The pro-migrant support you’re seeing from the public is under threat – and this is what could turn things sour

May Bulman
PA Wire/PA Images

Tens of millions of Britons on their doorsteps applauding an organisation propped up by foreign workers each week. A prime minister thanking two immigrants whose work as nurses saved his life. It would perhaps have seemed unthinkable from a Conservative government less than 10 years on from vans with “go home” emblazoned on the side, and indeed from the man who led a Brexit campaign warning of mass immigration from Turkey.

There have been some tangible changes in response to the unfolding coronavirus crisis. The Home Office eased the rules on its asylum housing and immigration detention in order to prevent spread. It extended visas for NHS staff and, after public outcry, dropped the controversial health surcharge for health workers tackling the pandemic on the front line.

But is this the beginning of real change for how immigration is viewed in Britain?

Prominent immigration barrister Colin Yeo is sceptical, warning that these developments are publicity moves rather than concrete policy. “The stuff we’ve seen from the Home Office so far has been either the bare minimum or fairly cynical from a political point of view”, he tells The Independent.

“Things like the offer to NHS workers, it looks like a good headline, rather than it being any sort of long-term strategy.”

Looking into the detail of the policy changes for migrant workers tackling the outbreak, questions arise as to how meaningful they really are. The offer of free automatic visa extensions to NHS workers fails to include the swathes of migrants working in the care sector, who have come to face the brunt of the crisis. The bereavement scheme offering indefinite leave to remain to the families of workers who die as a result of contracting coronavirus was only extended to all health and care workers after intense public pressure. As for dropping the NHS surcharge, Boris Johnson announced that in a humiliating U-turn just a day after telling the House of Commons it wouldn’t happen.

Mr Yeo says that while the reduction in migrants entering the UK during the pandemic, along with the shift in public attitudes on recognising the role foreign workers play in holding the country together, could allow “more space” for talking “humanely” about how migrants who are already in the country are treated in the short-term, this could be short-lived – particularly if and when the economic slump that has been predicted takes effect.

“In the longer term you might see people being more negative and xenophobic,” he says. “Where you have really difficult economic times and competition for jobs is harder, people don’t tend to react in a liberal, open-minded way to that kind of thing, particularly if trust in the government is low. That could lead to really difficult times.”

But there is hope that comprehensive changes to a widely criticised immigration system could arise from the pandemic. While absolving health workers from paying visa fees has been the Home Office’s limited way of thanking and appearing to be sympathetic towards this group, experts believe Britain’s immigration fees are in need of much broader transformation – and question whether the Covid-19 crisis could prompt some action.

Joe Owen, Brexit programme director at the Institute for Government, describes the current visa system, in which immigration fees soar year-on-year – with the health surcharge set to soar by £224 as of October, and the child citizenship fee standing at £1,000, despite the actual cost being £372 – as a “kind of joke”. He says the surging costs are the result of the spending review in 2015, in which ministers decided the border system should be self-funded and the Treasury gave it permission to increase prices for visa applicants, making it an area where the government could simply raise money.

“A lot of people see the huge fees as a way to stop people doing things and only select certain types of people to come to the UK, but the main thing was ‘we need to save money’. It was as much driven by administrative budgets as ideology,” Mr Owen explains.

“They’ve ended up now in this perverse position where the pricing system doesn’t really drive the behaviours that you want. It doesn’t encourage people to take citizenship when you want to try [to] encourage people to settle.

“It will be interesting to see where that goes because I think the policy case for it is pretty strong. While yes, it’s particularly acute now and the sentiment point is very high for NHS workers, there are some pretty big inconsistencies and bizarre incentives pushed by the funding model and the fees model within the Home Office that will warrant a bigger look.”

As for who will be allowed into the country, that was already set to undergo considerable changes before Covid-19 hit. The immigration bill, which passed its second reading in the Commons last month and is set to become law at the end of the year, will replace free movement with a system that ministers say will prioritise people based on their skills rather than where they come from, aiming to attract only “highly skilled workers”.

