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Social Justice

Undocumented migrants must be included in Covid inquiry, says charity

Exclusive: Hostile environment policies mean those without immigration status “exist on the sharpest end of the Covid crisis”, says the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.

The experiences of undocumented migrants must be included in the Covid-19 public inquiry, a leading immigration charity said.

Government policies, including the hostile environment, have meant those without immigration status “exist on the sharpest end of the Covid crisis”, a new report by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) found.

The UK’s undocumented population – estimated to be between 800,000 and 2 million people – have been exposed to greater risk despite helping to keep the country’s vital services running during the pandemic, the JCWI said.

The report pointed to European countries including Italy and Portugal, which ran amnesty schemes for migrants during the pandemic.

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Chiyoma (not her real name), came to the UK seven years ago from Nigeria, and became undocumented when she fell ill and had to overstay her visa because she could not travel.

Her fear of accessing healthcare meant her health problems worsened to the point she was a “walking corpse”, sleeping on buses as she was refused accommodation as part of the Everyone In scheme.

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She told The Big Issue: “All we want to do is contribute positively to this country. During the pandemic, we were all part of what went on, we are all part of the suffering that every other person went through. There should be consideration for us.”

The report highlighted how charities have been forced to step in and fill the void. In Chiyoma’s case, she was able to get health care after being referred to Doctors of the World.

She said her experiences during the pandemic, because of her undocumented status, were “hell.”

She said: “Part of the reason we chose the western world is because of the fairness and the human rights policies. But I felt like the system was against me in everything.”

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Baroness Heather Hallett will chair the upcoming inquiry, which is set to begin its work in spring. Its terms of reference are yet to be announced.

The JCWI report, titled “We Also Want To Be Safe”, also recommended an end to data sharing between the NHS and the Home Office, and for an end to the offence of illegal working.

It highlighted how a person’s immigration status can affect their access to healthcare – and how willing they are to access it.

Maria (not her real name), an undocumented migrant from the Philippines, said her experiences during the pandemic had left her “devastated and stressed”.

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Maria lost her immigration status after the law changed to stop domestic workers renewing their visas. During the pandemic, she said employers had refused to pay her wages she had earned while working for them.

She told The Big Issue: “You don’t have money at all, because the employer – if you’re undocumented, they’re not going to pay you. They’re going to sack you immediately.”

She added: “I want only to ask them, with undocumented people, just treat us like humans. We are the same – we need to live, we need to work.”

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