Migrants face full force of UK’s corona crisis

By Adnan Mahood

Published in The News on  April 19, 2020

Illegal immigrants from Pakistan have even become more vulnerable on account of the economic downturn resulting from coronavirus

Even though no exact figures are available, UK government agencies estimate that there are around a million illegal migrants in the UK. Independent estimates put the number even higher. There are thousands of Pakistanis amongst them. For various reasons they remain among the most vulnerable people in the country.

Understandably, illegal migrants are not allowed to work. Consequently, they have to work clandestinely on exploitative terms or survive on handouts from friends and family. Neither is a comforting solution and it is hard for them to survive even in normal circumstances. Migrants living through such difficulties include not just single men, but also women and children.

Most Pakistani migrants to the UK still prefer to brave the odds rather than run the risk of returning to Pakistan. The reasons are various: economic considerations being one of them. Even by working on exploitatively low wages, illegal migrants are able to send home amounts that they are unlikely to earn in Pakistan, especially given the current exchange rates.

However, this can now change due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Many Pakistani migrants work in kitchens in restaurants and takeaways or in the construction and building sectors on daily wages.

Both the hospitality and building industries have been the hardest hit by the lockdown restrictions currently in place in the UK and Pakistani migrants are bearing the brunt.

The UK government has put in place generous support packages for its own citizens and settled workers, including paying up to 80 per cent of salaries for furloughed staff.

Similar cash grants and long-term loans are on offer for businesses. British and European citizens also continue to receive public benefits. This, unfortunately, only leaves out the most vulnerable – the illegal workers stuck in the UK without an option to return to their home countries.

Some have to pay off huge loans, taken to pay agents to get here in the first place. They are waiting for the economy to improve and hoping to return to their pre-pandemic incomes. Others have formed genuine ties here through marriage or with children in schools or other such connections.

Some genuinely fear returning home due to the danger of persecution. These include failed asylum seekers who were unable to convince the UK Home Office that their lives are in danger in Pakistan after they were unable to produce any effective evidence of the threat.

The law requires asylum seekers to produce independently verifiable evidence of the threat and also of reasons why internal relocation within their country of origin is not possible. Providing such evidence is incredibly challenging for asylum seekers with no connections left with the country they have fled from. Therefore, while they have not been granted asylum, they genuinely fear returning to their home countries.

Asylum seekers whose cases are being considered by the British Home Office are not allowed to work but receive a cash support of £37.75 per week for maintenance. If their application for asylum is refused, all such support is stopped.

Other migrants file applications to stay in the UK on the basis of having established a ‘family and private life’ in the UK under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which prohibits a state from interfering “with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.

The ECHR convention requirements have been made part of British law in various provisions and are codified within the UK Immigration Rules. There are various provisions in the law that are specific to people married to British citizens or those with children and for children themselves. While such applications to stay in the UK have better chances of success, even these cases present their own challenges. For example paragraph 276ADE(iv) of the Immigration Rules caters to children who have been in the UK for seven years or more to be granted ‘leave to remain’ in the UK if they can prove that “it would not be reasonable to expect the applicant to leave the UK”.

This is a subjective condition and is not easy to prove. Applicants usually end up relying on detailed reports from the children’s schools and factual details of the impact of relocation on the child’s growth and development. They don’t always succeed.

It is even more difficult for people who have no families to rely on as they have to apply solely on the basis of their ‘private life’, a term that tries to address how some migrants may have developed a life for themselves in the UK. If they have been in the UK for less than 20 years, they can apply under paragraph 276ADE(vi) which provides them an opportunity to be granted leave to remain in the UK if they can prove that “there would be very significant obstacles to the applicant’s integration into the country to which he would have to go if required to leave the UK”.

This is even more difficult to prove and abstract concepts such as “very difficult obstacles” leave a lot of room for the UK Home Office to exercise discretion negatively.

A case in point is that of Saima (not her real name) who is a migrant from Pakistan who does not want to leave the UK due to perceived difficulties on her return to Pakistan.

She came to the UK with her husband around 13 years ago for IVF treatment under pressure from her husband’s family. They were unable to have children after several years of marriage and her husband’s family wanted him to marry again.

He instead sold his share in the family property to fund fertility treatment in the UK. The treatment did not work and he realised that he would have to remarry on their return to Pakistan. He loves his wife and does not want to marry again. The two have been in the UK for the last 13 years and have filed several applications under paragraph 276 ADE of the Immigration Rules, but have failed to convince the Home Office of the “very significant obstacles” they would face on their return.

Saima had been working in a factory in packaging and her husband at a garments store selling counterfeit merchandise, both earning around £40 for a whole day’s work before the Corona pandemic hit UK.

This is about half of the legal minimum wage. Unfortunately, they can’t even earn that for now as both the factory and garments shop are closed due to the pandemic. Saima and her husband now have no means to sustain themselves.

It is important to note that if their applications for leave to remain are successful on the basis of their private and/or family lives and they are granted leave to remain in the UK, they are allowed to work, but still do not have access to public funds. This means that the most vulnerable of them will still not be allowed public benefits like other British citizens or residents.

The government has stopped landlords from evicting tenants during the lockdown, giving much needed residential security to the millions whose income is affected during the pandemic. Saima and her husband do not even have that protection as they are undocumented and without rights.

During the prime minister’s questions on March 25, 2020, Boris Johnson offered some respite to “people seeking asylum, those whose asylum claims have been refused and all who have been prohibited from having access to public funds by Home Office rules will certainly receive the Home Office funding that they need and deserve”.

This was a welcome announcement. Asylum seekers are already receiving maintenance support and would continue to do so. Failed asylum seekers who were not receiving any support have now been promised public funds which is very helpful.

There is, however, some lack of clarity on the last part as it is not clear whether “all who have been prohibited from having access to public funds by Home Office rules” is intended only for those who have some form of leave or also includes those who do not have any legal status in the country. Furthermore, no policy decision or practical guidance has been issued to allow for its implementation.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has recommended that steps be taken to ensure that refugees do not fall into homelessness and destitution. Likewise, the UNHCR has recommended that health services be provided free of charge regardless of a person’s immigration status. The government has since clarified that no-one in the UK, including anyone living in the UK without regular immigration status, will be charged for treatment and testing for Covid-19 if required.

Human Rights Watch has also advised governments to “take steps to create firewalls between healthcare providers and undocumented migrants to reassure vulnerable populations that they do not risk reprisal or deportation if they access lifesaving care, especially in the context of seeking testing or treatment for COVID-19”.

These illegal migrants are extremely vulnerable and they need help and support – even basic food and residential security, and they need it now. While they will continue to receive urgent medical care through the NHS, they could still end up being the real victims of the lockdown unless the UK government or the Pakistan High Commission develop a safety net for them. Ignoring them is no longer an option.

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