Life in the UK as an undocumented migrant comes with severe challenges for such folk currently living here, with estimates ranging in the hundreds of thousands to a million, including children born in the UK to undocumented parents. Movement and displacement can happen for several reasons, such as needing to escape persecution, conflict and violence; political/economic crises and hardship; or natural disasters like severe droughts or flooding. In a lot of cases, there can be a combination of factors for those looking for safety and/or a better life.
Some people enter the UK by regular means with a temporary visa and may seek asylum on arrival or overstay when their visa runs out or is revoked. Overstaying can happen knowingly or unknowingly. Those who apply for asylum may be left in limbo for years as the process can be very long and complex, especially if their initial application is rejected and then goes through tribunals and appeals. In 2019, almost half of initial asylum applications were rejected. It isn’t surprising that there are those who, after being refused, might still decide to stay in the UK as an undocumented migrant as it wouldn’t be favourable or safe for them to return to their country of birth. Regularising one’s immigration status as an undocumented migrant is extremely difficult and can carry legal costs that are out of reach for people who might already be living in or close to poverty, whether they’re working or not. The ‘hostile environment’ policy that was introduced by the UK government in 2012 has made life ever more difficult for these members of our society.
Among undocumented migrants, there are also people who may have arrived without visas. We have all heard and read about the increasingly perilous journeys taken by migrants attempting to escape hardships or conflict in their country of birth. These are migrants seeking a better life so they can support themselves and their families here or abroad (remember the Essex 39). Given the difficulties of the UK immigration system, some might stay without documents while they live and work here, if they are fortunate enough to find work. In some cases, they might find work in menial but vital roles, such as caring or cleaning within the NHS or hospitality sector. Some have lived here as undocumented migrants for over a decade. In many cases, and due to the ‘hostile environment’, they may be severely exploited by both employers and landlords. There is a high risk of them ending up destitute and homeless or in the hands of criminal gangs that might further exploit them. Undocumented migrants are vulnerable human beings who have been participating in and contributing to our society, but doing so in the most precarious and desperate of circumstances.
The COVID-19 crisis has presented extra and unimaginable challenges for those who are undocumented in the UK. The unprecedented restrictions to work and to movement poses an extreme problem for the many undocumented migrants ineligible to receive any social or welfare support from the government. Without assistance, many undocumented people are unable to provide for themselves and their families. Many are struggling to meet even the most basic of human needs – food, shelter, medicine. This means that the risks of destitution and homelessness are very high and that some migrants may even be forced to continue working against the advice of the government.
The public health implications are also very urgent since undocumented migrants may be at a higher risk of catching COVID-19 due to overcrowded living conditions, after years of restrictions to renting and working, which can make it impossible to self-isolate or even physically distance oneself. With many living in or close to poverty, there is a very high risk of malnutrition since many can hardly afford even the most basic food items. Inevitably, this situation has been exacerbated by COVID-19. Migrant Voice, a London-based charity, reported how one migrant was living on a single tin of beans per day without access to any support. Also, as this public health crisis unfolds, we are learning that in the UK, people from African-Caribbean and Asian backgrounds are more at risk of complications and death from COVID-19, whatever their social status might be.
There have been reports of migrants with leave to remain and undocumented migrants dying in their homes after catching COVID-19. These are tragic deaths that might have been prevented, but the UK government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy has created a culture of fear among migrant communities, particularly those from the global South. Due to fears of being reported and detained by the Home Office or of being left with huge medical bills for treatment, undocumented migrants might not seek medical help if they fall ill, however seriously. Among those with known underlying or chronic medical conditions that put them at a higher risk of complications from COVID-19, the lack of access to healthcare means many of them would have not had the necessary tests, treatment or advice they require to better manage their conditions.
On these issues being highlighted, the UK government responded by saying “coronavirus has also been added to the list of communicable diseases so anyone experiencing symptoms regardless of their immigration status will be treated for free.” This response doesn’t negate the justifiable fears that exist among undocumented migrants. Due to the ‘hostile environment’ policies that have been in place for nearly a decade, undocumented migrants fear being reported to the Home Office or being detained soon after treatment. They also still fear incurring potential costs for treatment for other conditions that may not be related to COVID-19 whilst in hospital or during after-care.
We have heard many heartbreaking stories about these vulnerable and often exploited people ending up in situations that are further dehumanising, right here in the UK. Some have lost their lives and their loved ones in this pandemic. Undocumented migrants will also struggle to get back on their feet after this crisis. It is important to treat these members of our society in the same humane way that we would treat anyone else and with the same level of respect as everyone else. None of us are safe until we are all safe.
To quote Filippo Grandi, chief of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR):
“As we race against time to step up health and other measures, another emergency is creeping in and is already happening: an emergency of livelihoods. Refugees, displaced people, migrants depend on fragile incomes which are the first ones to disappear in situations of lockdown. Poverty strikes often before COVID-19. This is not, or not only, a refugee emergency. It is a much bigger crisis, but a crisis in which refugees, displaced people, migrants in particularly vulnerable situations are among the most exposed people in the world.”
