed document checks on tenants in England. But it asks Parliament to reconsider how the law is applied and blocks plans to extend the checks to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

A report commissioned by the Residential Landlords Association — which backed the legal challenge brought by an immigrant rights group and decided by the High Court on Friday — found that close to half of landlords were less likely to rent to someone without a British passport.

“The measures have a disproportionately discriminatory effect,” Justice Martin Spencer said in his judgment. Even if the checks had been shown to be effective in controlling migration, he added, he “would have found that this was significantly outweighed by the discriminatory effect.”

Evidence submitted to the court showed that the government had failed to measure whether the checks resulted in discrimination, or even whether they helped detect and remove people who were in the country illegally.

According to the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, forced removals and voluntary departures from Britain have declined since 2013.

“The net has been cast too wide and the effect of the scheme has been to cause landlords to commit nationality and/or race discrimination against those who are perfectly entitled to rent, with the result that they are less able to find homes than (white) British citizens,” the judge said, citing claims from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, which brought the case to court.

Mrs. May, who was Britain’s home secretary for six years before becoming prime minister in 2016, has been closely identified with moves to tighten the country’s migration policies. She promised to create “a really hostile environment” for illegal immigration in a 2012 interview with The Daily Telegraph, although her government now prefers to speak of a “compliant environment.”

Measures to achieve that included a poster campaign, with billboards driven on vans across London’s suburbs in the summer of 2013, urging those in the country illegally to “Go home or face arrest.”

The billboards drew widespread criticism and quickly disappeared. But they were followed by the legislation mandating document checks at many key points in daily life, a cultural shift for Britain, which has no mandatory identity card system, unlike many European countries, and has long considered its relative lack of official paperwork a point of national pride.

Criticism of the measures reached a peak last year, when the government had to apologize to Windrush migrants — the name refers to the Empire Windrush, the liner that brought the first large postwar group of arrivals from the West Indies — who had lived legally in Britain for decades but lost their jobs, were denied medical care and even faced the threat of deportation.

Friday’s judgment was “another nail in the coffin for the government’s misguided, discriminatory and unworkable hostile environment policy,” Lara ten Caten, a solicitor with Liberty, a group that campaigns for civil liberties and supported the court challenge, told the BBC.

“While effective immigration control is a legitimate aim for any government, the Home Office must stop outsourcing its discriminatory policies to third parties who are ill-equipped to enforce them but may be slapped with heavy fines and even end up in prison if they don’t,” she added.

The Residential Landlords Association called on the government to scrap the checks and stop relying on landlords to “do the job of the Home Office.”

“We have warned all along that turning landlords into untrained and unwilling border police would lead to the exact form of discrimination the court has found,” it said in a statement on Friday.

In an emailed statement, the Home Office said it was disappointed with the judgment and that it had been granted permission to appeal.

“In the meantime, we are giving careful consideration to the judge’s comments,” the statement said.

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