With so many migrants suffering in the coronavirus crisis because of restrictions put in place by immigration rules, the Home Secretary has questions to answer.

On Wednesday she appeared before MPs to answer questions about the Home Office response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Her answers were vague and non specific - hugely disappointing when people's lives are on the line. Here are 8 questions the Home Secretary still needs to answer.

1. We are in a pandemic - why haven’t you taken away obvious barriers to healthcare for migrants? 

The NHS was designed as a public health service, that would take care of us from cradle to grave. But since 2015, non-EU migrants have been forced to pay up front for some treatment, as well as paying a ‘double tax’ immigration health surcharge on top of visa fees. On top of that, as part of the Hostile Environment, designed to make life as difficult as possible for migrants without the right papers, immigration enforcement officers can get the data on who is going to the doctor or to hospital.  

These policies obviously put people off asking for help. People like Elvis* have died, too afraid to go to hospital because of the risk of running up huge debts or being deported, away from loved ones.  

We are only as protected as the least protected in our society. We urgently need NHS charging to be suspended, and a firewall between the NHS and immigration enforcement. Why hasn’t the Home Secretary taken these basic steps? 

 

2. Do you know what’s happening to people who have no safety net, because immigration rules say they can’t access public support? 

Many people have visas which state “No Recourse to Public Funds”. In other words – you’re on your own – no universal credit if you lose your job, no housing support if your income drops or your family grows. As long as you can work, you can survive.  

But this health crisis is also an economic crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs, countless others had their hours cut back, and as schools have shut, many have been forced to stop working to take care of their children.  

Many people are faced with impossible choices – carry on working and risk getting coronavirus, or stop working and starve.  

Does the Home Secretary know the choices these people face? What would she do in their shoes? Why does she expect them to live like this? 

 

3. What are you doing to make sure families don’t get split up because they lose their job or their income falls in the coronavirus economic crash?  

Spouse visa rules state that you have to earn at least £18,600 per year (or more if you have children) to stay in the UK. With so many people facing job losses or a drop in income as the economy stalls, is it really fair - or safe - to force people to keep trying to meet this arbitrary income level? The Home Office today promised case by case reviews. But this is a piecemeal solution to a problem facing thousands of families. Who benefits when the Home Office separates families just because one parent doesn’t earn enough money? Why not just suspend the rule? 

 

4. Why did the Home Office tell an 80-year-old woman with lung cancer to travel overland to Ukraine? 

Yep. The woman was in the UK visiting family in March, but when flights back to Ukraine were cancelled, she called the Home Office for advice. Astonishingly, they told her that since there were no flights, she should travel overland to Ukraine.  

Never mind the fact that much of mainland Europe was in lockdown already by that point. Why would the Home Office continue to give out such reckless and plainly ridiculous instructions? 

Tens of thousands of people whose visas are expiring during lockdown face similar issues. The Home Office has now set up a number of schemes to provide temporary extensions to people’s visas. But they are not enshrined in law, and rely on people to seek out advice and make applications. We know the Home Office could just extend people’s visas automatically – they did so with Chinese nationals, and they promised to do so for NHS workers.  

Instead, they are leaving it to chance that many thousands of people won’t lose their status and rights because they can’t get out of the country. Which leads us to… 

 

5. What do you say to those people who are still being held in immigration detention centres, even though there is no way for them to practice social distancing?  

The Home Office promised to review the cases of every person held in immigration detention centres like Yarl’s Wood, after pressure by Detention Action. But a month on, there are still hundreds of detainees being held in these centres, in conditions that are simply not safe. There’s no way to self-isolate in a confined, communal space like a detention centre. The Home Office says that immigration detention is meant to be for a short time, before deportation (or ‘removal’ as they call it), but when so many countries are in lockdown, how can it be justified to continue holding people? 

 

6. Why have you left asylum seekers so unprotected? 

Asylum seekers are given only £37.75 per week to live on. And it’s provided via a cash card, which is only accepted in certain shops and at cashpoints. The government’s advice is to make fewer, bigger trips to the shops to limit our contact with others. Refugee campaigners raised this issue from the earliest days of this pandemic, but nothing has changed.  

On top of that, asylum seekers are often housed in cramped accommodation. For example, Victoria* lives in a hostel with 40 other people and her 8 month old baby, who has a health condition. How can people be expected to live safely in these conditions?  

 

7. Why is the government still defending a policy that has been found – by TWO UK courts – to cause racial discrimination? And is it appropriate for a government minister to gloat about that policy? 

Last Tuesday, the Court of Appeal found that the government’s Right to Rent policy, which forces landlords to check immigration documents, does cause racial discrimination. The judges stopped short of finding the policy in breach of human rights law. That doesn’t seem like a reason to gloat – so why did Home Office minister Chris Philp take to Twitter to sound off about it? And more importantly – why is the government even defending this racist policy in Court? 

 

8. Finally - what lessons will the Home Office learn from this crisis? 

People who the Home Secretary called “low skilled” in February are being called “key workers” today. Collectively, the UK is applauding and saying thank you for the work that is being done to keep us safe and well. Delivery drivers, care workers, cleaners – they are all jobs that we rely on. But we are more than our jobs – we are all children, siblings, parents, friends – susceptible to disease and capable of caring for each other. This crisis shows as plainly as ever that we rely on each other. The Home Office is being left behind in this conversation. The points-based immigration system, which says we are nothing more than the jobs we do, the languages we speak, the certificates we have, has temporarily been taken off the books. We hope the Home Office takes this moment to reflect, and change course.  

 

At JCWI we believe a fairer immigration system is possible.  

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