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‘Give refugees temporary leave to remain during Covid-19 crisis’

The Guardian logo The Guardian 03/05/2020 Michael Savage
a group of people standing around a table: Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

All migrants, asylum seekers and refugees must be given temporary leave to remain in Britain to rescue them from exploitation, destitution and homelessness during the coronavirus pandemic, a coalition of dozens of charities and church leaders is warning.

In an open letter to Boris Johnson, they warn that thousands of people with insecure immigration status are in “dire circumstances” after being deprived of most public funds, deterred from seeking medical help and put at even greater risk of abuse. They also say that many have skills that could help deal with the pandemic, including medical expertise, but are blocked from the workforce.

They caution that emergency help from charities is drying up and movement restrictions have left many trapped in “exploitative situations”. They warn: “We are hearing heartrending stories of homelessness, exploitation and hunger.”

Under current rules, those with insecure immigration status are subjected to the “no recourse to public funds” policy, meaning that they are prevented from accessing many benefits. Councils are prevented from giving them certain help, while access to housing is also a major problem. Meanwhile, data-sharing between the NHS and the Home Office is putting them off from accessing help, potentially leading infected people to remain untested and out of hospital.

One migrant was forced to sleep outside on a night bus and then in a London park for two nights

“We write as leaders of organisations supporting refugees, asylum seekers and migrants to ask you to grant a period of leave to remain, with recourse to public funds and access to the labour market, to all those with insecure immigration status,” the group writes. “This is a vital step to protect public health during the Covid-19 pandemic. At a time when public health demands that everyone has ready access to housing and healthcare, insecure immigration status acts as a barrier and puts everyone’s health at risk.”

a person sitting at a table in front of a building: Asylum seekers in London receive emergency food from a Red Cross centre in Dalston. © Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA Asylum seekers in London receive emergency food from a Red Cross centre in Dalston.

More than 20 bodies have signed the letter, including the Jesuit Refugee Service, Praxis, Women for Refugee Women and the Public Interest Law Centre. As well as calling for a temporary leave to remain, they demand the end of the “no recourse to public funds” policy and the suspension of data-sharing between health bodies and the Home Office.

Many of those they help rely on informal support from friends for accommodation, but are finding that they are being asked to leave during the pandemic, just at a time when cheap food is scarce and charities are stretched. One migrant supported by Women for Refugee Women was forced to sleep outside on a night bus and then in a London park for two nights, despite attempts to help her by a number of charities and homelessness services. Another has been sleeping rough, under cardboard, behind a supermarket for more than two weeks.

The government has lifted fees for the treatment of Covid-19, but the letter warns that some are still deterred from going to hospital “by the knowledge that, should they test negative for Covid-19, they may be charged for any treatment they need, and their data may be passed to the Home Office”.

a person sitting on a bench: A refugee waits to receive food from the Red Cross in London during the lockdown. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA © Provided by The Guardian A refugee waits to receive food from the Red Cross in London during the lockdown. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

Sally Daghlian, chief executive of the charity Praxis, said: “Value items have now been stripped from supermarkets, community projects are closed for hot meals, and food banks cannot meet demand. People are hungry and have no access to basic essentials. People whose leave to remain is about to expire are still being expected to meet stringent requirements for the Home Office at a time when it is almost impossible to access free legal advice or produce the necessary documents.”

A government spokesperson said: “We have been very clear that anyone experiencing coronavirus symptoms will be treated for free, regardless of their immigration status, and emphasised to NHS trusts that no immigration checks are required.

“However, those seeking to establish their family life in the UK must do so on a legal basis, which is why we have no recourse to public funds provisions in place if someone has no legal right to be here.”

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