Coronavirus

Covid-19 Pandemic leaves migrants in the dark

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This article has been written by Maddie Grounds who is a specialist content writer and
correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of UK immigration
lawyers.

For the majority of the British public, leading a new life of normality thankfully no longer seems
too distant. Yet one of the many lessons that we must learn from this global pandemic is that there are darker facets of ‘normal’ British life: the deep-rooted inequalities and discriminatory practices that blight British society.

For more than 10 years, the NHS has been financially crumbling due to government neglect, BAME communities have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus and undocumented migrants continue to be subject to the same systemic hostile environment policy that was created in 2012 – to make living in the UK as difficult and unwelcoming as possible for them.

Whilst one might assume that a policy which purposefully makes life challenging for
undocumented migrants would be suspended during these tumultuous times, this has sadly not been the case. Instead, accessing free healthcare has been made almost impossible for those who are not able to prove their legal right to be in the UK.

One positive change was the government’s granting of automatic extensions to visas held by
NHS workers which are due to expire before October 2020. Yet, with extensive labour
shortages and unprecedented medical demands defining the last four months, this positive
implementation of change displays governmental prioritisation for those deemed essential rather
than a compassion and concern for all.

Suffering in silence


The Home Office’s renowned relentlessness in rooting out migrants means many have avoided
seeking healthcare due to fears of breaching their immigration conditions and being arrested,
detained and even deported. For example, Spouse Visa holders, who have faced job losses due
to the crisis, may no longer meet the stringent minimum income requirements needed to remain in the UK.


The government’s introduction of patient data sharing between the NHS and the Home Office
has exacerbated this culture of fear: one study published last year concluded that this
arrangement ‘exposed already highly marginalized and vulnerable groups to significant health
risks by increasing barriers to accessing NHS care’. Another report from 2015 found that issues of stigmatisation and shame were further barriers to accessing healthcare, with many undocumented immigrants explaining they ‘did not want to be a burden on the system’.


Amidst a global pandemic, this culture of fear has tragic consequences. Elvis, a Filipino man
who had lived in the UK for over 10 years and worked as a cleaner, sadly died after suffering in
silence
with Covid-19. Despite being critically ill, he did not seek care in fear ‘that he would be
charged thousands of pounds for his treatment, or that he would face immigration enforcement
if he tried to access care’, as explained in a letter signed by 60 MPS and sent to Health
Secretary Matt Hancock.

An era of hostility continues


On 28 April, the government announced that ‘NHS trusts have been advised that no
immigration checks are required for overseas visitors that are known to be only undergoing
testing or treatment for Covid-19’. Yet, with the culture of fear ingrained so deeply in the
minds of migrants who have been repeatedly subject to ongoing hostility, this fails to grant any
real assurance; nor does it state that the NHS will not be required to share data with the Home Office. One only has to look at Windrush to see that even those who have called the UK their country for over 50 years are far from being immune under the current discriminatory
system.


Instead, an era of immigration hostility has been cemented by the Home Office’s prioritisation of
deportation and ‘tough’ immigration practices. One woman who had lived in the UK for seven
years was ordered to leave the country within days or face deportation, despite there being a
complete travel ban amidst the ongoing pandemic.


Protecting our migrant NHS workers


Implementations that appear to be positive have been repeatedly undermined by
governmental carelessness and uncertainty. For example, foreign doctors and nurses working
on the NHS frontline were caused ‘unnecessary distress’ after the government declared that they
would have their visas extended free of charge – only to then narrow the group that would
benefit from this change. Despite the Home Office assuring that 2,800 frontline NHS workers
whose visas are due to expire before 1 October would have a year-long extension, these plans
in fact only appeared to cover holders of tier two visas, leaving holders of other visas –
including healthcare assistants and cleaners – in a worrying state of limbo.


Despite the government announcing that there will be no costs for anyone – including migrants –
receiving Covid-19 treatment and testing, migrant NHS workers currently risking their own lives
on the frontline are still subject to extortionate fees to cover healthcare. The Immigration Health
Surcharge (IHS) adds £400 per year per person to the cost of a UK visa; a fee soon to increase
to £625 year per person. For those with large families, these fees accumulate to ridiculous
annual costs: one nurse has to pay more than £11,000 for her and her family to access the
health service, despite working for the NHS.


Moving forward


In Ireland, a firewall has been set up to allow migrants to access healthcare without fear whilst
automatically extending all visas. In Portugal, all migrants are being treated as ‘residents’. In
Britain, charities and activists signed an open letter to home secretary Priti Patel, demanding a
list of changes, including suspending all NHS charges and data sharing, ensuring all migrants
have access to vital public services and releasing everyone currently detained under
immigration powers. Yet, none of these proposals have been implemented in the UK.

Ensuring that all migrants are medically and financially protected during these unprecedented times is not a question of political debate, but a humane and progressive decision based on basic moral judgements.

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