At JRS UK, we work with people marginalised and excluded by government policy. Some are people who have been subjected to years of destitution and hostile environment policies, banned from working or studying and denied access to basic support as they struggle to get the recognition as refugees they badly need. They rely on charities and couch surf to survive. Others are people incarcerated in immigration detention centres, walled off from day to day life, separated from family, friends and community and often denied access to legal processes. This is all on the basis of immigration status. Policies to exclude and create suffering for those with insecure immigration status constitute gross injustices, antithetical to human dignity and fundamentally bad for community. They tear apart families and leave people vulnerable to exploitation. By injuring those on the margins, we injure society as a whole. We need instead to facilitate participation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it harder to ignore this lesson. In the face of the virus, it is clearer than ever that the welfare of one is bound up with the welfare of all. At the same time, the need for support and inclusion is greater than ever, and those with insecure immigration status face even greater challenges: as people seek to socially distance, couch-surfing is more difficult, as is accessing support from charities. We desperately need a safe place for everyone. Concurrently, so many who are banned from working have much to contribute to communities reeling from the virus, often as keyworkers. Some are trained as doctors and nurses. Many have volunteered, or sought to volunteer, for the NHS. As we look towards the next phase of the pandemic, it is vital that we take this to heart and end the politics of exclusion. We need to extend support and the right to work to everyone. Status for all would allow us to do this.
A few months ago, local authorities responded to immediate need by providing accommodation to many – including a significant number refused asylum. Nonetheless, immigration status continued to act as a barrier in some cases, as no recourse to public funds rules could still be applied. At JRS UK, we are also aware that many were hesitant to come forward for help for fear of immigration enforcement. Having to choose between exclusion and community, society wrestled with itself, still tied by systemic exclusion of many categories of migrant.
Now, as lockdown eases, we continue to be faced with a choice. Do we build a safe place for all, or a place that excludes some to everybody’s cost? There are fears about what happens next. People briefly accommodated in hotels are faced with the streets. And the options once available to some of them – of staying with friends, for example, often remain closed. Still in the grip of a global pandemic, trying to rebuild society and keep everyone safe, we could face a new, and deep, crisis of homelessness. Writing to local authorities about the next phases of the pandemic, central government has reiterated that no recourse to public funds rules remain in force. This is clearly not a plan for everyone in. We should ask ourselves two questions: first can we restore our wounded society in this way? Second, do we want to?
There are fears about what will happen next, but there are also hopes. Albeit imperfectly, we have glimpsed the possibility of a kinder, more open society over the last few months. We can go forward with this. We do not have to go back. The road ahead is likely to be a long one, and a difficult one. If we go back to a ‘normal’ that denies people support on the basis of immigration status, and denies their skills and gifts to society, we will fall. If we bring everyone in, we can emerge reinvigorated. Granting those with insecure immigration status a period of leave to remain would extend support to all; in would bring everyone in to the work ahead; it would offer a simple and constructive way forward for different branches government which must otherwise focus needlessly on division as they chart a way forward in this unprecedented landscape. Looking forward, we need status for all.