Imagining more. What is the future for refugee and migrant communities post-COVID? #RefugeeWeek2020

Friday 19 June 2020

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Eighty years ago, small boats made their way across the English Channel to give comfort and refuge to beleaguered vanquished armies. The little ships of Dunkirk were claimed as a notable victory, a steppingstone to national safety. Today, small bedraggled boats make their way across the same Channel in search of succour and refuge from the ills of the world. Those who cower cold, hungry and desperate within these vessels are seen as an imminent threat and present danger to the national integrity of Britain.

Systemic suspicion and discrimination gains impetus from the circumstance of our time – the Covid-19 pandemic is no exception. Systemic suspicion has been on the rise inexorably since the global financial crisis brought austerity and retrenchment to the developed economies of the North.  Its apogee came when the so-called leader of the free world dubbed much of the world ‘shit-hole countries’ and caravans of immigrants as composed not of poor refugees but criminals, murderers and sources of disease. Trumpism is merely the high-water mark of prejudice widely shared beyond the bounds of the USA, whose venom falls indiscriminately on immigrants and refugees.

In the UK systemic suspicion and discrimination is the dynamic that influences those who administer the procedures regulating who enters and who stays as immigrant or refugee. Systemic suspicion is not a euphemism for racism. It is the recognition of the complex mix and constant rearrangement of elements of fear, insecurity, economic pragmatism and fantasy that generate ever new iterations of policy determining immigration rules. The subtle shifts of policy up to and including the hostile environment implemented by Theresa May translate into variations of discriminatory practice visited upon generation after generation of immigrants.

The legacy of enduring disadvantage follows migrants and refugees and the Covid-19 pandemic brings these inequalities into sharp focus. There are clear interconnections between health, housing and inequality against the landscape of this pandemic. The Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic and Refugee (BAMER) communities have suffered disproportionately because they are amongst the poorest, living in overcrowded, shared households and often in unsafe conditions. Social distancing is a luxury. There has been a serious lack of translated and widely disseminated Covid-19 related information and advice. Refugee communities are some of the most vulnerable in society. Fleeing persecution and often the victims of torture, they suffer from a multitude of mental health afflictions, requiring support and specialist services. These have been in short supply since the lockdown, causing untold suffering and anguish.  BAMER communities are more likely to experience precarious, low-paid employment. The frontline workers in hospitals, care homes and transportation are at most risk by virtue of the invaluable, low paid, underappreciated service they perform.

Only slowly is the larger reality emerging. By small increments, the public is becoming aware that the migrant and refugee, so often at the bottom end of the pay scales, pay handsomely for the ‘privilege’ of being here. They pay exorbitantly for visas, for hospitalisation and medical services as they disproportionately provide the services that civilise the social provision of the country.

My close friend and Senior ITN producer Roohi Hasan conducted the biggest survey of its kind of BAME healthcare workers last month. ITV News asked people from different ethnicities occupying different roles in the NHS, why they thought more of their BAME colleagues are dying from Covid-19 than their white counterparts. The shocking, but perhaps unsurprising result, was that 50% said that systemic discrimination or the fear of discrimination on the frontline may be a factor in the disproportionate number of their colleagues who have died having contracted the virus.

Systemic suspicion has its collaborator in systemic ignorance of the detail and the lived reality of BAMER communities. The impediments, hardships and prejudice they face routinely as they navigate the tortuous systems of regulation that bedevil and bemuse their daily existence needs to become part of the national conversation. The spirit of lockdown has prompted a re-evaluation of frontline workers. We escaped our houses to clap as proof of our new appreciation of their service. It becomes possible to talk of how society uses and casually abuses the contribution of so many invisible workers who began as or are immigrants and refugees.

Hassan Akkad, a Syrian national and film maker, arrived in the UK in 2015 and claimed asylum. He documented his perilous journey to the UK and won a BAFTA award for his documentary. In April 2020 he responded to the NHS call to arms and joined a team working at Whipps Cross hospital where he disinfected hospital wards where Covid-19 patients were being treated. His viral tweets led to the extension of the UK government scheme to grant Indefinite Leave to Remain to relatives of foreign nationals who died from Covid-19 while serving with the NHS. The scheme now includes family members of low-paid NHS workers. Shortly after, the Government announced that they would be removing the Immigration Health Surcharge for NHS and care workers, although this has yet to be implemented.

The pandemic has revealed the enormous contribution of overseas workers to our health care system. My own grandmother, who sadly died in her care home in April, was exclusively cared for by staff from overseas. Pandemic and beyond, there is no redress without vanquishing systemic ignorance of the contortions and hyperregulation that afflicts the life of immigrant and refugee to the disservice of us all.

We need a new response to replace the waves of panic, fear and racist rejection determined to turn back the small boats struggling to our shores. Migrants and refugees are the products of inequality, injustice and the degradation they proliferate. Pandemics and climate change are set to increase the tide. We need a flotilla of informed understanding tempered by the values of compassion to bring a better immigration and asylum service safe to port.  Everyone will benefit from another victory of the small boats in the English Channel.   

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