COVID-19 and UK Immigration Policy: A Sobering Critique

COVID-19 has unearthed the deeply egocentric nature of our current domestic immigration policies. Although we are in unprecedented times, unlike the recent phenomenon of supermarket aisle skirmishes for toilet paper, the systematic injustices of these policies predate COVID-19 by decades. The Home Office is finally adopting some policies following NGO (Non-governmental organisation) advice, yet until recently this largely fell on deaf ears.

The tireless work of the United Kingdom’s NGOs warrants applause. However, I strongly reject the extension of this applause to our Home Office. Policymakers have not awoken from a deep slumber, inspired by philanthropic dreams. A society is only as strong as its weakest link, meaning the welfare of British citizens is contingent on that of the most vulnerable. Hence, contemporary policies are driven through a cold Utilitarian calculation, with British interests being paramount. This clearly demonstrates the tiered social stratification of our country.

The first detention centre was opened in 1996, becoming an integral part of the deportation process, there are currently 7 in the United Kingdom. Detainees are often subject to sub-human treatment, lacking even basic necessities one would expect to find in a prison. It is widely accepted overcrowding and an absence of hygiene products create a fertile environment for the spread of infectious diseases. The very first case of Spanish Flu was reported in Camp Funston in 1918, spreading to hundreds within hours. This was the last comparable pandemic, leading to fears COVID-19 could spread to local communities through civilian employees, endangering more lives and increasing strain on the already stretched NHS. We know this has already occurred within the prison system, with 10% of staff being ill or self-isolating due to COVID-19 by 25th March. Subsequently, 350 detainees have been released from detention centres with many more cases currently being reviewed.

Some may argue against the release of ‘illegal’ immigrants, claiming they could indefinitely evade authorities. One could even dress a pro-detention stance in a philanthropic veil, highlighting the likelihood of vulnerable immigrants falling into destitution. This romanticizes the morality of retaining detainees, whilst improving the sanitation of centres. The Home Office has pledged to pursue this, ensuring hygiene is in accordance with Public Health England guidelines. However, this does not address the contemporary redundancy of detention centres, no deportations can take place as borders around the globe close indefinitely. A real solution would be mass releases, with individuals receiving an adequate support network, instead of being indefinitely caged like animals. It has taken a global pandemic for Public Health England guidelines to be properly implemented, demonstrating an irresponsible approach to detainee welfare. This casts reasonable doubt on centre improvements stretching beyond what is necessary for general public health.

It is therefore unsurprising that leading NGOs report immigrants are fearful of seeking healthcare due to the policy of data sharing between the NHS and the Home Office. Consequently, those abstaining from treatment have a higher transmission rate of infectious diseases, such as COVID-19. To reduce this risk, the Home Office has established safety nets concerning the current pandemic, withdrawing both treatment charges and immigration checks.

However, NGOs still claim the policy has not been communicated effectively. Furthermore, in 2019, data sharing in relation to immigration issues was still occurring, despite the Home Office pledging to refrain from it in the previous year. This highlights the contemporary ‘hostile environment’, which has been exacerbated by notorious miscarriages of justice, such as the Windrush Scandal. Therefore, one should not be surprised that vulnerable immigrants abstain from entitled healthcare due to a mistrust in policies. The blame lies almost entirely with the Home Office for allowing volatile policies to form such an environment, then failing to adequately resolve such issues. If the abandonment of data sharing is only honoured concerning infectious diseases endangering the public, there is a clear lack of genuine concern for the welfare of immigrants. Healthcare is a basic human necessity, in a developed nation it should be freely available and promoted to all, without fear of being persecuted for one’s immigration status.

COVID-19 has also exposed the chronic underfunding of the NHS, resulting in a critical shortage of staff. To combat this, the Home Office has extended the visas of 2800 foreign NHS workers and their families for one year. Foreign health professionals are a cornerstone of the NHS, up to 13.1% of workers are non-British nationals. It is a mockery that unnecessarily complex visa processes, having troubled individuals for years, can be bypassed when suiting the Home Office. Any foreign health workers who choose to remain will be subject to extreme risks. Coincidentally, the first four doctors to die of COVID-19 on the NHS frontline were all non-British origin.

Granted, these are unprecedented times, requiring unprecedented responses. The severe shortages of staff need addressing. Therefore, the offer of visa extensions from the Home Office does not immediately open itself up to major criticism. Professional health workers are required, and many have relative autonomy in choosing to remain in the United Kingdom. However, the meagre extension of one year to individuals who are putting their lives in danger to protect British citizens ridicules their service. Such a sacrifice surely deserves Indefinite Leave to Remain, or even fast-tracked citizenship if desired.

Almost overnight the Home Office has begun to release ‘illegal’ immigrants from detention centres, granted healthcare safety nets and extended the visas of foreign medical professionals. None of the policies seem to be grounded with any apparent longevity, highlighting the egocentric nature of British immigration policies. I sincerely hope that my cynical outlook is disproven, with COVID-19 being a catalyst for revolutionary immigration policies. However, looking back at the hostile environment of the previous few decades one is not inspired with hope.

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