The hostile environment is creating a coronavirus crisis for Britain’s migrants | Maya Goodfellow | Opinion

A week after Priti Patel stood in the House of Commons and issued an apology for the Windrush scandal, Abanda was trying to figure out how to survive during the Covid-19 pandemic. “I haven’t seen anything addressed to us,” she says. Abanda is a refused asylum seeker who advocates for migrant rights. “I don’t think we exist.”

Days later, as part of a number of measures announced for migrants, the Home Office extended support for some of those seeking asylum. But the standard financial assistance remains under £40 a week, less than half of the statutory sick pay. It’s an amount ministers should be asked if they could survive on, particularly when vital migrant services have had to to be scaled back.

Abanda is also worried about friends who are undocumented and still going to work because there are few clear avenues of support for them. She’s concerned for those who are too scared to seek medical help because they live in a country where hostility courses through the veins of our basic services. These are some of the people charities now warn are at high risk not only of contracting Covid-19, but of starvation.

After decades of racist, dehumanising rhetoric and policies that deny migrants basic rights, they seem to be some of the people lowest on the list of concerns in the Covid-19 response. Unless, that is, they can be drafted in to help the NHS. Like cleaners, care workers, supermarket staff and delivery drivers – many of whom are migrants – NHS workers are risking their lives to keep us safe. These are the “key workers” the government just last month dismissed as “low-skilled”.

In this moment of crisis, the government has so far either offered piecemeal measures for migrants, or done nothing. Now a group of organisations is asking why the government hasn’t suspended the hostile environment and NRPF (“no recourse to public funds”. Introduced under New Labour and tightened under the coalition government, NRPF is a condition attached to certain immigration statuses that bars migrants from accessing state support. For Paige’s husband, a self-employed builder from Albania, it might mean he won’t qualify for state support to cover any loss of income during the pandemic. So far she says it’s been “all silence” from the government on this issue.

Jane is similarly worried. As a freelancer in the creative industry, her work vanished in a seven-day period. NRPF means she can’t apply for universal credit, get support from her local council or, it seems, claim as someone who’s self-employed. “I don’t think the government understands how little of a safety net migrants, and most of society, functions on day-to-day,” she says.

It is moments like these that expose the true impact of anti-immigration policies. As we’re all being told to “stay at home”, asylum seekers are forced to use cramped communal eating spaces and live in damp, dirty accommodation, and migrants are worrying about how they’ll feed themselves. The virus might not care about immigration status, but government policy still can.

Significant parts of immigration enforcement have been suspended, such as screening interviews and evictions, but even some of those changes are riddled with gaps and confusion. Immigration barrister Colin Yeo tells me that one way the government could improve things would be to establish a firewall between the NHS and the Home Office. Under the hostile environment, doctors are required to act as immigration enforcers, so a lot of people still worry their data will be passed on. When you inject fear into the system, don’t be surprised if it shows up in times of crisis.

Keeping track of all the announcements is difficult; making sense of them is just as hard. In a long list of suggested changes to the Home Office’s procedures, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants issued a stark warning: “Unless the emergency measures are simple, they will fail.” Clarity has not been forthcoming. Yet somehow the Home Office Twitter account has found time to start spats with the migrant organisations and make illogical arguments to defend the ongoing detention of around 750 people.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In Ireland, a firewall has been set up so migrants can access healthcare without fear, and visas have been automatically extended. In Portugal, the government has made it so that all asylum seekers and undocumented migrants who have pending residence applications can automatically access state support. When it doesn’t do the same, the UK government is making a political choice.

In the short term, people in immigration detention should be released, while all asylum seekers and migrants need automatic access to resources without fear of detention or deportation. But in the long-term, anti-immigrant thinking has to be actively dislodged.

It is not enough for some Conservative MPs to realise that the migrants they dismissed as “low-skilled” are in fact “key workers”. The logic that underpinned this thinking is the problem. People’s rights, their access to healthcare, their ability to survive – none of this should be determined by how much they earn, their perceived skills or their immigration status. This is as true now as it will be when the pandemic is over. But if we aren’t careful, it risks being ignored.

Maya Goodfellow is a writer and academic, and the author of Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats

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