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Executive Summary

Report summary

This report explores how UK immigration policy, law and government decision-making have exacerbated the impact of Covid-19 on migrants, particularly those with insecure immigration status. It focuses on access to justice, Home Office applications, state support, healthcare, and the asylum accommodation system, as well as immigration enforcement. Across all these areas, we highlight how the government’s anti-migrant approach has exposed migrants to increased risk from Covid-19, undermined public health efforts and introduced greater dysfunctionality into an already-broken immigration system.

Key findings

Access to justice

Covid-19 and the government’s response have compounded existing barriers to justice for migrants in the UK. The legal system was already close to breaking point when the crisis began, after a decade of austerity and restrictive anti-migrant policies. The Legal Aid Agency’s failure to adapt to the pandemic and the government’s decision to uphold Hostile Environment policies during a public health crisis have combined to increase the barriers migrants face in accessing the advice and support they need to exercise their rights.

Home Office applications & processes

The Home Secretary’s efforts to adapt the immigration system to function during a pandemic have been at best inadequate and, at worst, unlawful. they have created avoidable delays and administrative burdens, incurred huge cost to the public purse and led to a drastic increase in the already-significant backlog of applications, which will have serious consequences for years to come.

State support, healthcare and asylum accommodation

At a time when access to safety and security has never been more important, the government has excluded migrants from the state safety net, deterred them from seeking healthcare, and housed asylum seekers in detention-like conditions. The Home Office has chosen to prioritise anti-migrant policies above all else, putting migrants’ lives at risk and undermining public health efforts.

Detention and immigration enforcement

The Home Secretary’s decision to continue detaining and seeking to remove migrants during a pandemic flies in the face of the government’s stated commitment to protecting vulnerable people during the crisis. Further, over the past two years the government has introduced sweeping changes to the asylum system and ramped up the criminalisation of people seeking refuge. Once again, the government has pursued a political strategy that endangers and dehumanises migrants, undermining public health efforts and any purported commitment to fundamental rights.


1. Covid-19 and the Government’s handling of the crisis have further compromised an already-broken immigration & asylum system Covid-19 did not happen in a vacuum. It arrived in the UK in the wake of a decade of government-imposed austerity measures which had already left the immigration system in a severely underfunded and overstretched state, with reduced access to justice for migrants. This creaking system was unable to cope with a public health crisis, which exacerbated existing problems, including an enormous backlog of immigration applications, and ingrained new ones. As a result, we are left with a system far less able to cope with future hardship or crises.

2. The immigration system, including Hostile Environment policies, have exacerbated the impact of Covid-19 on migrants and  undermined public health efforts

Anti-migrant policies and processes, including the No Recourse to Public Funds regime (NRPF), right to rent and work checks, NHS data sharing and charging and the asylum accommodation system, have served to increase the risks of Covid-19 for migrants and undermined public health efforts. These policies already made life extremely difficult for many migrants before the pandemic. The government's decision to maintain them during a public health crisis recklessly endangered migrants’ lives and intensified the negative impact of these policies, most acutely for undocumented migrants.

3. Migrant communities, particularly those with insecure immigration status, have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19

Covid-19 has exposed and exacerbated existing inequalities. There is clear evidence that black and minority ethnic people, disabled people and other marginalised communities have experienced worse outcomes from Covid-19. While migrants are often marginalised on the basis of their race, ability and other statuses, the distinct experiences of migrants as a group are often neglected, and the government has failed to monitor the relationship between immigration status and Covid-19 outcomes or consider the impact of Hostile Environment policies. If disparities in Covid-19 outcomes are to be addressed, migrants must be recognised as a demographic group disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

4. Changes brought in by the Home Secretary during the pandemic mark the start of a wider set of sweeping changes to the immigration & asylum system

The changes to the immigration system introduced by the Home Secretary during Covid-19 did not happen in isolation but mark the beginning of a paradigm shift in immigration law & policy. The government’s decision to begin prosecuting and criminalising asylum seekers for arriving in small boats and the use of former army barracks as asylum accommodation are not just dangerous policies, but also set the tone for the Nationality & Borders Act 2022. This Act introduces far-reaching changes to the asylum system, further criminalising people seeking refuge and severely curtailing the rights of refugees. In doing so it undermines the principles of the 1952 Refugee Convention.


Our recommendations are focused on learning lessons from how existing systems created greater vulnerability during the pandemic. They aim to build in greater resilience and safeguards in preparedness for future crises.

1. Learning the lessons of Covid-19<

  • Migrant experiences and the effects of Hostile Environment policies must be fully considered by the Covid-19 inquiry

  • The Home Office must engage meaningfully with external advice and scrutiny

2. Reforming broken systems and culture

  • The Home Office needs radical reform to ensure quick, effective decision making and the prioritisation of fundamental rights throughout the system

  • A new, simplified route to regularisation based on five years’ residence should be introduced

3. Ending enforced vulnerability

  • Real access to justice for migrants must be instituted through legal aid and expanded appeal rights

  • The Hostile Environment and harmful asylum housing practices must be scrapped

  • The government must put an end to inhumane immigration detention and removals

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