“It’s worth bearing in mind that when we talk about immigrants in this country, these are immigrants currently saving people’s lives”, Piers Morgan commented on Good Morning Britain last week. This statement would have rung true if said last month, last year, during the EU referendum campaign or at any time in the recent history of migration to the UK. These positive arguments about migration are rarely heard in the mainstream media. The unprecedented COVID-19 crisis brought about a change, at least on the surface, in the rhetoric on immigration. In this blog, Alexandra Bulat (UCL) argues that soundbites won’t help migrants – policy change will.
We all remember certain politicians telling us how low skilled migration needed to end after Brexit. ‘Ending freedom of movement’ and ‘taking back control of our borders’ have been two of the soundbites gleefully repeated by government ministers in Parliament since 2016. The UK’s points-based immigration system, proposed in February 2020, defined migrant contributions purely in terms of monetary contributions. Instead of levelling up rights, it levelled them down for EU migrants, and did little, if anything, to improve the rights of non-EU migrants.
Much of the political narrative about immigration in the UK applies a narrow economic definition of ‘contribution’ to categorise what types of migrants are desirable, and welcomed, and who should be subject to strict ‘control’. Language matters – the UK’s points-based immigration policy statement described EU migrants as ‘stock’.
This ‘high-skilled = good. Low-skilled = bad’ migration binary has been criticised, including in my own research showing how the public’s subjective interpretations of ‘low-skilled’ migration do not necessarily match policy definitions. In a recent LSE Brexit blog, Patrick McGovern explained how labelling migrants as ‘unskilled’ or ‘low-skilled’ makes it easier to justify their exclusion from society.
It has been less than two months since the government published their plans for a points-based immigration system designed to exclude ‘low-skilled’ workers who do not tick the right boxes on the points list. The news headlines about low-skilled workers being ‘banned’ or ‘barred’ from entering the UK are still fresh in many people’s minds. ‘Ending cheap foreign labour’ was supposed to be the UK’s ‘immigration revolution’, according to some tabloid media.
These low-skilled migrants include care workers, retail staff, and delivery drivers who are keeping the country safe and fed during the Coronavirus crisis. The ‘cheap foreign labour’, scorned on by some of the commentariat just a few weeks ago, are our neighbours and friends who volunteer alongside us to help other friends and neighbours in need. Suddenly, more and more public voices show appreciation for the contribution of migrants, and that contribution seems temporarily demonetised.
The problem is, of course, that praise in the media or in political speeches won’t get very far when migration policies are concerned. Policy changes are urgently needed to make sure that migrants in the UK receive the support they need in these difficult times. Going on radio or television and commenting how much you appreciate ‘our EU friends, neighbours, and colleagues’ won’t help anyone who is anxiously waiting for their settled status, while the Home Office EU Settlement Scheme Resolution Centre had to close during the pandemic. Showing appreciation for Indian doctors and Filipino nurses in the NHS won’t make it fair that non-UK migrants have to pay the NHS surcharge (and EU migrants will be subject to the same rule when the new immigration system is implemented), which is set to increase to £624 a year in October 2020. No amount of praise on social media will bring together the thousands of families separated by the minimum income requirement policy.
EU Settlement Scheme
I’ve been a campaigner on EU migrants’ rights since 2017. I focus on the EU Settlement Scheme, which is only one of the many immigration policy areas that need to change to ensure migrants are not left behind and are treated fairly. Some may assume that the rights of EU citizens in the UK are a done deal. I regularly speak to people who are convinced that EU migrants in the UK all have an automatic indefinite leave to remain, just as promised by Boris Johnson and others when campaigning for Vote Leave in 2016.
The reality is far from what had been promised. Securing ‘settled status’ (indefinite leave to remain under the EU Settlement Scheme) is not easy for everyone. In the current COVID-19 crisis, the system produces even more anxiety and worry for EU citizens and their family members. the3million, the largest organisation campaigning on EU migrants’ rights in the UK, recently submitted evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee on how EU citizens and their family members will be impacted during the pandemic.
