COVID-19: Will the pandemic have a lasting effect on UK immigration attitudes and policy?

This month has seen a record number of asylum seekers attempting to cross the English Channel in hopes of settling in the UK and finding a better life. Over 1,200 people took the treacherous journey in August, sparking debate amongst British politicians on the developing issue. 

When the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, anti-immigrant sentiment was at an all-time high in the country, with IPSOS MORI recording that 56% of British voters saw immigration as a top issue. But Brexit negotiations have taken years, and now a global pandemic has quickly become top of the agenda. This has resulted in one of the latest polls from April this year showing that concerns over immigration have now reached an all-time low, with the top issues changing to Coronavirus, followed by the economy. 

It has arguably been a time of increasing positive attitudes towards immigrants in the UK, with the pandemic highlighting just how much Britain relies on foreign workers. Immigrants make up a large section of the UK healthcare system at 13.8%, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted this, with the media placing the NHS in the spotlight.

UK immigration

The pandemic seemed to not only affect the UK public’s attitude; but also the Conservative government’s, who are known for their strict immigration policies, like that of the hostile environment policy that was implemented in 2012. 

Read: What Are The Changes In Immigration Law Of Australia That Will Affect Migrants In 2020?

So, it was quite a shock when the same government praised foreign NHS workers during the height of the pandemic and agreed to scrap the NHS surcharge for them, a £400 a-year fee that foreign workers have to pay to be able to use the UK’s healthcare system, even if they work in the NHS.

With the news of large numbers of Channel crossings this month, the UK government seems to have changed their minds in regards to immigration once again. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, and Home Secretary, Priti Patel, called those who were making the difficult journey “criminals”, a statement which is untrue as seeking asylum in the UK is not a crime. 

These claims only heighten the misconception that the men, women, and children crossing the Channel are illegal immigrants. Most of them are fleeing from countries that have been torn apart from war or offer inadequate human rights, with the majority of asylum seekers in the UK coming from Iran, Albania, Iraq, and Pakistan. 

The UK government has recently made it evident that they are committed to preventing asylum seekers from crossing the Channel, claiming that the issue here lies with criminal human trafficking gangs who are exploiting refugees. Asylum seekers and refugees are indeed particularly vulnerable to being trafficked by dangerous organized crime groups, but it’s also important for the UK government to accept their responsibility for these crossings.

Refugee Action, a charity that supports refugees in the UK, has spoken out against the government following the drowning of a 16-year-old Sudanese boy who had been attempting the dangerous crossing. They said: “If this Government is serious about saving lives, reducing the number of people taking risks and stopping criminal traffickers, then urgent action must be taken to adopt more safe and legal routes for people to seek refuge in the UK.”

For many refugees entering the UK, crossing the English Channel is their only hope to be able to claim asylum here. Boris Johnson recently called refugees arriving on rubber dinghies “stupid”, this offensive statement overlooked the fact that for many who are desperate to flee persecution, this is the only method of travel. He also failed to recognize the contribution that some of those very same refugees have made. A clear example of this is Syrian activist Hassan Akkad, a BAFTA-winning film-maker, who has spent his time cleaning hospitals during the pandemic after he made the same treacherous journey just five years ago. 

Criticizing the British government, Hassan said that he was forced to cross the English Channel in a rubber dinghy because there was no other safe route for asylum. He believes the UK government is scapegoating migrants because of their failings during the pandemic and that this is why they are now vilifying them. In a message projected onto the White Cliffs of Dover, he said: “The past few months have proved that the people who made Britain their home didn’t hesitate to roll up their sleeves and keep this country running during the worst public health crisis in modern history.”

It seems that the UK government’s changing attitudes to immigrants during the pandemic were short-lived but perhaps activists like Hassan, who continue to act as a reminder of the value of immigrants, could keep immigration off the list of top issues for British voters in the future.

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Article Author Details

Reanna Smith

Reanna Smith is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organization that offers legal aid support to asylum seekers
and refugees in the UK.