The Covid pandemic exposed underlying weaknesses in our society, which exacerbated inequalities and left the most vulnerable at greatest risk. Now, as hope builds and the end feels truly in sight, we must be sure not to forget these lessons. We have an opportunity to rebuild a society that is more resilient, more equal and more prepared for the future. The time for a new way forward is now, but our Home Secretary appears to have learnt all the wrong lessons. Her latest immigration plans will exacerbate existing inequalities by plunging more migrants into precarity.
Migrant workers are disproportionately represented in the sectors where impact over the past year has been greatest: from our NHS and care staff, who have shouldered so much risk to treat us, to hospitality workers, whose livelihoods have been threatened by lockdowns. Black and brown families, and families living in greater relative deprivation and poverty have seen the most cases of Covid and the most deaths. Migrants among these populations have faced additional barriers that have made them more vulnerable and kept them in harm’s way.
Our immigration system keeps people in precarity for unnecessarily long periods, with most low-paid migrants forced to wait 10 years before they can apply for permanent residency or citizenship. Migrants, who are classified as ‘temporary’ during these 10 years, are barred from accessing most benefits and must reapply every two and a half years, at great cost, to renew their visas for the right to stay in their homes and jobs. This forces people who have built lives and families here into poverty, making it impossible to withstand a crisis, as savings are lost to visa renewal fees, and the state safety net is kept out of reach if the worst happens and they lose their job.
As a result, migrants with a so-called “temporary” status have increasingly been facing destitution during the pandemic. These migrants have disproportionately lost jobs, but been denied Universal Credit or housing support, pushing many into unsafe work and unsafe housing, where it’s been impossible to self-isolate. If you are struggling as a temporary migrant to keep your head above the water in such circumstances, a crisis can mean you’re unable to renew your visa at one of the four points on your 10-year journey. This is the major way migrants end up living undocumented in this country, not desperate refugees seeking to cross the Channel in small boats, as Patel suggests.
Migrants who lose their status have originally come on one of these long-term-temporary immigration routes then face the Government’s Hostile Environment, with no simple routes to get back on track. Migrants without documents have been at even greater risk during the pandemic, fearful even of going to the doctor, registering with a GP and getting the vaccine, in case coming to the attention of the authorities means being targeted by immigration enforcement and torn from their homes.
As we rebuild our society, we need everyone to have safe and equal access to services like healthcare and the safety net of benefits in case of difficulty. We need an immigration system that helps people attain secure, long-term status much faster and which doesn’t push people into becoming undocumented. We need simple routes back to status for people who fall through the gaps. This will make our communities more resilient and deliver the foundations for people to thrive. But Priti Patel has not learnt the value in giving people a safe foundation. In fact, she is pursuing reforms that will leave even the most vulnerable migrants in even greater precarity.
Patel’s New Plan for Immigration shows that she has learnt exactly the wrong lessons about how to keep our communities safe. She says she can end irregular migration by denying asylum seekers rights, and she’ll do this by putting most refugees in limbo on this same 10-year route to permanent status, denying them access to benefits like we do already to other settled migrants. This is not only bound to result in enormous suffering for many migrants, but also in more people trying to build their lives here on ‘temporary’ ground. Inevitably this will mean more people made destitute and more people falling through the cracks and becoming undocumented.
We cannot have a just recovery from COVID while Priti Patel railroads plans for a more dangerous and unjust asylum/immigration system. We will only build a stronger society by addressing the real drivers of chaos, precarity and irregularity in the immigration system. To do this we must let people building their lives here do so on a secure and permanent basis, with safe guaranteed access to all the services we rely on in times of crisis. JCWI is calling for shorter routes to permanent status, realistic routes to regularisation and an end to the Hostile Environment once and for all.