Travelling back to Brazil in late June, one of our JAN Trust employees had imagined a much quieter journey. To their surprise, almost all international flights at Heathrow Airport were full. But different from previous years, the large majority of passengers were leaving the UK reluctantly. They were returning to their countries of origin after months of unemployment. No longer able to make a living, taxi drivers, gig economy workers, cleaners, and informal entrepreneurs were faced with an unplanned return home.
This has become a global trend. In Afghanistan, more than 230,000 undocumented migrants returned home between 1 March and 30 May 2020. The British International Passenger Survey has been suspended due to the current crisis, but it is easy to imagine that both immigration and emigration have fallen harshly, and that net migration is now negative, as long-term residents leave the UK due to health and economic concerns. The situation is especially despairing for undocumented immigrants or those with employment-linked legal statuses.
In the UK, 14% percent of services and sales workers, employed in sectors suffering most from the economic impacts of COVID-19, are foreign-born. On top of this, they face higher health risks due to ‘multigenerational’ living situations and employment in critical healthcare services. Out of the twenty countries most affected by COVID-19 as of 3 November 2020, at least eight are dependent on foreign-born healthcare professionals, using data from 2015-2016. Among them, the UK has the highest percentages of foreign doctors and nurses.
Job loss has severely compromised the living conditions of immigrant families, particularly those of ethnic minorities. Remittances, a lifeline for about 800 million people around the world, are predicted to drop by 14% by this year, compared to remittances before the pandemic, due to the economic consequences of coronavirus. The UK is one of the 6 countries most severely affected by COVID-19. It is also one of the top 15 nations from which the largest sum of remittances was sent in 2018.
In these desperate conditions, some bilateral negotiations have allowed borders to temporarily open, letting stranded migrants in. India, the country of origin for the largest number of emigrants in the world, started a repatriation operation in May. In total, India had repatriated over four million individuals by Christmas last year. The Home Office extended work visas and announced that undocumented immigrants or those wishing to withdraw asylum and residency applications can get financial help to return home.
Still, this leaves the most vulnerable immigrants with a choice between going through economic distress in the UK or returning home indefinitely, by giving up legal immigration processes. If they decide to stay, immigrants who have ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ can still be furloughed by their employers, but in case of job loss are not entitled to Universal Credit. If they are compelled to leave, their return to the UK remains uncertain as a new Immigration Act was passed at the end of last year, which essentially denies entry for low-skilled workers (read our blog post about the Act when it was still a bill here).
At JAN Trust, we have supported women and young adults from marginalised groups for over thirty years. Many of our users are part of the foreign workforce that has been severely affected by the COVID-19 crisis in the UK. Our services designed for migrant women include ESOL-courses, mentoring, advice, guidance in issues of refuge/asylum, immigration, employment, housing and life in the UK. We have continued our work through these unprecedented times, empowering BAMER women and advocating wider support for migrant communities in the UK. No one should be left behind by responses to the COVID-19 crisis.