An elderly woman with lung cancer was told she would have to fly home to Ukraine in order to receive treatment, it has been reported. This would be quite a feat given there are currently no flights going into the country. Confronted with this news, Home Office administrators suggested that she drive instead. This absurd case highlights the intractable and insensitive culture behind day-to-day Home Office bureaucracy, which recently came in for serious criticism with the long-awaited publication of the Windrush Lessons Learned review.
In another sign that the Home Office is intending to carry out business as usual, it hasn’t updated its coronavirus immigration advice for the best part of a month. Its determination to maintain the hostile environment, even in these unprecedented times, will surprise nobody who has been closely tracking developments in immigration policy over the past few months.
The pandemic has thrown the UK’s hostile environment into the spotlight once again. As the Home Office continues to fly in the face of common sense and humanity, migrants are being left to fend off the impending Covid-19 crisis on their own. As food banks are driven into closure by dwindling volunteer numbers and supermarket shortages, it is undocumented migrants who will be worst affected. There are too many migrants currently on the brink of destitution without recourse to public funds.
The situation in healthcare is equally dire. While the government has confirmed that migrants can get tested for Covid-19 on the NHS at no charge, it has failed to publicise this fact. Equally, if they test negative for coronavirus and require other treatment, they could still incur charges.
Any policy that deters people from seeking medical treatment under the current circumstances is not only inhumane – it can also exacerbate the spread of the virus. Pausing the immigration healthcare surcharge to ensure everyone comes forward would make a world of sense – not least because the security apparatus surrounding it is so expensive.
Prisons were quickly identified as one area where coronavirus could spread like wildfire without special provisions. It took a while longer for the government to accept the danger posed to people in immigration detention centres, and even longer to publicly acknowledge it. The Home Office has maintained the pretence that it will carry on with deportations as usual but the fact that it cannot do so means it shouldn’t be keeping them prisoner in the first place.
The government has now removed some of the most at-risk people from detention centres, but keeping people in such a risky situation seems entirely disproportionate when you remember that their main crime was not being born in this country. We also know that most people who are detained are let out after less than a month, which – as one prison inspector noted in 2015 – “raises questions about the validity of their detention in the first place”.
There are even some voices from the Conservative benches that are now recognising problems in our current immigration system as a result of coronavirus. Tory backbencher Steve Double pointed out how workers who were maligned as low-skilled just last month are “actually pretty crucial to the smooth running of our country”, and called on Home Secretary Priti Patel to think again.
As I pointed out recently in my critique of the points-based immigration system, all work is skilled work when it’s done well. Coronavirus is reminding everyone that there is no such thing as low-skilled work – only low-paid work. As the rich flee the worst-hit areas in London, it’s the migrant workforce that is keeping the city on its feet.
Why is the Home Office so determined to carry on with business as usual when it’s clearly dangerous and impractical? It seems obvious to me that the real reason they are so scared about giving ground is that it will show up the monumental pointlessness, waste and tragedy of the current system.
The crisis so far has taught us two important things: that infections do not recognise national borders, and that public health is precisely that – public. It’s in the interests of all of us to ensure that everyone else has the means to stay healthy during the crisis.
Leaving people without the means to meet their basic needs isn’t just a human tragedy during a global pandemic – it’s also a serious public health issue. As activists rally together and sense some cracks in the current immigration infrastructure, it is more important than ever that Labour stands up to oppose the hostile environment.