The COVID-19 crisis has had a profound effect on the way people move around the world and relations between countries. As chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Refugees, I wrote a joint letter with Kate Green MP (Chair, APPG Immigration) to the Home Secretary.
The Rt. Hon Priti Patel MP
Secretary of State for the Home Department
2 Marsham Street
London SW1P 4DF
1 April 2020
Dear Home Secretary
Re: immigration and asylum concerns during the COVID-19 crisis
We write in our roles as chairs of the all-party parliamentary groups on migration (Kate) and refugees (Thangam) respectively to seek information and raise concerns about how people in the immigration and asylum system are affected by the COVID- 19 crisis. We appreciate the changes you have recently announced to the system and thank you for those. We have further suggestions and questions to put to you, which we believe are in the best interests of the health and well-being of everyone as well as the individuals concerned.
We would welcome discussion with you or your officials about these and are willing to help organise this. Please let us know if this is possible.
Short term temporary visas:
We welcome the publication of the ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19): advice for UK visa applicants and temporary UK residents’. Documentation is important for people to be able to prove to employers that an individual is still permitted to work in the UK.
- Can you confirm that the guidance applies to all non-EEA nationals who may need to extend their visa due to COVID-19, and to all short term visa categories, such as domestic work visas?
- Can you clarify the legal basis on which visas will be extended, and guarantee that people who apply for and receive an extension to their visa will not be subject to immigration enforcement?
- What documentary proof will individuals receive that their visa has been extended?
- What steps is your department taking to communicate with temporary residents in the UK to let them know that they can apply for an extension?
Some people who are still in the assessment process will need to self-isolate due to symptoms. It is important to know how this will affect decisions about extensions.
Can you clarify how the Home Office team is going to assess “self-isolation related to coronavirus” in determining who may be given an extension, particularly in the absence of widespread testing?
Can you confirm that protections will remain in place during the COVID-19 crisis for those at risk or who report exploitation and abuse, including those on Domestic Work Visas?
What steps are being taken to ensure that vulnerable individuals continue to receive the full protection of the NRM during the crisis?
The announcement of 17 February 2020 that Chinese citizens in the United Kingdom would automatically have their visas extended was welcome.
- What proof will be supplied to these individuals to enable them to demonstrate that they have qualified for this automatic extension?
Foreign nationals and continuity of residence provisions:
Some foreign nationals will have a condition in their visa which restricts the number of days on which they may be out of the UK in order to maintain their right to indefinite leave to remain here. However, they may have temporarily left the UK but then been unable to return to this country as a result of COVID-19 restrictions (such as closed airspace) being placed quarantine in the country they’re visiting, or because of illness.
- Can you confirm that they will not be regarded as breaking their continuity of residence in these circumstances?
We are concerned that travel restrictions are going to cause problems for the people who are usually employed as seasonal workers and for the industries they work in. In particular the problems for the farming and food industries will cause problems for everyone if they are not resolved quickly.
- What steps are being taken to continue monitoring the employment of seasonal workers to protect them from exploitation and to ensure they and their employers are aware of and complying with public health measures?
- What conversations are taking place with the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to ensure that seasonal workers – and, in particular, seasonal agricultural workers – are protected during this time, and that the GLA has the resources it needs to protect vulnerable migrant workers?
- What discussions are taking place with DEFRA to ensure enough seasonal workers for key agricultural seasons for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis?
We are pleased that the government has released several hundred people from detention and put in place measures to keep people in detention safe and well.
- What public health assessments are being carried out on the detention estate, and, when releasing people from detention, what plans are in place to ensure they are released to suitable accommodation, and receiving suitable support, including access to healthcare, in the community?
Asylum accommodation and local authorities:
It is vital that there are comprehensive operational protocols for responsible data sharing between your department, accommodation providers, and local authorities in coordinating emergency responses. This is to ensure that the needs of people in asylum accommodation, particularly those who are ‘high risk’, are made known in a timely and systematic way to local authorities and are fully included in public health responses. We are pleased that the government has announced a suspension of all evictions for a three month period. However, there are some matters which need further detail.
Will you issue specific government guidance in relation to people in asylum accommodation during the crisis?
What steps are you taking to ensure that any asylum-seeker with symptoms of Covid-19 is able to self-isolate safely?
When guidance is issued, could you please give us information on how it is being communicated to providers and the asylum seekers?
What steps is your department taking to ensure that people have proper access to food and cleaning products?
We understand that regular monitoring of premises is being relaxed during the crisis.
- What discussions have taken place with service providers such as SERCO to ensure that accommodation is being maintained and looked after?
- Would you consider asking these providers to provide cleaning products, and other basic essentials, to the accommodation during the crisis?
- What steps are you taking to increase the supply of suitable contingency accommodation so that people seeking asylum have somewhere safe to be and, if needed, to self-isolate?
Support for people with no recourse to public funds:
People with no recourse to public funds are in desperate situations if they cannot work. Making their lives harder not only puts them and their families at risk it also puts everyone else at risk if they feel compelled to work in the informal economy and travel to work or to find food if they cannot support themselves or their families.
- What protections are being put in place for those with no recourse to public funds who may need to access social security and other benefits or support from the local authority?
- Will you consider bringing everyone who has no recourse to public funds into the existing systems of welfare benefits and additional support during this crisis?
- Can this be in the form of cash grants as many people with no recourse to public funds do not have bank accounts?
- In particular, what help is there for people with no recourse to public funds to gain access to emergency accommodation if they are experiencing domestic violence?
Support for the voluntary and community sector helping migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees:
Many voluntary and community groups providing support and services to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are experiencing considerable income pressure as a result of the crisis, at a time of rising demand. Some are not able to operate their services as they usually do because of the rules on social distancing and are concerned about the impact on people struggling on very low incomes and who may be socially isolated or unable to get information from the internet. All are struggling financially with the severe drop in donations and other sources of non-governmental funding. They provide a lifeline to very vulnerable people. Leaving these people with little or no support will risk great harm to them.
- What support will your department offer to ensure these vital services can continue in some form?
- We understand a number of foundations and other non-statutory funders are relaxing or extending funding conditions to grant greater flexibility to providers to offer additional services. Will you consider a similar approach for NGOs holding contracts with your department for the provision of services to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers?
We appreciate that this is a lot of questions and we hope you or your officials can respond to these or discuss them with us soon. We send them in the spirit of co-operation and what we hope is a shared desire to help people in difficulties in the immigration processes and protect everyone.
Thangam Debbonaire MP, Chair, all party parliamentary group on refugees
Kate Green MP, Chair, all party parliamentary group on migration