Faced with COVID, the Government should have done everything in its power to ensure everyone had support. Everyone needs a way to earn a living, access to the public safety net if they need it, safe accommodation, and access to vaccines and the NHS.

But Hostile Environment policies cut undocumented migrants off from these basic rights. Because they don’t have the right piece of paper in their passport, people without status have been left destitute, homeless, and afraid or unable to get help during the pandemic. Our research, published in January 2022, shines a spotlight on this cruel and unnecessary suffering.

That's why JCWI, along with other groups including racial justice organisations, doctors' unions and faith groups, and nearly 2,000 individuals, wrote in January 2022 to the Chair of the COVID inquiry. We asked that restrictive policies affecting migrants - including undocumented migrants - are included in the inquiry's investigations. 

Good news as the COVID inquiry draft Terms of Reference are published

The call was successful - on 11 March 2022, the draft Terms of Reference for the inquiry were published. The inquiry will investigate, among other things, how government actions and policies shaped the way migrants were impacted by the pandemic. 

This is a huge victory for everyone who called for this, including the thousands of individuals who showed their solidarity with migrants by backing the call. The inquiry represents an opportunity for accountability, and for change. Now, the work will continue to make sure that the inquiry has all the evidence it needs, and includes voices representing all migrants. Onwards!

The full letter, and list of signatories, is below.

Re: Migration policy as a consideration in the COVID-19 inquiry

Dear Lady Hallett,

Congratulations on your appointment to chair the public inquiry into COVID-19. We, the undersigned organisations and individuals, write to encourage the inquiry panel to include migration status and laws affecting migrants as a key factor in the inquiry’s investigation.

When the COVID pandemic hit the UK in March 2020, all our lives changed. But as our communities pulled together, it quickly became clear that not everyone had equal access to the lifelines they needed to weather the crisis.

The COVID pandemic exposed and exacerbated existing inequalities, with minoritised communities facing higher rates of infection and hospitalisation. Migrants within this cohort, particularly those with insecure immigration status, existed and still exist on the sharpest end of the COVID crisis.

There is already plentiful evidence showing the huge disparity in COVID outcomes between black and minority ethnic people and their white counterparts. People from a Bangladeshi background, for example, have twice the risk of death from COVID as white people, according to Public Health England. The COVID mortality rate for ethnic minority healthcare workers is also disproportionately high – over 85% of doctors who have died from COVID were from an ethnic minority background.

This disparity must be investigated, and it is our belief that an assessment of the impact of current immigration policy and law must make up part of this investigation.

Throughout the pandemic, migrants and migrant families – often including children who were born in the UK and who have never lived anywhere else – have faced significant barriers to safety. Hostile (or ‘compliant’) Environment policies have put migrants in low paid and precarious employment, and migrants who are undocumented or unable to prove their status, at particularly grave risk. In addition, restrictive migration policies have hampered public health efforts and our ability to ‘return to normal.’

The No Recourse to Public Funds condition bars most migrants in the UK from accessing mainstream benefits. During the pandemic, this policy has left migrants forced to continue working even if it was not safe to do so, because losing income could mean becoming destitute and homeless, with no safety net to fall back on.

‘Right to Rent’ policies barring undocumented migrants from renting a home mean that people without status are much more likely to live in unsafe, overcrowded accommodation, and therefore be unable to safely isolate when needed. Similarly, ‘right to work’ checks that prevent undocumented migrants from working legally mean that many are instead forced into unsafe, exploitative work with no health and safety protections in place. Fear that their data might be shared with the Home Office by the NHS has had a huge deterrent effect, leaving undocumented migrants too afraid to get vaccinated, or even to get life-saving care when they needed it.

A whole host of other immigration policies have exacerbated the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on migrants with all kinds of status. Strict income requirements for spouse visas, for instance, have meant people feeling compelled to continue working – even where it may not have been safe to do so – in order to keep their income above the required threshold and keep their families together.

We know that migrants in this country are disproportionately represented in industries that have been particularly hard hit during the pandemic, be this in the NHS and care work, or in hospitality, cleaning, food production and other front-line roles. The challenges of surviving the pandemic while navigating the Hostile Environment have had an impact far beyond the lives of those directly affected. Where migrants in these circumstances were forced to make impossible decisions between their health and their economic survival, our entire society’s recovery from the pandemic has been at stake.

As the inquiry begins to set out its Terms of Reference, we therefore urge you to ensure that migrants – including those who are undocumented – and policies restricting their right to access essential services are a key part of the investigation into the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yours sincerely,

Ian Hodson, National Director, Bakers, Food and Allied Workers' Union

Dr Chaand Nagpaul CBE, Chair of Council, British Medical Association

Anna Miller, Head of Policy and Advocacy, Doctors of the World

Dr Zubaida Haque, Executive Director, The Equality Trust

Lucila Granada, CEO, Focus on Labour Exploitation

Alicia Kennedy, Director, Generation Rent

Rajnish Kashyap, General Secretary, Hindu Council UK

Liz Fekete, Director, Institute of Race Relations

Dr Edie Friedman, Executive Director, Jewish Council for Racial Equality

Satbir Singh, Chief Executive, The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants

Rita Gava, Director, Kalayaan

Gisela Valle, Director, Latin American Women's Rights Service

James Skinner, Interim Co-Director, MedAct

Zara Mohammed, Secretary General, Muslim Council of Britain

Jabeer Butt OBE, Chief Executive, Race Equality Foundation

Polly Neate, CEO, Shelter

Jo Grady, General Secretary, University and College Union

Over 1,700 individuals added their names