Zareen Taj and Mitch Mitchell look at the effects of the Tories’ proposed new immigration system following Brexit. They argue that it will make life much harder for EU and EEA citizens, erect new barriers to unaccompanied child refugees being reunited with their families, lead to an increase in unpaid work within families, more workers forced to work illegally and an increase in the exploitation of labour from prisons and immigration detention centres.
In recent months, as many anticipated, the Tory government has taken advantage of the distraction of the pandemic to push through their plans for an even more repressive immigration system as part of the EU withdrawal process. The Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill, often referred to simply as the Immigration Bill, has passed its first and second readings in the Commons and Lords and the Commons committee stage. The Bill is not new – it has been in the pipeline since Theresa May’s days. Alongside the legislation, the government has announced details of its plans for new immigration rules.
Anti-racists have long campaigned against the government’s Brexit immigration plans, but due to the pandemic, these developments received little public attention. Refugee and migrant advocacy organisations like Safe Passage, The Refugee Council and others did their best to rally support against the new legislation, voicing concerns about their support services being overwhelmed by this chaotic vision of future immigration policing.
One of the most sweeping changes is that four million EU citizens and their family members currently living in the UK will have to apply for the EU Settlement Scheme by June 2021 to continue to live in the country. This also applies to EU students wanting to remain in the UK after January 2021. The Settlement Scheme, which is already in place, has caused controversy since its introduction. There is widespread concern that the Home Office will not be able to process the applications within the specified deadline, many applicants have been subject to procedural errors and denied status, which is particularly alarming given the lack of avenues to appeal decisions.
EU and European Economic Area (EEA) citizens will be funnelled into the existing immigration system, redesigned on the model of the Australian points-based system. In reality, the proposed UK version is even harsher. Whereas migrant workers in Australia are not required to have a job offer in advance and their visas are often not tied to a specific job, the UK will require that an immigrant worker score at least 70 points in the vetting system and these points are not ‘tradeable’. Specific boxes must be ticked such as a job offer, speaking English to a required level and a salary expected to be around £25,600.
The new rules would make life even more difficult for unaccompanied minors arriving in Europe as refugees, and who have family members living in the UK. The government has dropped its responsibility for family reunification and will only do so after consideration on a ‘case by case’ basis. This could mean children will be stuck in transit camps in both Europe and North Africa while their cases are being reviewed. It seems likely that asylum seekers will continue to be banned from working, continue to receive only about £35 per week for living expenses (a sum increased by as little as 26p per day for extra expenses during the pandemic), remain in sub-standard housing and have no entitlement to medical treatment.
Refugees and asylum seekers were already at the sharpest end of the UK’s brutal border controls, as the recent tragic events in Glasgow have highlighted. On 26 June, a Sudanese refugee with previously known mental health problems attacked other residents with a knife in a central Glasgow hotel. He was shot dead by armed police and six others, including three migrants, received injuries which required hospital treatment. Many argue the incident was caused by the extreme distress of containment measures. People had been moved out of their previous accommodation and herded together in what some described as internment camps, supposedly to protect them from the coronavirus. According to interviews with some refugees, there was no social distancing, very poor quality food with no choice, and no PPE available.
Robina Qureshi of Positive Housing Action, which supported asylum seekers following the incident, highlighted the way in which private companies are, in many cases, the primary profiteers of border control in the UK:
All [asylum seekers] were placed in hotels by the Mears Group, an outsourcing company working in Housing management & social care, employing 10,000 people… Ultimately though, this is not about food or bed bugs. It is about human beings being warehoused for profit by one company and the systematic abuse of their most basic human rights which leaves people functionally destitute, systematically isolated, and fearful of being punished for fear of their case being affected if they speak out about the shameful conditions they are forced to endure. People are terrified of being made destitute and being returned to dangerous countries. It is a matter of shame that up to the present time, this apartheid system operates for those who come to our country to seek refuge. It is time for the Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council go do more to stop Mears and the Home Office in their tracks and challenge the abuses of the most vulnerable.
The pandemic has shone a light on the UK’s exploitative relationship with migrant workers in both the public and private sectors. Lockdown measures made clear that a majority of those working in ‘essential’ – social reproductive – workplaces were migrants. Popular support for ‘key workers’ has made some dent in the Tories’ anti-migrant rhetoric, resulting in the scrapping of planned healthcare charges for NHS workers. The government is now careful to emphasise their desire to attract migrant workers to public services, primarily the health service.
The rest of the essential migrant workforce, however, sees little benefit in this change of heart. Outsourcing excludes many NHS workers from the concession on charges. Many other key industries pay too badly to provide eligibility for the new visa scheme, and the workers currently in these jobs are often in the types of housing or employment contract that make it hard to obtain the new legal status.
The GMB union has raised alarm bells over the future of adult social care in the UK. They fear a loss of workers in the sector as their salary and lack of special visa dispensation will prevent many passing the points system to work here – or even to continue working here. The GMB analysis shows that almost 350,000 workers born outside the UK will be affected. The sector has a vacancy rate of 8%, compared with 2.8% across all industries. Similarly, a huge proportion of food production, processing, logistics and agricultural work is performed by migrant workers from Eastern Europe and the Global South.
The exploitation in these industries is not accidental, nor will it be addressed by showing appreciation to migrant workers, or lowering the required income threshold. Social reproductive labour – the labour that sustains us and makes us into ‘productive workers’ under capitalism – is obtained unpaid or at the lowest cost possible. In the Global North border controls and immigration enforcement which keep migrant workers in precarious legal positions is central to achieving this. The likely outcomes of the new Immigration Bill are an increase in unpaid caring labour in private family settings, more illegal employment of undocumented workers and so-called ‘modern slavery’, and ‘inventive’ cost-cutting measures in seasonal and manufacturing industries, such as outsourcing to inmates of prisons or immigration detention centres.
The restructuring of life during the pandemic has shown that demands that were previously radical can become popular. With Brexit negotiations still ongoing, it is vital to campaign and mobilise against the repressive immigration system and for a just and green recovery. ‘Life-making’ and caring services will have to be at the forefront of such recovery, but that doesn’t mean that we should articulate our solidarity towards migrants through valuing their contribution to these industries – a just transition can only happen through an end to state violence to refugees, migrant workers and citizens alike.