There is no automatic granting of indefinite leave to remain for EU citizens as promised in 2016. EU, EEA, Swiss citizens and their non-EU family members have to make a successful application to receive pre-settled or settled status. While securing their status was difficult for some before the pandemic, it is increasingly more difficult now. Most lines of support and advice are closed. The voluntary sector, already overstretched, is struggling to adapt as many services to the online space with limited funding.
The COVID-19 situation means that it will be more difficult for people to get advice if they need it, to actually submit the application (and impossible at the moment if they need to send in physical documents to the Home Office) and it will take much longer to receive a decision. This legal limbo already affects some migrants, such as the non-EU family member who answered the3million’s call for evidence last week. He explained how after losing their job in March, his family could not move to cheaper accommodation because the landlords would not accept his certificate of application for the purpose of to rent checks. They were also refused Universal Credit.
Last month saw a record number of people applying for Universal Credit. COVID-19 can affect anyone and there will be many more who will need support. More than a third of those who applied to the EU Settlement Scheme receive ‘pre-settled’ status, which is a form of limited leave to remain in the UK for five years. One of the key differences between the two forms of status is in the rights to welfare. Those with settled status have the same rights to welfare as UK citizens. However, pre-settled status does not automatically count as ‘right to reside’ for the purpose of welfare benefits. The non-EU family member referred to earlier had pre-settled status. He was refused Universal Credit as he failed the ‘habitual residence test’. Like many others, he is worried about how to make ends meet for his young family.
Another example of something that is not well-known amongst the public is that to be granted settled status, one needs to prove they have continuously resided in the UK for five consecutive years and be able to evidence at least six months every year. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, some EU migrants and their family members decided to leave the UK to be closer to relatives and families who need support in their country of birth or other countries. One of the concerns highlighted by the3million in the HASC submission was precisely on this issue: how will these citizens maintain the continuity of their residence if they are unable to return to the UK safely for a longer period of time?
These are just a few examples of how what some may dismiss as policy detail has a real and lasting impact on the lives of migrants. There are many unanswered questions on a whole set of issues, with several migrants’ rights organisations calling for scrapping policies that make their lives even more difficult right now, such as the minimum income requirement, ‘no recourse to public funds’, and the NHS surcharge. The solutions we need during the COVID-19 crisis are incompatible with the hostile environment policies.
The COVID-19 crisis is a wakeup call to reassess our values as a society. More of us realise that anyone can face financial difficulties unexpectedly and need to access welfare support. We can all see that ‘low skilled’ (more accurately, low paid) workers are likely the people who support us the most during this pandemic. When we meet migrants in our local volunteer networks, we see them as people, not as numbers. While the public attitudes on immigration seem to soften, the negative impact of successive governments’ immigration policies on migrants’ lives still carries on.
The values that hold our society together during these difficult times are the antithesis of the hostile environment policies affecting migrants every day. We all want the same things: to feel secure, to be able to access support when we need and for our families to be safe and healthy. The last thing migrants need now is to be denied support and face even more uncertainty over their status. Migrants are part of our communities; they are not commodities. It’s time for a narrative shift that translates into policy change. Please keep in touch with and support those organisations linking arms right now to bring about this change.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of LSE Brexit, nor of the London School of Economics. Image: Simon Davis/DFID.
Quoting Piers Morgan? the author must be desperate or ….
What these sorts of virtue signalling articles always ignore, is that the majority of people in this country are extremely tolerant of migrants and recognise that inward migration can be a good thing if those coming here are bringing much needed skills to the country or, if the migrants concerned are working and integrating. The question should be is why should any British Citizens welcome those who come here who are not working, refuse to integrate and are a net burden on our society.
I share the sentiments expressed in this blogpost. But before I continue, I must declare an interest. For I am an immigrant. And in the nearly 30 years I’ve lived in England, I have experienced almost every aspect of British life, except serving time in Her Majesty’s prison. It is my continued prayer that, by the grace of God, I never have to experience it for the reminder of my life. I therefore speak with authority when I say that the problem in England was, and still is, not immigration. But rather, and as I put in my 2019 blogpost, ‘Immigration is not the ugly truth; poverty is’ – the issue is one of poverty. In that blogpost, I argued that poverty of leadership and a lack of imagination are the primary reason we got in the mess, that resulted in Brexit. My assertion of poverty of political leadership and the want of imagination is clearly vindicated by the manner in which the British government is presently grappling with the Coronavirus crisis.
