Within the last year, this government has willfully ignored the plight of undocumented immigrants and refugees, denying them safe accommodation and safe access to healthcare.

The government’s policy of creating a ‘hostile environment’ has become increasingly harmful throughout this pandemic. The term ‘hostile environment’ refers to a set of policies created in 2012 by then Home Secretary, Theresa May. These policies were designed to make life difficult for immigrants, forcing them out of the UK. As she said then:

‘The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants’.

From hospital immigration checks to home raids, these policies are dangerous during a pandemic. The lack of housing and healthcare are life-threatening issues that this government has failed to provide.

The dire conditions of Napier Barracks

In Folkestone, Kent, many asylum seekers have been sent to Napier Barracks. The Home Office has stated the barracks are ‘safe, secure and Covid compliant’, yet evidence suggests the opposite. At Napier, 16 blocks housed 400 asylum seekers, with 28 sharing two toilets and two showers, eating and sleeping communally.

The charity Choose Love has been in direct contact with residents who wrote an open letter to the Home Office, explaining the dire conditions:

‘We all share one space. We breathe in one room and there is no way we can practice social distancing’.

It is then no surprise that 1 in 4 residents at Napier tested positive for coronavirus.

The Home Office was acutely aware of the risk yet refused to act. Privately, 6 months earlier, Public Health England explained the dangers of the barracks and the unsuitability of the accommodation during a pandemic. Yet publicly, Home Secretary Priti Patel claimed the accommodation was of a ‘very strong standard‘.

It is clear that advice to close the barracks was ignored by the government every step of the way. From open letters by charities and Public Health England, the advice was unequivocal. Despite this, public health was endangered as the virus was allowed to run rampant. Why? To maintain the toxic atmosphere of the ‘hostile environment’.

But at least refugees can get a vaccine?

Technically yes, but realistically no. Since the introduction of the hostile environment policy, public health has been used as a tool for immigration control. NHS share immigration data directly with the Home Office, causing widespread fear.

To receive NHS treatment as an immigrant, a pre-attendance form is signed, which asks you to agree that ‘your personal, non-clinical information will be sent to the Home Office’.

The government did recently announce that it would be offering vaccine ‘amnesty’, and that immigration data will not be reported to the Home Office. However, how can the government claim amnesty when the NHS continues to report information? How can they be trusted? The truth is that they can’t.

Research done by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants revealed that 43 per cent of migrants would be scared to access healthcare for fear of being charged or having their data shared with the Home Office. For those with refugee status, this rises to 56 per cent. In a recent press release, Anna Miller, Doctors of the World UK Head of Policy and Advocacy explained her fears:

‘This exemption doesn’t go far enough to undo the fear and mistrust created by the hostile environment’.

The hostile environment stance creates a culture of discrimination in the NHS. Temporary promises of safety will not undo the years of harm, mistrust, and fear. Bella Sankey, the director of the charity Detention Action explained:

‘It is essential for all our health that everyone is able to access vaccines without fear of punishment. But this will only work if the Home Office immediately legislates to end all data sharing with doctors, hospitals and healthcare providers. Without this guarantee, mistrust will prevent vaccine uptake, which will harm us all’.

Independent research estimates 1.2 million illegal immigrants are residing in the UK, a significant population that will likely remain unvaccinated.

Ironically, policies designed to protect UK citizens from the so-called ‘threat’ of immigrants, are now endangering all of us.

What can we do?

The first step on the road to recovery would be to immediately remove the hostile environment policy. The transfer of data to the Home Office should be severed, followed by a well-funded public outreach campaign to communicate this. Lastly, there needs to be increased accountability, ensuring the conditions at Napier never re-occur.

The road is clear, yet the Home Office is silent. The government have prioritised anti-immigration policy over public health and safety.

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