HOSTILE environment policies from the UK Government during the pandemic have heightened the risk of contracting Covid-19 for migrants who are undocumented, according to a new report.

The commentary, from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), found the UK had lagged behind other European countries in protecting such migrants, and called on Baroness Heather Hallett, who is chairing the Government inquiry into the pandemic, to ensure their voices are heard.

It said public health efforts have been hampered by policies such as NHS data-sharing, no recourse to public funds (NRPF) and Right to Rent checks, which had been ignored when assessing the disproportionate Covid-19 death rate amongst black and brown communities.

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The report said this was despite the UK’s largely minority-ethnic undocumented population being estimated at between 800,000 and 1.2 million people.

To tackle race disparities in coronavirus outcomes and aid recovery from the crisis, the report said the Government had to prioritise public health above punitive immigration policies and end its hostile environment.

JCWI policy officer Caitlin Boswell, who wrote the report, said: “Public health should have been government’s number one priority over the past two years, with everyone given the support needed to stay at home, get care and get vaccinated without fear.

“Instead, we’ve seen this government maintain their dangerous and discriminatory immigration rules undeterred.

“These policies, which push people to lose status and then punish them when they do, have left people destitute, homeless, and scared to access care – making undocumented people’s lives almost impossible, and exacerbating their risk of catching and dying from Covid.

“And while the evidence is clear that the UK’s black and brown communities have disproportionately suffered and died from COVID-19, so far, the government has ignored the role our hostile environment has played in these racially unequal outcomes.”

The report was based on 13 in-depth interviews conducted last September and October 2021, 10 of which were with migrants who lacked secure status during the pandemic, and three with people doing frontline work with undocumented migrants.

All the migrants had worked while undocumented before the pandemic, including as domestic workers, nannies and cleaners, and all those in work directly before Covid-19 hit lost their jobs during the first lockdown.

The report found that hostile immigration policies caused many of them to face eviction, street homelessness, destitution and reduced access to healthcare – increasing their exposure and vulnerability to Covid-19.

It noted that Portugal, Spain, France and Greece all helped their undocumented migrant populations in different ways during the pandemic through regularisation schemes, concessions and subsistence support, and said the UK Government has, as yet, failed to recognise the social and public health benefits similarly protective measures could have here.

Maria, an undocumented domestic worker who was interviewed, said: “Undocumented people are part of this country, we are part of your communities – we are carers, we are nannies, we are drivers, we are parents and just like everyone else, we have the right to be safe and to be treated as human beings. “We should have the right to get the vaccine without fear, to go to the hospital without fear, to rent homes without fear.

“But right now, every step we take we are worried. We should not have to live like this. We just want to feel safe and live without constant fear.”

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Boswell added: “If government wants to learn lessons and fully recover from the pandemic, it must stop prioritising its anti-immigration agenda above saving lives.

“It must listen to migrants’ voices, including those who’ve lost status, and ensure that in the future, no-one has their life put at risk because of their immigration status.

“Doing so will not only protect the most marginalised, it will help protect all of us.”

A Home Office spokesperson said they recognised the "unprecedented" impact of the pandemic and acted decisively to ensure they were supporting everyone through it  

They said: “Many of the wide-ranging Covid-19 measures we put in place were available to migrants with no recourse to public funds, including the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, Self-employed Income Support Scheme, and protections for renters from evictions.

“The UK has a proud history of welcoming those in need. Our new Nationality and Borders Bill will create an immigration system that is fair but firm, welcoming those in genuine need but cracking down on those who come to the UK illegally.”