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Living in Limbo: the Migrants in the Grey Area of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Written by
Luna Williams, Immigration Advice Service
Date of Publication:
26 March 2020

Right now, the world is poised in an unprecedented, and uncertain position. Everywhere we look, businesses are crashing, jobs are being lost or suspended, and people are battening down the hatches in the hopes of waiting out the worst of the pandemic which has gripped not only the UK, but the world.

Europe now sits at the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak and to compensate for this, EU countries have entered lockdown modes, in an attempt to reduce the spread of the virus and reduce national and international deathtolls. Uncertainty, here, is an understatement. Around the country, Britons are buying extra food and supplies, working from home, and isolating themselves in order to meet the latest Government social distancing measures. We are all uncertain about what will happen in the coming weeks and months, and what hurdles we have yet to jump as a nation.

This situation has impacted everyone, but it is vulnerable and minority groups which bear the brunt of this. Migrants living in the UK are no exception to this; the concept of uncertainty takes on a whole new meaning for those with insecure, or temporary immigration status. For these people, the hurdles are even higher.

Fears for those with impending visa deadlines, who were unable to travel back home because of lockdown travel restrictions, have been mounting over the past few weeks. The Home Office's ongoing decision to allow the UK's immigration system to continue to function as normal has meant that many migrants whose visas have been due to expire have been caught between adhering to the PM's call to "stay at home" and not being in breach of immigration law. This has caused wide-spread uncertainties within migrant communities, who have been living in an effective catch-22 since social distancing procedures and travel restrictions began being implemented earlier this month.

While other governments around Europe – including our Irish neighbours – were quick to clarify these uncertainties by issuing extensive and wide-spanning visa extensions, the UK's remained silent until yesterday, when they announced that anyone whose leave to remain expired after the 24th January would be able to extend their visas until 31st May. Additionally, UKVI has also announced that rules have been relaxed for those who want to switch onto new categories, and that those on Work and Student Visas will be able to "work or study from home" without being in breach of the duties of their type of leave to remain.

While this news has allowed many people to breath a (partial) sigh of relief, the updates still leave many in a grey area – and there are still several unanswered questions for those who hold a UK visa.

What will happen to Tier 2 or Tier 5 workers who cannot work from home, for example? Not all professions will allow for remote working; in many cases it is an impossible feat. What is the procedure for those who have been made redundant by businesses closing down entirely? Can they apply for another job role without applying for a fresh visa and rearranging sponsorship, or will they still need to follow standard procedure?

Unfortunately, job loss is not only a problem for people living in the UK under Work Visa categories. Those with leave to remain as the spouse of a British citizen or settled person are also required to meet financial criteria in order to remain eligible for the visa they hold or apply for an extension. Currently, Spouse Visa applicants are required to demonstrate that they and their partners have a combined annual income of at least £18,600. But what will happen to those who lose income and subsequently drop below this bracket as a direct result of Coronavirus measures? What if one or both partners are self-employed, or own businesses, for example?

And what about those looking to make settlement applications? To be eligible for Indefinite Leave to Remain, a person must meet the continuous residency period. This requires them to not have left the UK for a specified number of days. Depending on which route they are taking to gain ILR in the UK this varies, but most commonly it requires them to have been absent from the UK for no more than 180 days in the last 12 months that precede their ILR application. Travel restrictions have resulted in thousands of global migrants and travellers being stranded abroad, and while repatriation missions have been issued to help bring British nationals back home, those with non-permanent status are not covered by these measures. UK visa holders who were travelling when countries began to close their borders now risk being outside of the UK for at least three more weeks, and potentially longer. For those affected there are concerns about whether the time that elapses while they are stranded will or will not be taken into account when calculating whether they meet the continuous residency period in future ILR applications.

Our daily lives have become a string of unanswered questions. But for migrants who are caught in these kinds of situations, an already uncertain time is made doubly difficult. It is true that our government is already under strain and pressure, as it attempts to grapple with this pandemic and make decisions on the best ways to cope with and tackle it. However, more must be done to create answers for the questions which we can answer easily – such as those being asked by migrants in these situations. The time is upon us to pull together if we are to fight against the crisis which surrounds us, and we must not forget those who are more vulnerable and insecure when doing so.