Coronavirus: a chance to reshape the UK’s approach to immigration?
by Holly Barrow
As the coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc across the globe, it has once again become clear that not all of us are equally equipped to weather this storm. Casting a damning light on social inequalities in the UK, the coronavirus has made it abundantly clear that disparities in wealth and socioeconomic circumstances are having a detrimental impact on swathes of the UK population throughout this crisis, with BAME groups disproportionately affected.
Immigrants know only too well what this burden entails, as government policy leaves them among those bearing the worst of the pandemic’s repercussions, particularly those with insecure immigration status. Both prior to and since the Covid-19 outbreak in Britain, charities and activists have urged the government to suspend the hostile environment in a bid to protect the most vulnerable.
The ‘hostile environment’ – a group of immigration policies implemented with the sole aim of making life in the UK as challenging and unwelcoming as possible for undocumented immigrants – first came into effect in 2012. Since then, it has been widely criticised for placing immigrants in increasingly precarious circumstances and is held largely responsible for the likes of the Windrush scandal in 2018.
In restricting access to healthcare, housing and employment, the hostile environment has had devastating impacts on those with insecure immigration status in particular, including asylum seekers. This damaging government policy has arguably contributed to a warped public perception of immigrants – particularly those deemed ‘illegal’ – through continued demonisation.
Now, in the midst of one of the greatest crises of modern times, it is more important than ever that the government eradicates the hostile environment – or at the very least suspends it for the duration of the pandemic.
This starts, first and foremost, with addressing public perceptions and attitudes towards immigrants. From Brexit to the growing popularity of Nigel Farage’s UKIP party in 2016, anti-immigration sentiment has become rife throughout Britain in recent years. In fact, it was cited as one of the leading factors in the EU referendum result, with a YouGov poll finding that 56 per cent of Britons listed immigration and asylum as the biggest issue facing the country.
Yet, ironically, after the vote for Brexit in June 2016, there was a notable surge in British citizens applying for an Irish passport – one of the most notorious examples being Noel Gallagher, who, despite voting to leave the EU, admitted he had applied for Irish citizenship after the vote. What this seems to suggest is that British citizens do not consider themselves ‘immigrants’ – and that the stigma attached to this term is reserved only for certain demographics.
Now, as the UK witnesses the many immigrant NHS workers, retail assistants, cleaners, delivery drivers and more who face enormous risks in order to keep the country afloat, the perception of those only recently labelled ‘low-skilled’ has been turned on its head. It is essential that this shift in attitude marks a change in the government’s wider approach to immigration. As we are in uncharted waters – with the entire globe uncertain of what the future may hold – it seems there is no better time to band together and recognise the importance of solidarity.
While it is crucial that we do not reduce the value of immigrants to their economic contributions, it is time that the UK population recognised just how pivotal immigrants are to the country’s continued prosperity. The coronavirus provides an opportunity to re-evaluate the importance and value of immigration while also reinforcing that we are all human and are all in this crisis together, albeit some to a greater extent than others.
With around 33 per cent of doctors and 22 per cent of NHS nurses in the UK being foreign-born, this pandemic ought to drive home just how invaluable immigration is. Without immigrants, our economy and wider society would inevitably suffer. Often, those against immigration portray immigrants as people who take as opposed to give. This argument – while already having been disproved in the past – has been shattered once and for all. Immigrants’ contributions are boundless.
Reframing the UK’s hostile approach to immigration
When charities and activists call upon the government to suspend the hostile environment during the coronavirus pandemic, what we are asking is for support to be extended to all human beings, not only those who had the privilege of being born in the UK. Immigrants are largely excluded from the vital support currently being offered to the public during this crisis – including the government’s financial packages, such as the slight increase in universal credit and implementation of furlough schemes.
With the majority of immigrants – both undocumented and those with leave to remain – being subject to the ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ condition, the pandemic is proving especially difficult as they can’t access this financial help. Not only is this a risk to the lives of those directly affected, it is also of severe detriment to public health. If immigrants cannot access the necessary support to survive this pandemic, they do not have the luxury of self-isolation and must therefore continue to work regardless of whether they have symptoms of Covid-19.
Many will argue that the government simply does not have the resources to support immigrants. Yet, what became painfully clear with the government’s most recent budget announcement in early March of this year is that austerity has always been a political choice. This has similarly been demonstrated throughout the course of the pandemic, with nations worldwide adopting policies and social safety nets that were – prior to the coronavirus – considered no more than a pipedream.
It is important, then, that the government makes the right choice – one that will spare lives and provide necessary safety to all UK residents, not only those who won the unearned lottery of birth.
Holly Barrow is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers providing free legal advice and support to asylum seekers and victims of domestic abuse.
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