Nobody is safe until we're all safe
The UK government's COVID-19 response must include changes to the immigration system too
The key message and instruction from Government at this time is for social distancing and self-isolation – basically, stay home and away from other people. But to do this many people need help.
You cannot stay home if you don’t have one or it’s not safe for you.
If you cannot afford food, accommodation, medicine and other essentials for yourself and family, you may be compelled to go out to earn money – and for many people that may mean doing work that is exploitative and unsafe because that is all you can get.
And if you are locked up by the state, whether you can stay safe at this time is pretty much out of your hands altogether.
COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate on the basis of citizenship or immigration status but the UK’s immigration system does – and it does so in profoundly harmful ways even without this pandemic.
Since it is vital for everybody that everyone adhere to instructions on social distancing, self-isolation and other measures to stay safe and well, it is especially urgent that the impact of the immigration system is addressed.
Here are five things the government needs to do now:
Stop all data-sharing that deters people from contacting vital public services.
Many people are deterred from contacting public services because they fear being reported to the immigration authorities. This deters people from accessing vital services – even services to which they are fully entitled. This is generally harmful. Now, it is potentially catastrophic.
Ensure everyone who needs healthcare relating to COVID-19 can get it
Treatment for the virus has been made free for all although the general advice for people with symptoms is to stay at home and self-isolate. However, treatment for many underlying conditions that make someone more vulnerable to it are not free to all.
At a minimum, NHS charges should be withdrawn for treatment without which someone is liable to be more likely to catch the virus or to be at risk of serious or life-threatening complications from it.
Ensure nobody is prevented from accessing safe and secure accommodation or other means to keep themselves and their families safe and well
Many people are excluded from renting accommodation, working and accessing various social and welfare services. This includes people in the country without permission, people who have permission but don’t have documentation to show it and people whose permission prohibits them from work or public funds.
Most immediately important is making sure everyone has access to safe accommodation and means of support and that no public or private provider of vital necessities has any hesitation in providing them.
One way to achieve this would be a general decision that at this time everyone who requires permission to be in the UK has it and without any restriction on accessing public funds.
This would have the added benefit of enabling people who frequently suffer from social marginalisation and de-skilling to more easily come forward to play their part in helping their neighbours and communities.
Stop all detention that is either unsafe or for immigration purposes that are not possible at this time
For many years, the UK his routinely detained thousands of people under immigration powers. At this time, however, this may be a risk to them and people working in detention.
In any case, travel restrictions and dangers entailed in travelling will mean people cannot be removed from the UK and there is no lawful basis for detaining them.
It is also vital that steps are taken to ensure that everyone released from detention has somewhere safe to go.
Make sure the information that people need about these and other essential matters is received and can be understood by them
It is not enough for measures to be introduced, the government must make sure that people know about them – and about many other steps that have been taken such as suspending requirements for people to report to immigration offices.
This is not easy – the immigration system under successive governments has been very effective at isolating people and making them fearful of government and public services. After the Windrush scandal and leaving the EU, amongst other things, the immigration system was already in urgent need of re-evaluation and reform.
That hasn’t changed. What has changed, however, is that right now there is an emergency that puts thousands of lives at risk and affects everyone.
Doing all that is needed to ensure everyone in the UK can stay safe, healthy and adhere to government guidance must be the first and last priority of the Home Secretary and all her officials at this time – and that means radically changing what the immigration system does.
Nobody is safe, unless we're ALL safe.