Interesting, then, that among those not included in this cohort who will be able to come to the UK – and are therefore considered to be “low-skilled” – are care workers, refuse collectors and local government workers, all of whom have been vital in the country’s fight against the virus. A YouGov survey for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) last month found 54 per cent of people were in favour of loosening immigration restrictions for key workers. Could this shift in attitudes lead to a re-think in government?

Chai Patel, legal director at the JCWI, says if the government were announcing its new points-based system now, it would almost surely struggle to maintain public support for blocking these workers out. However, he suspects that ministers are waiting until closer to December to confirm the plans, in the hope that public recognition and sympathy for these migrant workers dies down, allowing it to get through with less scrutiny.

“And it may well,” he adds. “Particularly if we get an introduction of austerity or start talking about things like Brexit much more, and blaming the economic situation on a wider range of things. I think they’re just hoping to get past this particular moment where you might see a lot of support for migrants.

“Ahead of the new deal, we could have a really constructive conversation about regularisation and having an immigration system that’s more generous and encourages people to feel secure when they’re living here, but that’s clearly not a conversation the government wants to have. And I’m not convinced that ministers are suddenly going to radically change their attitude on immigration in the next few months.”

Mr Owen points out that the government itself may be unsure of what the immigration system needs to look like after the pandemic, highlighting that there are now “a lot of unknowns” surrounding the economy and workforce demands and how these will be impacted by the lockdown. Indeed, the predicted recession is likely to make Britain less attractive, and with travel also set to remain restricted, it could be that the circumstances will reduce migration to a point where the UK needs to in fact attract more workers.

“Will it be fixing a demand problem or fixing a supply problem?” Mr Owen asks. “It’s so difficult to say at this point. It throws quite big design questions at a system that you’re just trying to get off the ground. In one scenario you want more but people aren’t coming. What do you do to incentivise more people to come? In the other, where you have high unemployment, this government is likely to prioritise getting the UK resident population who were working before coronavirus and should be working again afterwards, back into jobs. Given we’re six months out, that’s quite a big challenge at this point.”

Regardless of the economic situation, though, ministers could be reluctant to budge on a bill culminating from years of mounting rhetoric by government to drive down immigration. One policy that has exhibited this anti-immigrant sentiment in no shy terms is the hostile environment.

Formally brought into being by Theresa May and David Cameron in 2012, but with its foundations laid during the preceding Labour years, the controversial measures were designed to make life difficult for immigrants in the UK by limiting access to public services. And during the coronavirus pandemic, the damage caused by the policy – and the general hostility it creates in the system – has become all too apparent.

“We’re already starting to see lots of stories coming out about migrants who have died and why,” says Mr Patel. “Everything from the poor woman [Belly Mujinga] who got spat at to the people who were scared to go to the NHS, to people who were still stuck at work because of, among other things, having to meet their visa requirements, to people who don’t have recourse to public funds.”

Indeed, undocumented migrants have died from Covid-19 because they are too afraid to seek healthcare, due to NHS immigration checks, and the fear that their data could be shared with the Home Office. Thousands of migrants working and living in the UK legally have been shut out of receiving any form of state support and subsequently faced destitution during the crisis because of the “no recourse to public funds” condition attached to their immigration status, designed to “prevent burdens on the state and the UK taxpayer”. Asylum seekers, meanwhile, have had to survive on just £5 a day despite a drop-off in charitable support during the crisis, with some also having to live in shared accommodation where social distancing is impossible.

Mr Patel believes that in light of this, along with the evidence that BAME groups have died from coronavirus at a disproportionate rate to their white counterparts, the government must come up with an assessment of the extent to which – whether due to the hostile environment or general immigration policy – migrant workers are more at risk than those who are British. “It’s a question of making sure that those stories are told and that if there are inquests or inquiries, they’re forced to look at the whole immigration system,” he says.

There is mounting demand for this among segments of the public, with demonstrations taking place across the UK to raise awareness of systemic racism and the deaths of ethnic minority groups during the pandemic, following the wave of protests in the US.

