A new report on the collision of Covid-19 and the “hostile environment” policies of the Home Office highlights the harsh impact of the pandemic on immigrants and asylum seekers in the north-west of England.
Local charities are also concerned that displaced individuals will experience increased hardships after free movement between the United Kingdom and European Union was ended on 31 December 2020 and the new points-based system in line with the home secretary’s New Plan for Immigration was implemented on 20 February this year.
Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit (GMIAU) converted its weekly drop-in service into an immigration advice line at the start of the pandemic in March 2020. As a result, the charity received 3097 calls from immigrants and asylum seekers in the north-west seeking legal advice and support, in the nine months after March 2020. In the twelve months after March 2020 GMIAU resolved 240 of the 880 opened cases, with 149 of those resolved cases resulting in a grant of indefinite leave to remain. However, compared to the same period from 2019-20, of the 1798 opened cases, a significant 1530 were resolved. This reflects the detrimental impact of Covid-19 delays on Home Office and courts procedure concerning people with insecure immigration status. In the report published yesterday, GMIAU evidences the harsh effects of a deliberately complex immigration system.
Speaking on the punitive hostile environment policies, Amanda Shah, senior policy officer of GMIAU, said:
“Our report shows the devastating consequences for communities of an immigration system that exploits people because of their race, class and gender.”
In an attempt to reduce immigration figures – as promised by the Conservative Party manifesto – Theresa May, who was then home secretary, introduced the “hostile environment” policies in 2012 in hopes that the punitive set of laws would result in people without “leave to remain” status, voluntarily leaving the country.
Described in the report as a “racist policy”, the law allows for intrusive identification checks to be carried out in “almost every area of daily life” against individuals who may “look” displaced. The report also describes how “untrained people” from all walks of life are forced into becoming “immigration enforcers”.
This same set of laws and policies contributed to the unjust outcome of the Windrush Scandal, where the “deport first and hear appeals later” approach introduced as part of the Immigration Act 2014 resulted in the wrongful threats to detain the children of Commonwealth citizens, and resulted in many British citizens of African and Caribbean origin being denied their citizenship and deported.
Priti Patel’s New Plan for Immigration delivers an even harsher points-based system, that organisations working with immigrants in Greater Manchester are sceptical of after the experience of the last year.
On 24 May, Patel stated that neither the Home Office nor the country is “anti-immigration,” and a stricter reform of the system will act only as a deterrent to “foreign offenders” and will not obstruct the protection of vulnerable refugees and migrants in need. However, the findings in the GMIAU report expose the neglect vulnerable displaced individuals in the north-west experienced, prior to Patel’s New Plan, and the reports authors fear the changes will lead to further hardships for them.
The increase of domestic violence and violence against women was a global concern during the lockdown. More than 150 calls made to GMIAU during the nine months were from people in the north-west experiencing domestic abuse. The report states that, “people who are in the UK on a spouse visa are often terrified to report or flee abuse due to the impact it may have on their immigration status.”
The GMIAU report finds that 231 calls were from people facing homelessness or destitution, usually because their immigration status or them being labelled as having “No Recourse to Public Funds” prevented them from working or accessing benefits.
During the beginning of the pandemic, the report states that the Home Office was under a legal obligation to provide extended asylum support for refused individuals. It would have been a human rights breach to evict people onto the streets during a public health crisis.
During the autumn months, Manchester had one of the highest Covid-19 infection rates in the country, yet the Home Office was trying to go back to “business as usual” by handing out eviction notices once again.
However, through legal action, Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Greater Manchester Law Centre, GMIAU and others managed to stop Home Office evictions from November 2020 to May 2021.
In the GMIAU report, destitution caseworker Joe stated:
“The Home Office resuming evictions is utterly ridiculous and just highlights how inconsistent the government has been while managing this pandemic. Many of the people we help are now living on edge, terrified that they will soon become street homeless if the Home Office discontinue their support.”
In response to the critiques made against the Home Office’s approach in GMIAU’s report, a spokesperson for the Home Office told The Meteor:
“We acted quickly and decisively last year to look after asylum seekers’ wellbeing by increasing their level of financial support, temporarily suspending evictions and limiting moves unless necessary and appropriate. Throughout the pandemic, failed asylum seekers have had accommodation and financial assistance provided at the expense of the taxpayer. As and when restrictions ease it is right that we start to withdraw this support from those who are able to return home but choose not to.”
According to The World Migration Report 2020, child migration is a product of “violence of war,” “attempts of ethnic cleansing,” and “environmental disaster.” It states:
“Millions of men, women and children around the world move in anticipation or as a response to environmental stress every year. Disruptions such as cyclones, floods and wildfires destroy homes and assets and contribute to the displacement of people.”
The GMIAU worked on 141 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) cases during 2020. Children and young people who have fled their disaster and war-torn countries and arrive in the UK need urgent health care and compassion. The report stated that the average wait time for a decision on a UASC claim last year was 410 days; the impact of being stuck in limbo resulted in children experiencing “depression, anxiety and physical healthcare problems.”
In August last year national news reported the tragic death of asylum seeker, Mercy Baguma, a mother from Glasgow whose expired leave to remain status resulted in “extreme poverty” for her and her son.
The organiser of an immigrant focused local arts project, Cats On The Run, Fereshteh Mozaffari, says that the lack of government support during Covid means that people will continue to “suffer or die without anyone noticing.” Refugee and Asylum Participatory Action Research (RAPAR) and Sheba Arts created Cats On The Run to voice the experiences of 22 undocumented migrant workers and asylum seekers in Manchester during lockdown.
In a video interview, a displaced individual, who remains anonymous, shares the unfathomable abuse and neglect he faces whilst on the run:
“If life is hard for people who have access to everything, imagine how hard it is for me. I can’t even go to the GP. I have so many conditions…because I fear they will arrest me and put me in jail or deport me.”
Mozzafari adds that the Home Office’s plan to “rapidly remove those with no right to be here” is counterproductive because “vulnerable group will continue living off the radar and won’t seek asylum out of fear…and this will lead to an increased number of undocumented people in the UK. Like Windrush, the GMIAU report indicates that Brexit changes will cause a “large group of people in the UK to be undocumented overnight.”
Working with Manchester City Council in March last year to protect undocumented children and people from facing deportation from the Home Office, GMIAU and the council pledged to prevent “a new Windrush generation” due to Brexit immigration changes.
Efforts from local leadership and charities underpin the north wests humanity in protecting vulnerable displaced people, in contrast to the Home Office’s hostile environment policies. Amanda Shah, senior policy officer of GMIAU, said:
“Priti Patel’s New Plan for Immigration will make this much worse. Her Plan is pure fantasy, makes no sense out of the corridors of power in Westminster and Whitehall, and is opposed by communities and local leaders across the country. We have first-hand experience in the north-west of doing things differently. This report shows how much we need that difference to defend people from being sacrificed to the Home Secretary’s political ambition.”
To view the Cats on the Run video – click here.
Feature image: composite of Wikipedia Commons and Meteor images.