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COVID-19 & The Hostile Environment

Written by
Holly Barrow, Immigration Advice Service
Date of Publication:
14 May 2020

As the British public adapts to a new form of normality, the Coronavirus pandemic continues to shed light on critical, deep-rooted issues that have long plagued the UK. Stark inequalities have once more come to light, as BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) individuals are suffering disproportionately under the pandemic - indisputably linked to the fact that they are more likely to live in overcrowded housing and work in frontline roles. It has become increasingly evident that we are not positioned equally to weather this storm and playing a crucial role in this fact are pre-existing social inequalities.

One group grappling with this reality are migrants who continue to face unique and unnecessary hurdles, as the government ensures its 'hostile environment' policies remain firmly in place.

Despite some positive changes emerging during the pandemic - with the government granting automatic extensions to visas held by NHS workers which are due to expire before October 2020 - there has been a critical disregard for the most vulnerable, namely undocumented migrants and asylum seekers.

This is perhaps unsurprising when considering the aims of the government's 'hostile environment' policies which were implemented in 2012 with the sole purpose of making life as unwelcoming and difficult as possible for those with insecure immigration status in the UK. Charities have urged the government to suspend the hostile environment for migrants during the current crisis but, so far, their words fall on deaf ears.

Healthcare & The Culture of Fear

The consequences have proved devastating. Undocumented migrants have long avoided health services in the UK, particularly since the government introduced patient data sharing between the NHS and the Home Office in 2016. One study published in 2019 examined the negative impacts of the government's hostile environment policies on migrants with regards to accessing healthcare, noting that this sharing of confidential data between the NHS and the Home Office has resulted in an 'atmosphere of fear' that has 'exposed already highly marginalised and vulnerable groups to significant health risks by increasing barriers.' An aspect which continues to deter migrants from accessing health services in the UK is the very real threat of deportation.

Now, as the world faces a pandemic, this culture of fear has predictably proven to be a recipe for disaster and devastation. One man, Elvis - a Filipino who had lived in the UK for over ten years while working as a cleaner - tragically died after suffering in silence with COVID-19. Susan Cueva from the Kanlangun Filipino Consortium told of how, despite being critically ill, Elvis was 'too afraid to go to hospital for fear that he would be charged for his treatment, which he could not afford, and that he would be reported to immigration authorities.'

The wider implications of the government's hostile environment policies cannot be understated; it is, in the midst of a pandemic, continuing to perpetuate life-threatening conditions, with undocumented migrants risking their lives out of a deeply ingrained fear of authorities in the UK. Regrettably, their fears are not unfounded.

Failure to Suspend Hostile Environment

Despite tragic cases such as Elvis', the Home Office is yet to make necessary changes to policy in order to reassure and guarantee that migrants will not be penalised for seeking health care throughout this crisis. On the contrary, the Home Office has been accused of prioritising tough immigration practices over public health.

Migrants across the spectrum - not only those with insecure status - are finding themselves at a loss, uncertain of whether they are now inadvertently breaching the conditions of their leave to remain. Spouse Visa holders who face job losses, for example, may find themselves unavoidably flouting the UK's stringent immigration law through no longer meeting the minimum income requirement.

The Home Office, despite promising a 'review' of this legislation, is - intentionally or not - contributing to unnecessary apprehension, stress and fear in those who have, time and again, been given reason to doubt that the Home Office has their best interests in mind.

'No Recourse to Public Funds' and Lack of Financial Support

While a vast majority of the population has been able to access the government's furlough scheme or has received a slight increase in universal credit to help with the unprecedented hurdles brought about by the pandemic, migrants have largely been omitted from the government's safety net.

Very few forms of immigration permission allow for access to public funds, meaning many of those granted leave to remain in the UK are subject to the 'No Recourse to Public Funds' (NRPF) condition.

At a time when economies are crashing and work is scarce, this undeniably hits those with insecure immigration status the hardest as they are likely to receive no sick pay and similarly have no access to state benefits. For those in key worker roles - such as shop assistants and cleaners - this exclusion from sick pay entitlement will inevitably see individuals suffering with symptoms of the Coronavirus left with no choice but to continue to work. With self-isolation a luxury reserved for those who are entitled to the government's financial support schemes, migrants with COVID-19 symptoms face an inconceivable dilemma; either continue to show up to work, or risk being plunged into destitution.

Next Steps

As charities and activists continue to pressure the UK government to provide robust support to migrants throughout the current crisis, there are a number of critical policies which ought to be addressed.

To preserve the hostile environment would be to actively prey on the vulnerability of those most likely to fall through the cracks. The government must scrap 'No Recourse to Public Funds' for all migrants - regardless of status - and ought to grant temporary leave to remain to all asylum seekers, refugees and undocumented migrants.

In Ireland, a firewall has been set up, allowing migrants to access healthcare without fearing arrest or deportation. The UK is yet to make such an unambiguous, definitive guarantee to those who remain wary of authorities.

Ensuring the safety and financial support of migrants at this time would not only benefit those in precarious situations - who may now be resorting to exploitative work to get by - but is also necessary to prioritise public health. Social distancing and self-isolation must not be limited to the most privileged - to reap the necessary, life-saving benefits of these measures, they must apply to all citizens across the UK.