But there is also a growing sense that tackling long-term changes prompted by the coronavirus crisis is becoming increasingly out of reach. Indeed, the fact that the government’s long-awaited report into BAME deaths this week failed to set out any recommendations, despite confirming ethnic minority groups were dying at a higher rate from Covid-19, is only likely to fuel distrust among migrants.

If not for compassionate reasons and tackling inequality, ministers may be forced to re-think hostile environment policies for purely logistical reasons, says Mr Yeo. He believes that in order to implement the “track and trace” scheme – which ministers intend to introduce to record users’ movements and alert people if they have had contact with someone who has developed coronavirus symptoms – everyone needs to be documented.

“If they’re thinking about track and trace, they need to think about the unauthorised population. You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people probably, and they’re not going to be willing to download an app to their mobile phones that allows the government to trace who and where they are,” he says.

“I could see that there could be room for movement on things like an amnesty, shifting [the] hostile environment to ID cards, which I think would probably be an improvement on the current state of affairs.

"There are problems with them undoubtedly, but it's at least a defensible, ideologically [sensible] position to have in a way that the hostile environment just isn’t. Checking somebody’s immigration status is inherently intrusive and potentially racist, whereas verifying somebody’s identity isn’t in that same way. It’s just not as loaded.”

Tony Smith, former director-general of the UK Border Force, says the government’s plans to introduce new measures to track and trace inbound passengers in order to control the spread of the virus could lead to people being required to demonstrate their health credentials in order to enter the country and access certain services, which could ultimately result in a national ID system.

“I think there’s a big challenge now for government. There’s going to be some kind of health credential that’s going to have to be developed, and to work it’s got to be universal. Everyone is going to have to have one,” he explains. “According to the Immigration White Paper, the government’s ambition is to create digital permissions to enter and remain. The idea is that everybody will be on the digital register. So you would be able to prove your entitlement to work, study or access health services in the UK with a digital token rather than with a passport, birth certificate or other paper document.”

Mr Smith says a “real problem” that would arise with any digital ID registration system would be how to distinguish undocumented foreign nationals in the UK from those who are already in the country legally. “There’s no easy way under the current system of knowing whether someone’s legal or illegal, other than what they tell you. That’s where we got into trouble with Windrush. A lot of the Windrush cases didn’t have any papers to prove they had a legal right to stay in the country; but they’d lived here for decades and were perfectly entitled to do so.”

In order to overcome this problem, the Home Office may have to consider whether or not to offer an amnesty for illegal migrants, as part of a process requiring everyone in the country to register. “I think that’s what we would need to do,” Mr Smith says. “Boris Johnson has spoken about an amnesty in the past. Amnesties are very politically volatile, and if the government were to go for that it would have to come hand in glove with a ‘you need to register’, and we’ll start from scratch, clear the balance sheet. Then – and only then – could we say with certainty how many people are residing lawfully in the UK; and establish to a high degree of certainty who may access services here and who may not.”

The implementation of any amnesty for undocumented migrants in the UK could be made more challenging in the face of an influx in unauthorised migration – which could be a possibility in the coming year or so. A report by the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) last month warned that coronavirus could “wreak havoc” in less developed nations, where there are often fewer hospital beds and medical doctors per capita, as well as crowded living conditions and a lack of access to hand-washing facilities. While these countries are focused on trying to overcome these hurdles, EASO says, extremist groups such as Isis could take advantage of the situation, driving more people out, which could, in turn, lead to a surge in people seeking asylum in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.

Mr Yeo says this possibility – on top of the impending economic crisis that is likely to generate anger and scapegoating over compassion and rational thinking among the British public – could mean an end to the pro-migrant rhetoric and talk of amnesties during the pandemic. “Right now it feels like there could be an opportunity for some fairly substantial changes. It’s five years until the next election. The government has potentially got the space to do this without getting shouted down by the right-wing tabloids. But that is a fairly optimistic take,” he says.

“If developing countries start to disintegrate and food chains are massively disrupted, people don’t necessarily have much choice but to try and start moving. And that could fuel a backlash. Some people will be sympathetic and a lot of people won’t. There’s going to be public appetite for crackdowns rather than anything else.”

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