COVID-19 News: The Case to Grant Vulnerable Migrants Leave to Remain During Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the UK government’s stringent approach to immigration, as the Home Office has, thus far, refused to suspend its hostile environment policies.
Current immigration laws offer little to no protection for people who are undocumented. In practice, this means that this community is at a high risk of falling through the cracks of coronavirus measures and restrictions.
For people like Abeeku*, this risk has sadly become a reality.
Arriving in the UK legally in 2003 under a Student Visa, Abeeku became an ‘overstayer’ (a form of undocumented person) when his college closed down two years later and the terms of his leave were breached.
Since then, Abeeku has made unsuccessful applications to remain in the UK. He is now awaiting the outcome of his latest immigration application, which has been complicated by the fact he recently moved address, and the immigration lawyer representing him recently passed away.
Being undocumented means he is unable to work, access the NHS, rent accommodation, or hold a UK bank account. He survives by sofa surfing and relying on handouts from friends and some distant family members. He reluctantly admits to having previously worked in a car wash on a cash in hand basis as his bank account has now been closed.
“For people like Abeeku*, this risk has sadly become a reality”
Since the lockdown, Abeeku’s circumstances have been made worse, as most of his previous benefactors are themselves struggling financially and very few people are keen for him to sleep in their homes under new social distancing policies.
He tells us he has contemplated suicide a few times and doesn’t know where to turn.
“Since the lockdown, Abeeku’s circumstances have been made worse”
Because of the government’s ongoing hostile environment policy, which seeks to make undocumented migrants feel as unwelcome as possible in the hopes that they may then ‘voluntarily leave’, Abeeku, like many others, avoids reaching out for vital support and care. He tells us he is worried about seeking any help or even going to a food bank as he may be apprehended and detained.
Current UK Immigration Law
In an open letter to the Prime Minister, church leaders and charities have urged the government to relax immigration rules as they warn that undocumented migrants across the UK and those with insecure immigration status – including refugees and asylum seekers – are now at an even greater risk of exploitation and destitution. While there has been talk from the PM about an amnesty on undocumented migrants in the past, there is yet to be any official movements or legislation put forward so that this can become a reality.
Those involved in the campaign have been joined by representatives from across the charity, political and legal sectors.
“The hostile environment has brought with it crippling fees and has outpriced many would-be applicants, cutting off different options and avenues for the vulnerable”, John Cahill, a senior immigration lawyer at the Immigration Advice Service, explains.
“The notion of ‘border/immigration control’ has been slowly outsourced from the government to employers, universities and colleges, landlords and even GPs, where immigration checks are undertaken”.
This, Cahill goes on to say, has already forced many desperate people into positions where they are more vulnerable to falling through the cracks, and going without the support and care they need — something, he warns, is especially concerning during a public health crisis of this scale.
“The hostile environment has, generally, crippled people financially and cut off different options and avenues” – John Cahill, Senior immigration lawyer and partner at the Immigration Advice Service
Under current immigration law, undocumented migrants face arrest and possible removal if authorities become aware of their insecure immigration status. In typical circumstances, this has led to many avoiding medical help in a bid to steer clear of UK authorities – particularly since the 2012 Hostile Environment policies which required the NHS to share patient data with the Home Office.
“Those with insecure immigration status – including refugees and asylum seekers – are now at an even greater risk of exploitation and destitution”
During the Coronavirus crisis, this culture of fear which leads undocumented migrants to avoid health services poses a significant risk to not only these vulnerable individuals but also the wider population.
What’s more, those with insecure immigration status are also deprived of most public funds, leading many to resort to precarious work and/or resulting in homelessness and destitution. Undocumented migrants are subjected to ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’, which prevents local councils from providing them with vital services and creates significant issues with accessing housing.
“This culture of fear which leads undocumented migrants to avoid health services poses a significant risk to not only these vulnerable individuals but is also the wider population”
Within their open letter to the Prime Minister, charities called for a period of temporary leave to remain for all of those with insecure immigration status. In it, they write:
“We write as leaders of organisations supporting refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants to ask you to grant a period of leave to remain, with recourse to public funds and access to the labour market, to all those with insecure immigration status.”
What is an ‘undocumented’ migrant or somebody with ‘insecure immigration status’?
‘Undocumented’ or ‘irregular’ migrants do not fit one set description or definition. Insecure immigration status is a grey area as it does not necessarily mean that somebody who is residing within the UK without legal immigration permission does not have a right to be here.
Many may simply struggle to traverse the UK’s hostile immigration system – unable to provide the level of proof and documentation needed – or may have lived here from a young age without realising that they didn’t already hold secure status.
If you need help with your immigration status, our team of OISC accredited immigration lawyers is able to provide tailored legal advice and assistance, helping you to acquire secure immigration status in the UK.
Call IAS on 0333 305 9375 to discuss your personal immigration matter.
Our immigration experts are also offering legal advice and guidance to all NHS workers completely free of charge.
*names have been changed for identity protection purposes.
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