openJustice: Feature

‘I lost everything’: COVID-19 and the UK’s Hostile Environment policy

Migrant workers and human rights organisations say the Home Office’s failure to respond to the pandemic has left people destitute

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Oscar Rickett
15 April 2021, 9.33am
Abdul, an asylum seeker from Somalia, points to the Shard, where he used to work as a cleaner
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Edwin Mingard/'H is for Hostile Environment'. All rights reserved

On a patch of higher ground in Burgess Park, south London, Abdul points at the building he used to work in. Owned by the State of Qatar, the Shard thrusts greedily upward, master of all it surveys. “I was working as a cleaner, in different places,” Abdul says. “In like, government offices. I was [also] working in the Shard, near London Bridge. It was from midnight till seven in the morning. At night, there was no one inside really. Just some cleaners. Most of the staff, they come in the morning, when we get off.”

Abdul was born in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, and came to the UK as an asylum seeker, fleeing an ongoing conflict that has shaped life in his country since 1991. He is a Somali citizen, but he holds a Yemeni passport, and so the UK Home Office told him he couldn’t seek asylum from Somalia. In court in 2017, the British government department said they would deport Abdul to Yemen. Abdul recalls that the judge said: “I know what is happening in Yemen. Yemen is not safe. War has already started there.”

At this point, a misunderstanding typical of the highly bureaucratised, opaque British immigration system seems to have occurred. Abdul believed he had been given ten years leave to remain in the UK. A couple of weeks later, a biometric card arrived. It needed to be renewed every two and a half years – that renewal would cost Abdul upwards of £2,000. He had been left with no recourse to public funding (NRPF), and the work he was doing as a cleaner or as a kitchen hand in a “big restaurant near Hyde Park Corner” all paid minimum wage.

Without the money to renew his card, the Home Office stripped Abdul of his status. “I lost my job. I lost everything. I was happy in my job,” he says. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. Unable to work and unable to claim benefits, Abdul was homeless and began having to survive on tiny cash grants from charities – £40 here and there. He has a couple of friends who will let him sleep in their kitchen if he pays them. In November last year, his renewal fee was waived and his immigration status was restored, but the pandemic has laid waste to his previous jobs, and so his situation remains dire.

Abdul is one of a number of London-based migrants who have collaborated in the making of the film ‘H is for Hostile Environment’, directed by the artist Edwin Mingard and the historian Keren Weitzberg. The film is being shown as part of the Trellis festival at University College London on the evening of Friday 16 April.

Another of the film’s collaborators, Usman, told openJustice that after being put on a five-year track to citizenship, he was able to raise money to start a social enterprise that would train refugees to become baristas. It would also establish a space in which music concerts and comedy nights could be put on, with the hope of using the arts to “break the narratives in society around refugees”. The pandemic has put paid to this project for now, and Usman has only just managed to avoid the fate of Abdul by taking odd jobs and selling coffee beans online.

Usman Harmondsworth H is for Hostile Environment.jpg
Usman says he has had 'a terrible experience with the Home Office' | Edwin Mingard/'H is for Hostile Environment'. All rights reserved

Initially, Usman, who comes from Pakistan, is diplomatic when it comes to his struggle to settle in the UK. He says simply that the government departments he has dealt with are “not very efficient”.

The Home Office, though, is “on another level”. “I’ve had a terrible experience with the Home Office. I don’t understand how people work in the Home Office, for such a cause,” he says. Usman tells openJustice he was detained and discouraged at every point and that it was the same for those around him. “The funny or sad part of this story is that the daughter of an immigrant is now in charge there. That makes things slightly sick,” he says, referring to Priti Patel, the home secretary.

Migrant workers, NGOs and campaign groups have all told openJustice that the Hostile Environment policy adopted by the Home Office had only been made worse by COVID-19 and the government’s failure to respond to it. Steve Valdez-Symonds, refugee and migrant rights programme director for Amnesty UK, says that while the organisation can’t quantify how many migrant workers will have fallen into situations such as Abdul’s, “it’s quite clear that a lot of people have been suffering”.

People like Abdul and Usman have, broadly speaking, faced two kinds of working situations. In some cases, their work – particularly in the hospitality industry – has disappeared because of lockdown restrictions. In other cases – including, openJustice understands, for outsourced cleaners working in government buildings – workers have been made to go into work when it was clearly unsafe to do so.

A report from Migrant Rights Network (MRN) on conditions faced by workers who are either migrants or people of colour, found that 76% of respondents said they felt they were “putting their own health at risk by continuing to work during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 54% of those believing that they were more likely to contract COVID-19 in their line of work”. The impact has been more severe on those, like Abdul, who are NRPF, with 14% of respondents saying they had been unable to pay their rent or mortgage on time.

“We have been pointing out the disaster of the Home Office system in this context and they have largely done nothing,” says Valdez-Symonds, of attempts by Amnesty and other groups to encourage the government to review its systems. “They are refusing to accept that the pandemic makes any difference to what they are doing. They are not interested in thinking that this has an impact on the lives of people they are theoretically responsible for. It is effectively a machine that is insistent on rolling on in the same way as it always did. It does not see people as being important.”

The Home Office did not respond to openJustice’s request for comment.

I was not naive to think it will all be perfect, but I expected to encounter something different in Britain

The devastating impact of this refusal to acknowledge the impact of COVID-19 has been felt by migrants of all social classes. Migrant Rights Network is working with more than 65 people within the Highly Skilled Migrants Group – nearly all of whom hold a postgraduate degree – who have been denied indefinite leave to remain in the UK by the Home Office on the basis of historical self-employment “tax discrepancies” 8-10 years ago. In one case, Katerine Thane, senior advocacy officer at MRN said, the tax discrepancy in question is less than £2. It is also unclear why such historical discrepancies were being shared by HM Revenue and Customs with the Home Office, given that they are neither an immigration nor a criminal offence.

None of the people being targeted are white. All come from South Asian, Caribbean or African backgrounds.

Thane told openJustice that nearly half the people and families they are working with say they are facing destitution. “You have families living in one room, people sleeping on sofas and some are now even homeless. COVID has made it grim. Only 45% have the right to work.” These people and families have all been in the UK for over a decade. They are, Thane says, “relying on religious communities, friends and family. Some have returned to their home countries because they have had such a horrible time in the UK.”

“It’s all part of the Hostile Environment,” Thane says. “Making it difficult for people to stay here.” What was bad before, has inevitably been made worse by the pandemic. “COVID has really, really worsened the situation. Mental health is a particular concern.” Thane and her colleagues are bringing together cases and could be in court by May. They are looking to secure emergency support for people who are destitute and to have their right to work reinstated.

“I was not naive to think it will all be perfect, but I expected to encounter something different in Britain,” Usman says. Neither he nor Abdul has asked for much. On that bright, cold afternoon in Burgess Park, the nostalgia Abdul felt for a life in which he worked all night cleaning offices in the Shard was striking, a testament to how hard this society can make life for those who ask so little from it. In a scene from ‘H is for Hostile Environment,’ he walks across the grass away from the towers of London Bridge. The sun is on his back, his hands thrust into the pockets of his coat as he disappears.

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