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Transnational practices in local settings



Archive for September, 2020

The pandemic’s impact on ‘undocumented migrants’ in the UK: anatomy of the ‘hostile environment’ by Kusha Anand

By k.anand.14, on 21 September 2020

The ‘hostile environment’ is one of the most contested facets of the government’s immigration policy in the UK – currently referred to as the ‘compliant environment’. First established explicitly by the Labour government in the 2000s and then stretched under Conservative-led governments through the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts, it precludes people without immigration status from taking up employment, renting a home, getting free healthcare, and accessing other standard essentials. It implies a series of immigration enforcement measures that have been put in place to identify and reduce the numbers of people in the UK without immigration status.

However, the ‘hostile environment’ is charged with problems. The ‘deterrent effect’ of the policy on retrieving healthcare and reporting crime has had wider repercussions for public health and safety, and the system has impaired relationships between individuals and frontline workers and relentlessly damaged the reputation of the Home Office. The hostile environment has also nurtured discrimination against migrants and people from ethnic minority backgrounds, and it has affected many people who have a legal immigration status but who do not have the relevant documentation. It has precipitated compelling adversity to undocumented migrants, pushing them into risk and destitution. The Windrush scandal underlined how the hostile environment had dislocated and shattered the lives of people who had lived in the UK for decades.

Hitherto there is little evidence that the ‘hostile environment’ has been efficient in its stated goal: to reduce the populace of people in the UK without legal immigration status. Voluntary returns have dropped over the past decade and there is tiny evidence that the policy has altered people’s decisions to come to or leave the UK. The ‘devastating’ impacts and failings of the hostile environment policies show ‘systemic flaws’ in the approach to immigration enforcement.

The pandemic has exacerbated the effects of the hostile environment on undocumented migrants in the UK, with many experiencing loss of income, risky working conditions and many scared to seek help if they have the virus.

The hostile environment, no financial support and modern slavery: In recent decades, employers have become gradually obliged to check their employees’ certification to ensure they have the ‘right to work’. The Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006 presented civil penalties for employers hiring people without the right to work in the UK. The 2016 Act also made it a criminal offence for someone to work illegally, which gave immigration officials the capacity to seize their earnings. Between April 2015 and August 2018, ICE teams conducted more than 23,000 illegal working deployments, arresting around 15,000 people and removing around 5,000. For those without immigration status who have little to no financial maintenance from the state, finding employment is indispensable to safeguarding some financial security and to avoiding destitution. The criminalisation of work via ‘right to work’ checks endangered driving migrants without a status into the ‘shadow economy’. This increased the jeopardy of precarious work and ‘cash in hand’ jobs. This also made people – and particularly women – vulnerable to exploitation and modern slavery.

From the fragility of the country’s pandemic provision systems and the ‘mendacity’ of Boris Johnson’s Government to the ‘economy-over-life’ ethos, migrants are now more vulnerable to abusive working practises as well as being overrepresented in low paid work, the gig economy, as well as industries most affected by Covid-19 closures. Racial inequalities are a serious life-limiting issue, in particular for migrants whose immigration status does not grant them the right to have complete access to the welfare or healthcare systems. The Kanlungan Filipino Consortium and human rights charity RAPAR disclosed evidence of ‘exploitative employment’. In Leicester, COVID-19 has exposed the shady fashion industry, with reports surfacing in July that it was experiencing abnormally high levels of virus. Workers in some factories that supply online retailer are reportedly paid as little as £3.50 an hour, while it is also reported that many of the factories haven’t put in place measures to protect workers from the pandemic – compelling employees to work in terrible conditions or else lose their income.

The hostile environment, housing and social distancing: The Immigration Act 2014 made it a legitimate requirement for private landlords to crisscross the immigration status of tenants before entering into a tenancy agreement with them. The 2016 Act introduced a criminal offence for landlords who deliberately permit people without a ‘right to rent’ to rent their property.

Source: Pexels

The right to rent checks have elevated fears that the powers given to landlords can lead to an inequitable environment for migrants, as well as for citizens from minority ethnic backgrounds. These checks exemplify how individuals can become fallaciously entangled in a hostile environment, specifically in the case of those from minority ethnic backgrounds. In a study carried out by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), it was found that 51 per cent stated that they are now less likely to consider letting to foreign nationals that originate from outside the EU.  This study also found that landlords revealed a reluctance in conducting online checks, which are essential for those who do not have documentation but have been permitted a ‘permission to rent’ by the Home Office as of their particular circumstances. The right to rent system has been the subject of a legal challenge by JCWI, and in 2019 the High Court ruled that the scheme instigated landlords to discriminate based on nationality and ethnicity and breached human rights laws. Nevertheless, this was inverted in April 2020 by the Court of Appeal, which found that the ‘scheme’ was ‘proportionate’ in meeting its objectives.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also damaged the living arrangements of migrants. Many undocumented migrants live in temporary accommodation shared with others and ‘overcrowded living conditions’, making physical distancing impossible. This can be challenging at the best of times, however, due to the pandemic, several have had to find new accommodation or have struggled to keep themselves safe from possibly contracting the virus. In March, they had been compelled to leave the accommodation in which 14 people shared five bedrooms and every single resident indicated symptoms of the virus. While it may be possible for some people to find new accommodation, this can be especially difficult for undocumented migrants who lack the documents required to pass ‘right to rent’ checks, or the cash to pay a deposit.

The hostile environment and NHS: Since 1982, the NHS has had a ‘charging regime’ for overseas visitors, which has been undoubtedly prolonged in recent years. In 2015, guidelines introduced a ‘charge’ for overseas visitors of 150 per cent of the NHS national tariff. As of October 2017, the guidelines were prolonged to initiate up-front ‘charging’ and to apply to non-NHS organisations delivering NHS-funded secondary and community care. This implied that NHS bodies, as well as other organisations providing relevant NHS services, were obliged to secure payment before starting treatment unless treatment was urgent or immediately necessary. Individuals with no permission to stay in the UK are hence to a great extent prohibited or excluded from free medical services.

The hostile environment in healthcare has taken on added significance in the context of the current pandemic. While treatment for Covid-19 is free, a report by Patients Not Passports has highlighted that treatment for other medical conditions following a ‘Covid-19 negative result can be subjected to upfront charging’. Consequently, due to mixed messaging and inadequate communication from the government to migrant communities, NGOs have raised worries that people without immigration status are repeatedly deterred from seeking healthcare. For instance, a cleaner without immigration status died in his home due to concerns about coming forward for treatment.

The pandemic consequently highlights that healthcare charges and data-sharing do not only pose risks to undocumented migrants; they also threaten to jeopardise broader public health objectives, incorporating powers to contain the transmission of the virus.

Mental health is affected due to the reluctance of undocumented migrants to look for help from the medical services framework, also due to fears of ‘being reported’ to the Home Office and ‘sent home’. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed health disparities among ethnic minorities and certain migrant groups that have resulted from long-standing structural inequities and individual socioeconomic health determinants. Ahead of a possible second or third wave of this pandemic, we need to advance health equity for migrants communities in the UK; would we say we are prepared?