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Rights groups warn hostile environment policies are undermining government efforts to protect public health during coronavirus outbreak


Groups concerned that adequate steps have not been taken to protect migrants at risk of COVID-19

Date of Publication:
18 March 2020

Rights groups warn hostile environment policies are undermining government efforts to protect public health during coronavirus outbreak

18 March 2020

Thirty human rights and migrants' rights groups have written a letter to the Home Secretary to warn that the Government's 'hostile environment' policies are a risk to public health during the current coronavirus outbreak.

GOV.UK COVIDMedact, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), Liberty and the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association (ILPA) were among the signatories.

The groups say that the hostile environment is stopping migrants from accessing healthcare, making them acutely vulnerable to the coronavirus.

"We are concerned that adequate steps have not been taken to protect migrant populations at risk of COVID-19. Inaction from the government on this issue will worsen a health crisis that requires a truly public health-led response, not a tiered system which serves some and shuts out others," the letter states.

The letter calls for the immediate suspension of all NHS charging and data-sharing with the Home Office for the purposes of immigration enforcement, and the immediate suspension of 'no recourse to public funds' conditions to ensure that everyone can access the support they need.

Satbir Singh, chief executive of JCWI, said: "The evidence could not be clearer – restricting any group's access to healthcare is bad not only for their health, but for that of the wider public too. We are only as protected as the least protected among us. In the midst of this unprecedented global health crisis, the Government must not only allow, but proactively encourage migrants to seek the healthcare they need."

The groups also call for assurances to be made to migrants who may be forced to miss regular reporting to the Home Office, court hearings, interview appointments or are unable to submit documentation due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The letter adds: "Similarly, if legal representatives cannot attend court hearings then the Home Office presenting officer or legal counsel should agree any extension that is required. Migrants should not be forced to make a decision between accessing healthcare or risking their immigration status."

Last week, Detention Action and nine other groups wrote to the Home Secretary to express concern about the risk of an uncontrolled outbreak of COVID-19 in immigration detention.

"In order to prevent the disease spreading rapidly among detainees, custody officers, healthcare staff and all others in Immigration Removal Centres, the government should immediately release all immigration detainees. This is in the interests of public health. We are concerned that if the government does not act now, detainees will continue to be held in close proximity, in a high-risk environment, leading to a preventable spread of the virus and losses of life," the letter stated.

Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, said on Twitter on Saturday that that her organisation is taking the Government to court to demand the release of immigration detainees due to the risk of COVID-19.

"As the UK braces itself for this pandemic and as borders close the Home Office must take swift action prevent a human catastrophe," Sankey said.

Meanwhile, the Lord Chief Justice yesterday wrote an update on the impact of coronavirus on the functioning of the courts.

The Lord Chief Justice said: "The latest guidance from government on how to respond to COVID-19 will clearly have an impact on the operation of all courts in every jurisdiction. It is not realistic to suppose that it will be business as usual in any jurisdiction, but it is of vital importance that the administration of justice does not grind to a halt.

"Given the rapidly evolving situation, there is an urgent need to increase the use of telephone and video technology immediately to hold remote hearings where possible. Emergency legislation is being drafted which is likely to contain clauses that expand the powers in criminal courts to use technology in a wider range of hearings. The Civil Procedure Rules and Family Procedure Rules provide for considerable flexibility.

"Our immediate aim is to maintain a service to the public, ensure as many hearings in all jurisdictions can proceed and continue to deal with all urgent matters."

Garden Court barrister Franck Magennis said on Twitter on Monday: "Kenyan client was just granted immigration bail, partly based on COVID-19. The Judge said 'I am persuaded by the pandemic point. It seems to me completely relevant that that imminence of removal just cannot be guaranteed in these fast changing times with air travel restrictions'."

Magennis added: "As this emergency unfolds, it's urgent for us as immigration lawyers to present a unified, consistent argument: that people stuck in immigration detention need bail. These aren't usual times. This is not just a question of individual liberty (it always is), but of public health."