Posted: 15 March 2020
Ben Towse, Labour Campaign for Free Movement
The harsh regime of hostile policies imposed on both documented and undocumented migrants living in this country is already a racist scandal. Now, with the spread of COVID-19, these policies put migrants at increased risk and could exacerbate the public health crisis. Labour, our unions and our movement must demand immediate action to protect migrants.
1500 to 2000 people are imprisoned in the UK’s immigration detention centres. Close-quarters incarceration and the frequent moving of detainees between centres mean that COVID-19 could spread rapidly and put both detainees and staff working in the detention system at heightened risk.
Migrants’ rights groups have already issued a call to free all immigration detainees. The government must let them leave immediately, while ensuring they are supported with decent healthcare as needed, and decent housing and financial support so that those who need to self-isolate can do so. Any workers sent home as a result must be kept on full pay.
Similarly, asylum seekers sheltered in temporary accommodation need urgent support and protection. This temporary accommodation has been contracted out by the government to private businesses, and it is often overcrowded. We need independent health inspections of asylum accommodation; relocation of particularly vulnerable people and anyone in accommodation found to be below standards; and specific healthcare provision.
For both asylum seekers needing relocation, and any released detainees who don’t have decent housing to which they can return – as well as all homeless people, whether UK citizens or immigrants – the government must be prepared to requisition housing if necessary. This might mean homes left empty by landlords and property speculators, or hotel rooms and the like. Decent-quality, warm, non-overcrowded housing is a human right at any time, and even more so in a public health crisis.
We know from extensive evidence that NHS charging and the threat of information being shared with the Home Office deters migrants from accessing healthcare. Even where specific diseases are exempt, as COVID-19 is, there are still charges for any other conditions they might have at the same time, plus the threat that they might be targeted by immigration enforcement.
All NHS charging must be halted immediately, a firewall must be established to prevent any data-sharing with immigration authorities, and the government must mount a publicity campaign to let everyone know they can access the NHS without fear.
As increasing numbers of workers are asked to self-isolate, there has been widespread discussion of the need for full financial support. We can’t obey medical advice if staying home means not having enough money to feed ourselves or keep the heating on. That includes everyone. So the pernicious “no recourse to public funds” conditions that deny the majority of migrants access to social security must be suspended right now.
Similarly, the Home Office needs to suspend the conditions that force many visa-holders to report in regularly, and must issue reassurances that anyone forced to miss appointments or deadlines will face no penalty.
The government has already introduced some limited visa extensions for Chinese nationals. This isn’t enough. Anyone needing to self-isolate, or anyone facing a requirement to return to any high-risk region around the world, must be granted an automatic and unconditional extension. The Home Office must issue physical documents confirming this to everyone affected.
Given that individuals’ circumstances can be complex, and the situation is changing rapidly, it would be safest and simplest for the government just to extend all visas and suspend all immigration enforcement.
The demands raised here are temporary measures to face the crisis. But most of them would ideally be permanent.
Public health crises force us to remember that our individual wellbeing is connected to that of others around us. As long as any of us are subject to repression and precarity, none of us can truly be free and secure. When the crisis subsides, let’s not forget it. Instead let’s fight for a permanent end to the violent injustices of detention and deportation and for an NHS and social security system that are truly universal.