Reasserting Migrants’ Rights Through the Pandemic

Recent years have seen a raft of interventions in British politics that have undermined the standing and basic dignity of people who have migrated to this country. ‘Hostile environment’ policies, “controls on immigration” mugs, the demonisation of migrants in debates about Brexit, and the Windrush scandal of deportation and detention have legitimised and amplified racism and xenophobia.

Before the Crisis

Recent years have seen a raft of interventions in British politics that have undermined the standing and basic dignity of people who have migrated to this country. ‘Hostile environment’ policies, “controls on immigration” mugs, the demonisation of migrants in debates about Brexit, and the Windrush scandal of deportation and detention have legitimised and amplified racism and xenophobia.

These callous interventions cannot be viewed in isolation and they are not exceptional when the United Kingdom’s broader history (and history of immigration law) is considered. They have been built on top of a longstanding framework of policy and legislation that treats migrants as second-class citizens: through detention centres, policing practices, deportation flights, and restricted access to safe work, housing, and public services. They are a product of the United Kingdom’s participation in an unjust international economy, walled up by borders, that produces migrant injustice every day.


These policies are the direct result of imperialism and racism in the United Kingdom, as has been highlighted by recent Black Lives Matter protests. Aspects of that past – including a deep history of anti-Semitism, mass murder of Indigenous peoples, and appropriation of resources, contributing to debt in the Global South – have never been reckoned with by the British establishment, despite tireless work from campaigners, academics and others. And the United Kingdom continues to take an imperial role in some places in the present.


Human lives have been deeply marked by this mistreatment, in the last few years as well as in previous decades. The Windrush scandal led, for example, to ambulance driver Winston Robinson being sacked in 2016. He was told he could not access public services; he was then made destitute, homeless, and unable to pay his rent. By 2019 he was still out of work. A government acknowledgment that it had made a mistake in 2019, followed by the granting of citizenship, was too little too late. He could not return to his old workplace and was told to apply for compensation. “I didn’t apply to get into this mess, but now I have to apply to get out of it,” he said.

The Position of Migrants during the Coronavirus Crisis

As coronavirus spread across the United Kingdom in February and March, non-UK nationals found themselves with restricted access to social support and were left unable to self-isolate effectively, and to protect themselves from contracting coronavirus. Most migrants’ visa conditions include a ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ condition, which blocks access to vital public services. Migrants continued to be held in migrant detention centres indefinitely, with reports of coronavirus cases breaking out, concern over the mental health of those detained, and no instructions or guidance on social distancing. There was a threefold increase in hate crime against people appearing to be Chinese or from East Asia between January and March 2020. With travel to a number of countries restricted, many migrants were locked out from returning home. But migrants were also locked in to a system of public services (the economic foundation of which is built on wealth acquired from British colonialism) that excluded them from its coverage. In addition, those from overseas have been asked to pay astronomical fees just to carry on living and working here, on top of paying taxes just like British nationals. Fees include the the Immigration Health Surcharge, which is currently £400 per year for access to the NHS, was set to increase to £624 per year in late 2020 following a Conservative election manifesto pledge.

Campaigners, writers, and migrants themselves (speaking to their own experiences) called for urgent changes to these policies. Detention Action called for the end to migrant detention, given the significant health risks. Campaigners like the Unity Project, Project 17 and Maya Goodfellow, backed by MPs such as Diane Abbott and Apsana Begum (as well as the thinktank IPPR), consistently demanded an end to ‘no recourse to public funds’. A list of NGOs – including the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, Liberty, Bail for Immigration Detainees, and Migrant Voice – wrote an open letter to the Home Secretary proposing the suspension of NHS migrant charges and data-sharing between health services and immigration enforcement, said that no one should be made an ‘overstayer’ because of the need for self-isolation preventing the renewal of visas or access to travel, sought specialist support for those housed in shared ‘asylum accommodation’, and called for better communication of policy changes.

At the same time, other countries took bolder action in support of migrant safety, showing that none of these measures is impossible to achieve. Portugal granted automatic temporary leave to all migrants and asylum seekers with residency applications in train. This was justified as a public safety step, which would allow everyone to gain access to public services and healthcare if at risk. Spain, recognising the impossibility of effecting immigration removals while banning all but essential travel, had emptied all detention centres completely by 6 May. Italy introduced a regularisation programme for undocumented migrants working in home care and agriculture. Ireland introduced a firewall ensuring that immigration data would not be shared between health services and immigration enforcement, ensuring that nobody would be too afraid to access vital healthcare for fear of being targeted for detention or deportation.

This advocacy and these overseas developments put pressure on the Conservative government. The visas of overseas health and care workers were extended for a year. More than 700 detainees were released from migrant detention centres between March and April. The government’s hand was also forced by a successful court challenge brought by an 8-year old British body and his migrant mother to ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ in May, supported by The Unity Project, which helps migrants to challenge NRPF conditions. Judges in the High Court ruled that the process for applying to lift ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ conditions was so inaccessible as to represent a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, a prohibition on torture or inhuman or degrading treatment, and ordered that the policy be reconsidered to ensure that migrants do not need to prove that they are destitute before applying to access funds. However, it is still only in truly exceptional circumstances that migrants can escape this ban on accessing the social security net as they still have ot prove that they are at imminent risk of destitution in order to lift No Recourse to Public Funds conditions.

