Forget the perils of policing poachers ... Tory hostility is the real hotspot

They are certainly no strangers to a hostile environment. No matter how brave or resourceful they have shown themselves to be, though, they clearly didn’t anticipate the hostile environment that is today’s UK Home Office and increasingly, by default, Britain itself.

I’m talking about the women of the Akashinga, which in the Shona language of Zimbabwe means the “brave ones”. Every day Zimbabwean women like Nyaradzo Hoto and Petronella Chigumbura risk their lives as anti-poaching rangers protecting some 11,000 elephants in Zimbabwe’s Lower Zambezi Valley from the predatory ravages of ivory poachers.

To say that what they do is dangerous work would be a gross understatement. But such is the effectiveness of the all-female Akashinga unit, that they have now become revered and were scheduled to be honoured in Birmingham recently at the Zimbabwe International Women Awards (Ziwa).

The Home Office, however, had other ideas, denying both women temporary visas to attend the awards ceremony. In its rejection letters it suggested that Hoto and Chigumbura were not genuine visitors and cited their lack of financial assets as reasons for why they might attempt to stay in Britain.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Home Office officials might as well have sent a letter back to the women saying “you can’t be trusted”.

The lack of financial assets the UK officials referred to should have come as no surprise, given that women in rural Africa are often the most oppressed in society. Indeed it’s true that many of the Akashinga women themselves were previously jobless, before Australian former soldier Damien Mander helped set up the small unit as part of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation.

Since then the personal circumstances of the Akashinga women have changed considerably for the better. Now fully salaried, the quality of their lives has hugely improved through being employed, albeit in such a perilous role.

This in itself makes nonsense of the Home Office decision, but there is another reason, too, why refusing them the chance to be rightfully acknowledged and honoured in the UK is wrong.

As someone who has worked extensively across cross sub-Saharan Africa, I can attest to the fact that empowering women is one of the greatest forces of change for the good on the African continent right now, as it is throughout the world today.

As Rhoda Molife, one of the founders of Ziwa and a former NHS UK doctor has pointed out, the awards the Akashinga were to be honoured with are aimed precisely at helping change the narrative of African women.

Had they received their awards in the UK as intended it would have helped send a message back to their homeland in Zimbabwe and beyond that their tremendous efforts are not going unnoticed and are indeed valued.

This, though, seems not to have mattered in the Home Office’s decision. Instead it was the women’s (past) socio-economic background they focused on and was deemed the main significant factor in impacting negatively on the outcome of their visitor applications.

This in itself is an indictment of the prevailing myopia, culture and mindset at the Home Office these days, but also another glaring example of the kind of inhospitable place today’s Brexit-obsessed Tory Britain has become.

Much of current Home Office policy stems directly of course from Theresa May’s time as home secretary when she made her strategy unequivocally clear as being to “create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration”.

Indeed in 2013, slap bang in the middle of May’s tenure at the Home Office, it was revealed that an internal working group on immigration was initially to be named the Hostile Environment Working Group.

This damning insight into Tory Britain was revealed by Sarah Teather, former LibDem MP, who was then minister for children and families but is now director of the Jesuit Refugee Service.

“The Home Office has a culture of enforcement and disbelief which runs deep into the walls, but it is politically led. It’s a culture from the top,” observed Teather.

Which brings us to where Britain finds itself today. Just to be clear I’m not for a moment suggesting that checks on illegal migration and having a secure immigration system are not needed, of course they are.

But as increasing evidence shows, May’s hostile-environment strategy has become all-pervasive at the Home Office, showing up Britain for the increasingly isolationist and self-obsessed little nation that it really is, even if it still harbours delusions of grandeur from some bygone age.

The recent treatment of the Windrush-era Caribbean migrants is only one of the more obvious and painful manifestations of May’s hostile environment strategy. Visa restrictions on temporary visits by individuals that have impacted on academic and business conferences, arts and other cultural festivals across Britain are another.

EARLIER this year more than two dozen directors of prominent arts festivals throughout the UK penned an open letter to the Government urging it to make the visa application process for artists more affordable and more transparent.

But these are far from the only people affected. Specialist immigration lawyers have time and again highlighted cases where visitors intending to come to the UK for a short time have been denied visas for trivial and inaccurate reasons.

One leading immigration lawyer, UK-based Jan Doerfel, has even gone as far as to describe the Home Office policy as stemming from “deep underlying racism”.

This is the Britain in which we live today, one characterised by superiority and insecurity at one and the same time. A place where the prevailing attitude to “foreigners” and “outsiders” is summed up by the Home Office’s erection of signs at some UK airports that warn checks will be carried out on all arriving passengers “to keep out people who have no right to enter and to welcome those who do”.

As one person who saw the signs subsequently wryly posted on Twitter: “We now welcome people to the UK with a poorly written angry sign, this is the face of Brexit Britain. A shitty racist island with bad grammar.”

Right now it’s not just the Lower Zambezi Valley that has become a recognisably hostile environment staked by predatory poachers. The Akashinga women are only the latest to realise that Britain itself has become a pretty hostile and inhospitable place thanks to a callous and predacious Tory government. -