Covid-19 made it clear: UK’s social contract with migrants is based on exploitation. Once again, women are the ones who have it the worst.
We are all too familiar with the right-wing rhetoric about migrants “abusing” UK public services. In 2013, the then Prime Minister David Cameron said that “there’s a lot more to do to make sure that while we’re welcoming we don’t allow people to come here and take advantage of us, because I think that does happen too often”.
By then, his government was already acting on these evidence-lacking claims: the hostile environment policy was announced in 2012.
As a consequence of Theresa May’s measures, lay people such as landlords, doctors and teachers became responsible for conducting immigration checks. Giving this power to non-qualified citizens leaves room for misunderstandings and mistakes, making migrants’ lives in the UK harder.
On the assumption that immigrants are a burden to tax payers, in 2012 the “no recourse to public funds” condition was extended to most of the non-EEA nationals that have a temporary immigration status. Practically speaking, under this condition migrants cannot access universal credit, disability allowances, local authority homelessness support and free school meals – among others.
More recently, with Brexit, EEA nationals saw hostile environment measures becoming tougher for them. Instead of granting automatic settled status to EU citizens residing in the UK, in 2019 the Home Office launched the European Union Settlement Scheme: requiring an application means that the most vulnerable people are at risk of becoming undocumented and being removed from the country.
Considering all this, it is clear how migrants are treated as second-class citizens. The terms could not be more explicit: you can work – and therefore pay taxes – in the country but in no way do you have the same rights as your British counterparts. It looks as though like commodities, migrants can be disposed of when the need for them is low, or alternatively they can be used until exhaustion: just like what happened with migrant key workers during the pandemic.
Consequences of the hostile environment policy during COVID-19
Many migrants who have worked in the UK for years have now lost their jobs to the coronavirus crisis.
Those from EU countries could technically claim universal credit, but not everyone can prove to have the right to reside in the UK.
On the other hand, most immigrants from non-EEA countries found themselves in a chokehold. With a collapsing job market and the impossibility of access public funds, some have lost their homes: restrictions on evictions do not apply to those who do not have a tenancy agreement.
Both EU and non-EU migrants who are formally renting but are struggling to make ends meet face a similar risk once the hold on evictions is lifted.
The situation can be similarly tragic for those who are still working. It does not matter if you or your family have pre-existing health conditions – if you don’t have access to public funds, you cannot afford not to go to work during the pandemic.
The situation is even more complex for those migrants who are in the country illegally: living in constant fear of deportation, illegal migrants are generally more likely to be exploited by their employers and less likely to access medical help should they develop any symptoms. During the pandemic, these conditions might turn – and in some cases already have turned– into a death sentence.
In this context, it is vulnerable groups like immigrant women who are among the most affected: hostile environment, the Covid-19 pandemic and pre-existing gender disparities combined lead to disastrous results.
An analysis by Women’s Budget Group clearly delineates migrant women’s situation in the Covid-19 crisis:
- “Women are the majority of health and care workers“. Being at the frontline means that women have the highest exposure to Covid-19, being 77% of the staff in “high risk” roles. Considering that both the NHS and the social care sector are dependent on migrant workers – who make up respectively 13% and 16% of the workforce – it is clear that immigrant women have been affected in unprecedented ways.
- Other feminised sectors that employ relevant numbers of migrant women are childcare, cleaning and retail. These are characterized by minimum or poverty wages, almost impossible to live on even in normal times. One can only imagine the hardships faced by migrant women when furlough is not an option. Sadly, being furloughed on 80% of a low salary will not save migrant women from destitution either.
- The lack of adequate state help and personal support networks further exacerbate the conditions in which immigrant women live during the pandemic, leaving most of them with no option but to remain in abusive workplaces and/or relationships.
As a charity established to support and empower women from BAME and migrant communities, we at JAN Trust know that the only way to address the devastating impact of hostile environment and Covid-19 is through delivering a gender-sensitive, culturally appropriate response. You can join us in our efforts to support migrant women in many ways: donate, volunteer or simply contribute to busting myths about migrants. Shout out loud that the reality is extremely different from what has been and still is being portrayed.