These limited moves by the government did not prevent stark injustices and human tragedies, however. To take just one example, Emanuel Gomes, a husband and father from Guinea Bissau who moved to London several years ago, worked through the crisis as a cleaner at the Ministry of Justice for the outsourced cleaning firm OCS. OCS and the Ministry of Justice refused to offer him sick pay and so he continued working, despite being in ailing health. He died of suspected coronavirus on 23 April 2020. As the United Voices of the World said in a tribute to him:

Emanuel should not have been at work. He should have been able to take the time off to rest, recover and seek whatever medical treatment he needed. … Like millions of workers across the country, Emanuel simply couldn’t afford to get sick. Doing so would have left him unable to buy food or pay his rent. Forcing him to make that choice ended up costing his life.

The Government also introduced its Immigration Bill in May, paving the way to restrict entry to the UK for those who do not not meet the £25,600 salary threshold, in the face of many who claimed that entrenching exclusion of so-called ‘low-skilled’ or low paid workers was wrong, especially given the way that the coronavirus crisis has highlighted the need to revalue and rethink previously labelled ‘low-skilled’. Through reducing access to legal, flexible migration routes for the lower-paid, the Government’s so-called “points-based system” will force more people in those circumstances into workplace exploitation and modern slavery where they are unable to obtain a secure legal status in the country.

A New Approach to Migrants’ Rights

The fact that the Conservative Government has been pushed into making adjustments to its usual policy approach – extending free school meals to migrants, for example – even while it has not moved on other issues (like ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’) demonstrates that it is mainly political will holding back further action on justice for migrants.

But how can political will be activated in relation to migrants’ rights? As well, how can xenophobia be resisted when borders around the world are likely to be tighter than before the crisis, creating opportunities for anti-immigrant policy and rhetoric to become entrenched? A much broader conversation must be started about the United Kingdom’s role in the world historically, and how that has informed its approach to migration today. As Nadine El-Enani has pointed out, there needs to be a recognition that much of the United Kingdom’s wealth comes from its imperial past – and that current-day immigration controls are a perverse attempt to limit access to that unjustly acquired wealth. Politicians and campaigners can make this point whenever there are opportunities, as well as heeding Maya Goodfellow’s injunction that “there can be no caveats when rejecting anti-immigration rhetoric.” This conversation can also be deepened through political education that emphasises the United Kingdom’s role in imperialism, as well as through ongoing advocacy for greater teaching about this country’s imperial history in schools. Political education can help to draw connections between past racism and the current immigration system, as embodied in the Windrush scandal.


What is the spur to this broader political conversation and imperialism? The coronavirus crisis has confirmed, yet again, the ongoing contribution made to the UK’s society, culture, and economy by migrants. It is migrant carers, nurses, and doctors that have kept people alive during the crisis. Claims that ‘we’re all in this together’ also ring hollow if they are followed by policies that exclude migrants or continue to treat them as second-class citizens, tying together racism and classism.

But while this contribution made by migrants is undeniable, it is vital that policies do not reinforce false narratives about ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’ migrants. Access to social services should be guaranteed due to migrants’ status as human beings, not on whether they have contributed to society (say, based on whether they have worked in the NHS or the care sector). Prevention of access to social services has caused particular hardship for women who are migrants, and those seeking to leave abusive relationships, as Southall Black Sisters have pointed out. Accordingly – with “no caveats”, to adopt Maya Goodfellow’s approach – there is a need for an end to ‘no recourse to public funds’ in its entirey, a closure of detention centres, an end to the Prevent duty (discussed in another position paper), an end to all deportations, firewalling of data between policing and public services (discussed in another position paper), increased legal aid support for migrants, and a scrapping of the Immigration Health Surcharge, not for some migrants but for all. The right to work for asylum-seekers must be reinstated.


At the same time, it is essential that progressive movements (including trade unions) support routes to regularisation for people without legal status, including through work. Underpinning all these campaigns must be a steadfast opposition to the hostile environment, which has been tied to austerity (as demonstrated by the introduction of NHS charges for migrants as part of shrinking access to public services for all) and has led to migrants avoiding access to healthcare: a Migrants Organise report recently showed that 57% of migrants avoided healthcare because of the hositle environment policies. Many campaigns have been making the calls above for some time; others, such as the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, have been more recently launched. These campaigns can also open up related conversations: about detention more generally, about workers’ rights (of which migrants’ rights are a key part), or about other forms of marginalisation that parallel the exclusion of migrants.

It might be wondered why this set of priorities, in relation to migrants’ rights, has been selected as part of an agenda of action centred on reclaiming the economy. The reason migrants’ rights is part of this agenda is not because upholding migrants’ rights will make migrants more better able to contribute to the economy. The economy serves people. The purpose of the economy is to support all of us in leading thriving and fulfilling lives. Excluding migrants from social and legal protection undermines that broader purpose. And so rectifying that exclusion of migrants is an essential part of reclaiming the economy. Guaranteeing security for migrants is one step towards guaranteeing a sense of security for all of us; it intersects with struggles for other essential rights, such as the women’s rights and the right to be free from destitution. Guaranteeing security for migrants also reflects a genuine commitment to internationalism, which recognises a right to move for everyone, not just the global rich. It acknowledges that the movement of people is a result of global inequality to which the United Kingdom has significantly contributed.


Alasdair Gray once said, paraphrasing a Canadian poet, “Work as if you live in the early days of a better world.” As we emerge from coronavirus, we need to take up that spirit. A better world, committed to internationalism (and not ignorant of historical injustices), would involve the fight for migrant solidarity and justice that has been sketched above.


  15. Nadine El-Enani, (B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2020).
  16. Maya Goodfellow, Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats (Verso, London, 2019) at p. 198.
  18. See