When Sophia lies awake at night she hears the breathing of her three daughters and her partner. All five of them sleep in the same bedroom a few streets away from me in Croydon, recycling the same air. God forbid, she worries, if one of them gets corona. If that happens, they will all get it. There is no self-isolation here.
We often hear that Covid-19 is particularly dangerous to those with underlying health conditions. We hear less about it being particularly pernicious to people who are economically insecure. And for those who, like Sophia – not her real name – have unsettled immigration status, things are even worse. Because without UK citizenship, this family doesn’t even qualify for state support.
No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) is a mouthful, a euphemism and an increasingly serious health risk to us all. Essentially, it means people are cut off, shut out, unassisted and rejected because of their immigration status. It applies to residents living and often working in our communities, frequently doing essential but low-paid work in cleaning, construction, catering and caring. They work for us, yet we refuse to protect them.
This failure to extend financial and social support isn’t just morally unconscionable, it is also a health risk. If people can’t access healthcare properly or live in overcrowded conditions or become homeless because of this crisis, the health risks to all of us skyrocket. If this pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that we’re all connected, and one weak link in the chain is a risk for us all.
There are untold thousands living like Sophia and her partner. He was working cash in hand to support his family, including the new baby. But it’s been three weeks since his work has dried up because of corona, and his immigration status means there is no access to benefit, no sick pay and no compensation to cushion the blow. The family does not qualify for Universal Credit. Right now they rely on foodbanks, our Croydon Mutual Aid Network and school meal donations to eat. They feel blessed to have been given milk for the baby, but there is a real risk of undernutrition in the weeks and months ahead.
Paying the rent on their tiny property is also a worry. The government has suspended evictions for 90 days, but families like Sophia’s are still worried about what happens after that. If her landlord finds out she’s living in such an overcrowded space, he might try and evict her for that alone. If the family does become sick or homeless, they will almost certainly end up in acute care, placing more pressure on the NHS. And if Sophia asks for help, she fears exposure to government attention will do her family more harm than good in the long term.
Public bodies have taken some steps to help families like Sophia’s. The NHS has been told to suspend immigration checks when it comes to the treatment of corona and local authorities have been advised to use other powers to help this vulnerable group. But when Sophia has tried to access some such forms of help, she has been told to apply for asylum at the Home Office. Without money for a solicitor or time to waste before her next bills arrive, this is simply not an option.
Some will argue that families like Sophia’s should just “go home”. But many migrants come here fleeing persecution or, in Sophia’s case, domestic violence, and have no recognisable home to go back to. Meanwhile, international travel is suspended and flights are considered a health risk. While people are stuck here without options, we must care for them – for our health as much as theirs.
There are, however, sources of hope. A growing number of people are standing in solidarity with families like Sophia’s. Sadiq Khan recently joined calls from the No Accommodation Network and over 70 charities and other organisations to suspend the unjust and unsafe No Recourse to Public Funds policy. As they rightly argue, emergency public health measures do not work unless they apply to everyone in our communities. Each of us needs to be able to self-isolate, seek healthcare and access basic provisions. Once we achieve that, it won’t just be Sophia and her family who are able to sleep more soundly at night, it will be all of us.
Rowenna Davis is a teacher, political activist and writer. Follower her on Twitter. Thanks to Mathew Hill for his research.
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