Regularising migrants without ‘leave to remain’ is a reasonable thing to do. By not doing so, we are allowing hundreds of thousands of hardworking, willing people, to fall into extreme hardship. These are members of our society who have been living in or near poverty and are now falling into very desperate situations on the margins. Many fear for their lives now and in the future. In the interests of public health and safety, everyone on this island needs to be protected as none of us are safe until we are all safe. It could be this virus or it could be the next virus. Some of the benefits of regularising migrants include the government knowing who is in the UK and also allowing those who are here to feel confident enough to access healthcare and other services that are currently not available to them.
Furthermore, regarding manual contact tracing and the contact tracing app, many will fear participating in it as well as installing the app on their phones. This could be for the understandable fear of being tracked (despite the government stating that the app won’t be used for this) or being reported to the Home Office, which would weaken the effectiveness of public health measures to control the spread of SARS-COV-2 which causes COVID-19. Additionally, if people have funds for sustenance and to buy credit for their phones in order to access the internet, they will be able to stay informed with the latest and most accurate advice from public health bodies and from the government during this pandemic, and any other crisis that may occur in future. Improving the quality of life of undocumented migrants by regularising their status, so they are settled, is the humane thing to do for their health and well-being as well as for the health and well-being of our society as a whole. No one is safe until everyone is safe.
Paul Turner, an Immigration Barrister who set up a petition asking the UK government to ‘create an earned amnesty route for migrants without leave to remain’ argues that it doesn’t make sense to keep people undocumented:
“It doesn’t serve the UK population well to have a huge number of people who are undocumented or essentially in hiding or feeling that they are compelled to go and work because they have no other means of support which will, according to the governments advice, likely spread the virus or continue its spread and prevent the UK from recovering. So [regularising undocumented migrants] not only helps the UK’s economy because it will bring more people into the lawful economy but it will also help with respect to the current health crisis.”
As of the beginning of May 2020, it has been reported that Italy, a country that not too long ago had a government that seemed to have taken a hard stance against immigrants, is now seriously considering granting status to potentially tens of thousands of undocumented migrants. There are many who have been working on farms to feed the Italian society during the lockdown. There are many who have been in domestic and care work supporting Italian families during a very difficult time in the COVID-19 crisis. People who had been dehumanised and exploited for so long are now all of a sudden seen as fellow humans who just want to get on with life and work like everyone else.
These migrants are and have always been fellow humans requiring compassion, support, equality, safety, respect and dignity. Giuseppe Provenzano, the minister of South Italy, has highlighted that “it’s thanks to these workers that food reached our tables during the lockdown. Recognizing them — it’s an issue of justice.” Perhaps Italian society and government are also realising that it is important that everyone has access to basics like healthcare as this is an important and positive step to solving public health issues. This is certainly the view of Tito Boeri, a former head of Italy’s Social Security Agency and an economist who says, “I think that right now [the] Italian population is aware — the contagion is such a serious risk that something has to be done, that our health depends on the health of our people…the key thing is that [giving undocumented migrants work permits] should not be done for labour simply or economic reasons, it should also be done for health reasons.”
To tackle the spread of COVID-19, Portugal decided to give rights to and treat people with outstanding asylum and immigration applications as residents. This allows them to work, open bank accounts and access healthcare and social services, effectively being treated as citizens for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis. This was a positive step though it is sad to hear that undocumented migrants with no pending applications are excluded from this scheme and are therefore falling deeper into poverty as they continue to be exposed to the risks that come from living on the margins of society. The Irish government announced early in the crisis that it would give access to free healthcare for everyone in the country including those without documents, though it did not go beyond these measures to help the estimated 15,000-17,000 undocumented migrants in Ireland.
The UK has an opportunity to lead by example, by granting undocumented migrants, who have already been contributing to and participating in British society, basic rights allowing them to live in the UK with dignity. This in turn will support our management of the virus and allow us to rebuild our economy by including all members of society. This will ensure that the most vulnerable and marginalised members of our society are not left behind.
It is imperative that the UK government takes a positive step to regularise these migrants by granting them status and a safer path to citizenship, as it will save the lives and livelihoods of many who are suffering right now and will continue to suffer. Furthermore, the ‘hostile environment’ must end if we are serious about tackling the spread of this virus. With the need to implement methods like contact tracing, which are only effective if there is wider trust in the public to use them, it is important to ensure that everyone in society feels safe within their communities and when interacting with public bodies. These steps will also ensure that the tools we have are effective in dealing with and better managing any future contagion.
When our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was Mayor of London, he commissioned a report that highlighted the economic benefits of regularising irregular or undocumented migrants. This current crisis has demonstrated that this issue ought to be considered seriously and it ought to be considered for multiple reasons beyond just economics. As Provenzano stressed, it is an issue of justice, and we would like to add that it is an issue of the lives and livelihoods, health and well-being of everyone on these islands.
No one is safe until everyone is safe.