The COVID-19 crisis has been a learning curve for us all. During this time, we've learnt more about the people we love and that we rely on, we've learnt who keeps our families safe and, importantly, who keeps the country going when we need it the most. But we've also learnt where we are failing people, where our social fabric is weakest, and who decision-makers are willing to sacrifice or ignore. For those of us in the migrant’s rights movement, the pandemic has shined a light on the inadequacies in our migration system, bringing to the forefront what desperately needs to change for migrant communities in order to ensure that they can access vital services and protect themselves from contracting COVID-19. As the Government looks towards restarting the economy we have an opportunity to take what we have learnt from this crisis, and ensure that migrants’ rights are placed at the centre of recovery.

By far the biggest challenge posed to migrant communities and to British people of colour has been the Hostile Environment – with the effects most acute for undocumented migrants. Fear of seeking medical treatment, lack of access to safe housing, no recourse to public funds and exploitative working practices have meant that undocumented migrants have been unable to keep themselves, and their families, safe and healthy and, in many cases, have been disproportionately exposed to the virus. There is little recognition that undocumented migrants have been forced to continue as care-workers, cleaners and nannies and don’t have any rights to access support should they need it.

There can be no question that scrapping that Hostile Environment must be a priority for the migrants’ rights movement. What’s more, if we are to truly think about rebuilding our society in a way that recognises people as people, we must ensure that everyone has access to public services, regardless of whether or not they have the right piece of paper. We simply cannot continue asking people to apply for a status in order to have a support network around them, or ask the Government to make piecemeal changes to legislation which draw rings around categories of migrants, leaving others vulnerable to exploitation or unsafe conditions. We must think bravely and boldly about bringing the public with us - a public that can now understand how an inability to work legally and access support services is the difference between life and death.

At the same time, there is also emerging public consensus that the way we define and value work does not fit with the experiences of real people during the crisis. The key workers keeping the public afloat are made up almost entirely of people that the Government deems to be “low-skilled”, and many of which are either migrants themselves or come from migrant backgrounds. Cleaners, taxi drivers, delivery drivers, shop keepers, nurses, carers, plumbers, bin workers and primary school teachers would all fall victim to the current government agenda to introduce a “points-based system” – nothing more than a soundbite intended to persuade the public that some migrants are more valuable than others.

As we rebuild the economy, we have to re-define what work truly looks like and call on the Government to imagine migrant work differently. We can start this journey by ensuring that all migrants are able to work legally, access union support and have full protection from exploitative employers. The conversation must shift away from what work is valuable, and towards a levelling-up of rights for everyone. The Lift the Ban campaign has already laid the groundwork for a new campaign which extends worker’s rights to all migrants.

It is vital that we put forward our own narrative on migration, one which builds on what this crisis has taught us. The starting point has to be that we’re only as protected as the least protected amongst us – and that it’s time to level up rights for everyone. This is the beginning of a new deal on migration, one which asks us to be bold and imaginative in campaigning for a better future. 

Minnie Rahman - Public Affairs and Campaigns Manager


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