It is said, “A people get the government they deserve”. That the problem here is not immigration as such, but the poverty in political leadership, is true as part of a chain of cause and effect. Ultimately, but by the same token directly, in a country purporting to be a democracy, the people, through the electorate, are responsible for the kind of representative they will have in Parliament and, hence, in government.
However, migration in itself can and does cause problems of various kinds and severity. It is rarely neutral in its effects. That these problems are not always given equal voice in the public domain and attention by the authorities charged with dealing with these problems is due to the struggles between the many different partisan elements seeking to influence affairs of state through the government, the bureaucracy, the media and public opinion.
There have been, and are, fields of human endeavour where debate about contentious issues is based on facts and values, and the interpretation and weighing of same, but in politics in latter days of the western democracies, debate or what goes for debate has slowly but surely morphed into a struggle to convince the other to accept a certain outcome, or, failing that, to justify a certain outcome in the face of strong, perhaps even majority, opposition. What follows is more confusion and a gradual drift into chaos. This suits the party or parties who wield power by nominally legitimate means.
The current increasingly chaotic situation in the UK regarding immigration is due to several major factors:
-Regardless of which party or coalition formed government, the establishment has for many many years had a consistent and continuous policy in place and in effect to encourage immigration both legal and illegal by any and all means.
-The establishment, which is able to influence government to these, and many other, effects, has basically only two reasons for taking the trouble to influence affairs of state: Political power and money, i.e. high finance, finance, commerce, economic leverage, etc.
-The establishment which can be capitalised to indicate it is in fact in charge, in order to be more effective than it otherwise would be, always seeks to downplay and where possible deny its influence and deny and/or mask the effects.
-Since immigration into the UK became an issue of some note, and possibly a deciding factor in the outcome of elections, every government and the Home Office bureaucrats have sought to deny and/or downplay the negative effects of immigration upon the UK at large and the people in particular, and on the other hand stress the advantages well beyond what reasonable observers would consider warranted.
-By far the majority of migrants in the UK who are struggling or who say they are hard-done-by would be in the category of the lesser skilled and/or migrants seeking support from the state, i.e. financial support from the government.
-Without scarcely any exception, other than accompanied minors whose parents would take the responsibility, all migrants entered the UK of their own volition.
-Regardless of what the British people would democratically wish for in the way of immigration, there is a limit to the number of migrants which could be economically integrated at any one time without negative economic consequences.
-It is a simple fact that even where immigration has a positive economic impact overall, the impact on the environment and the quality of life may still be negative and the economic positives may well be disproportionately distributed.
-The moral case for immigration into the UK, or any Western European country, against the wishes of the majority of the citizen incumbents Or where such immigration impacts negatively upon a minority of these citizen incumbents has never been made, or even attempted as far as I know.
-The moral case for not accepting migrants with skills or potential to make a positive contribution to whichever society these people come to live and work in is strong and easily made, except where these potential migrants seek to leave a country which is as developed as the UK( or any other country these would-be migrants seek to enter).
When order runs into disorder, chaos is assured. From chaos a new order will appear. At the moment, the UK is, along with most western nations, on a trajectory towards chaos. Regardless of the efforts made by the government, and the governments-to-come, migrants and would-be migrants have a duty to themselves and the minors in their charge to find the best legal option available to them and, by the same token, take responsibility for the decisions they have made and are yet to make for themselves and their loved ones. Although each individual cannot be expected to take into account the result of their own decisions in accumulation with others in a similar position, it is a fact of life that the accumulation of actions taken by groups of people in a particular situation has undeniable and inexorable effects upon the world around them and the seemingly independent individuals who are part of a category or sub-category.
All in all, it looks as if immigration into the UK will remain a bone of political contention until it is reduced to more manageable numbers or until such time as the UK government is quite unwilling or unable to limit immigration in any way whatsoever.