The dismal UK Home Office response to coronavirus: the wider picture

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.

By Colin Yeo.

Dear Bridget,

We’ve learned that closeness does not mean contact, so I hope that this can count as a ‘Letter from Afar’ even if ‘afar’ seems a strangely 19th-century way of talking about the distance between Newport and Bristol. I wanted to share with you some of my reflections on the UK Home Office’s response to coronavirus and what it means for migrants and asylum seekers.

Let me start with recognition of the fact that basic steps to reduce immediate contagion risk were quietly implemented in mid-March – such as suspension of immigration bail reporting and cancellation of asylum interviews. This may have been because the hand of the Home Office was forced by social distancing guidelines from other government departments. But where the Home Office response has been seriously deficient is in its chaotic communications, failure to protect migrant lives, failure to protect families and questionable legal competence.

Adrian Berry from the Immigration Law Practitioner’ Association and I gave evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee about these failings. But I want to step back from the immediate Home Office failings here and think about the broader context. There are important features of the immigration system that could inform a considered, strategic and effective government response. If there was to be such a thing.

Unauthorised migrants

First, there are estimated to be between 600,000 and 1.2 million unauthorised migrants living in the UK. If the government decides to employ a policy of contact tracing, the size and distribution of this population will potentially make such a policy very difficult. Unauthorised migrants are not going to volunteer to download an app which tells the authorities where they live and work.

This group are in considerable danger from coronavirus. Many are destitute, have no routine access to healthcare and live in substandard accommodation with no access to furloughing or Universal Credit. The government says it is trying to stop transmission of the virus by reducing non-essential work that brings people into contact with one another, but for this group work is literally a matter of survival.

Some countries have responded to the coronavirus crisis by offering unauthorised migrants access to lawful residence and to welfare support. There were already lots of reasons to pursue this policy and the public health dimension during a pandemic is just one more.

Access to healthcare

This brings us to the hostile environment. One of the features of the policy – and it is a feature, not a bug – is that it makes unauthorised migrants afraid of the authorities. Data sharing agreements between departments mean a sick person who seeks medical help may be reported to the immigration authorities and there is plenty of evidence that unauthorised migrants would rather go untreated than risk deportation. The government has added coronavirus to the list of diseases for which free treatment is available to all. This is welcome, but it does nothing to address this fear.

An amnesty would address this issue. As a first step the data sharing arrangements between government departments and the immigration authorities need to be suspended.

Nature of the immigration system

The immigration system is highly complex with outdated and sometimes incomprehensible laws, a widespread lack of faith in the immigration authorities, a very poor working relationship between the authorities and civil society and the legal community, and dire consequences for anyone who makes the slightest mistake.

Immigration lawyers have to be cautious because for us worst case scenarios are the norm. So, we are reluctant to accept such unverifiable and easily-reversible Home Office platitudes as ‘we’ll extend visas, trust us’, and we are slow to trust a government website that changes almost daily, leaving no trace of whatever was yesterday’s mumbled, fumbled plan F. We need to see proper statutory instruments that we can be confident are legally effective. At the very least, the Home Office needs to share why it thinks announcements on a website meet the formal requirements of the Immigration Act 1971.

Valuing migrants

The UK immigration system values migrants by their economic worth. Migrants are Good Migrants if they contribute to the economy as the ‘highly skilled’. Implicitly and often explicitly, migrants are Bad Migrants if they contribute to our economy and society through ‘low-skilled’ work picking fruit, cleaning hospitals and delivering food. Or by caring for children and the elderly.

The public and maybe even the government may be re-evaluating what the coronavirus has definitively shown to be a false dichotomy. I’m not holding my breath; the old ways of thinking have become deeply embedded.

A range of harsh policies are automatically triggered against migrants who lose their jobs or whose salaries are reduced. If a family that includes a migrant husband, wife or partner finds that its income has dropped below £18,000, the migrant will have to leave the country, and the British partner and children will either have to accompany them or stay behind and hope better times eventually come. If a skilled worker on a Tier 2 visa loses their job or their salary drops below £30,000, they will also have to leave the country. Some are affected by this rule right now, but many others will face the problem in the coming months as their visas expire.

Immigration policies tying immigration status to economic value are supposed to incentivise migrants to work hard – or, at least, to earn a lot, which is not always the same thing. But during the coronavirus, when the government is trying to discourage everyone from unnecessary work and the social contact it inevitably brings, migrants are still compelled to work. Migrants do qualify for furloughing, but if the 20% cut in wages puts them below the income thresholds, they are ultimately going to have to leave the country.

If migrants are valued in purely economic terms, and very narrow economic terms at that, they are – not to put too fine a point on it – totally screwed if or when the economy collapses.

This is why I and others have been so critical of the whole hostile environment policy. It does nothing to deter future arrivals or encourage departures, but it does treat migrants already in the UK as a disposable economic commodity rather than as human beings worthy of respect.

It is difficult for politicians who have risen to power on the back of anti-immigrant sentiment to reverse an anti-immigrant policy. Some are genuinely ideologically committed to reducing immigration but also their political support depends on their presenting themselves as tough on immigrants.

It is time to separate out future admissions policy from the treatment of migrants who are admitted. The coronavirus offers an opportunity to make changes on a temporary basis that can later become permanent. The opportunity should be embraced and hostile environment measures suspended.

Colin Yeo is a barrister, writer, campaigner and consultant specialising in immigration law. He founded and edits the Free Movement immigration law blog. This Letter from Afar is an edited version of one of his recent posts on the Free Movement website. Colin’s latest book, Welcome to Britain: Fixing our Broken Immigration System, will be published by Biteback in July.

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