‘Waiting is mental torture’: how Hostile exposes the human cost of Britain’s immigration policies

·5 min read

Sonita Gail’s Bafta-longlisted documentary is a difficult watch, but it shows powerfully the pain inflicted on innocent people by a broken system

At the height of the pandemic, Farrukh Sair worked on a temporary contract as an NHS IT engineer, setting up computer systems in hospital wards converted to accommodate Covid patients and reconfiguring laptops so that NHS staff were equipped to work from home.

In Sonita Gale’s new documentary, Hostile, Sair explains why he has kept hold of his NHS lanyard. “It reminds me I have been part of something good,” he says. Clinging on to this evidence is important to Sair because elsewhere in his life things are not going so well. After 19 years in the UK, he has had to spend more than £50,000 on Home Office visa fees and legal bills to try to regularise his immigration status. He is still fighting for the right to remain. Both his children were born here, but the whole family could face removal proceedings if his most recent application is refused later this year.

Sair has confronted some of the most unwelcoming aspects of the Home Office’s hostile environment – a series of policy measures designed to tackle illegal immigration, but which frequently have made life barely tolerable for migrants living here legally.

Since moving from Pakistan in 2003 to study at the University of Manchester, Sair has worked continuously in various IT roles (apart from an eight-month period when officials decided to remove his right to work). But his application to remain permanently has been refused several times on contentious technicalities; he has attended six court hearings to attempt to resolve the case. “They are asking for the brightest and the best to come here, however I am already here and they are trying to get rid of me, which doesn’t really make any sense,” he says.

Much of the Home Office decision-making highlighted in this film seems not to make sense, unless it is seen as part of a deliberate policy to make life in the UK profoundly difficult for people with an unresolved immigration application. Sair’s immigration status means that the family has no recourse to public funds – the initialism NRPF is marked on their files – so they have no access to benefit payments, his children are not eligible for free school meals and no one in the family is eligible for free NHS healthcare (despite Sair’s role as a frontline essential worker during the worst of the Covid crisis). The family is heavily in debt.

People know we’ve got an environmental crisis, but we’ve also got a humanity crisis

Sonita Gale

It is a bold step to make a feature-length documentary about technical details of immigration policies that even senior politicians find hard to understand. Gale’s film includes footage of Boris Johnson revealing blithely that he has no understanding of NRPF, despite the fact that this immigration status – which excludes hundreds of thousands of people in the UK from social welfare – pushed international students and professionals into destitution during the pandemic when they lost work and were unable to claim unemployment benefit.

The film was longlisted for the outstanding debut Bafta this month and Gale hopes that it will raise awareness of the human impact of Britain’s ever-tightening immigration policies. “People know we’ve got an environmental crisis, but we’ve also got a humanity crisis. I wanted to show the broken system, so people will start thinking about how it can be fixed,” she says.

Hostile also features Anthony Bryan, a Windrush victim who was sacked after wrongly being classified as an illegal immigrant, spent five weeks in immigration detention and was almost deported to Jamaica – a country he had left as a child half a century earlier. He is still struggling to rebuild his life.

A huge amount of content is covered at dizzying speed and the bleak subject matter makes the film hard to watch. But Gale’s portrayal of Sair’s predicament is so clear and powerful that the pointless human damage wrought by these complex policies is laid bare.

We see Sair sitting at a table at home, day after day, sifting through piles of neatly sorted immigration applications, tax records and bank details, juggling his debts and working out how to save enough money (about £12,000) to pay for the next application for a visa for his family. “Waiting is not like hurting you physically, but it is torture mentally,” he says.

Related: Hostile review – documentary highlights nastiness of UK immigration policy

He keeps three printers in the attic – his main one, a spare one and a backup ready to be recommissioned in case of emergency. Printing thousands of pages of forms and evidence is a central part of the head-spinning immigration application process. While the rest of his house is immaculate, Sair’s attic is a tip and he is reluctant to tidy it. “It reflects the confusion of my life,” he says.

When I spoke to him on the phone this week, Sair said: “We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. My children only speak English and we could still face removal to Pakistan, a place they’ve never lived.” He is pleased to have been involved in the film, even though it has exposed the misery through which his family continues to live. “It was very emotional to see it. I don’t have any convictions; I don’t even have points on my driving licence. Rather than thinking about what I’ve contributed to this country, they stick to these tick-box exercises. I’m still struggling to stay.”

The Home Office said it was unable to comment on Sair’s case due to a pending appeal.

• Hostile is in UK cinemas from 21 January