What happens to undocumented migrants in a pandemic?

Maja Myhre, Lecturer in Health and Social Care and PhD candidate in Health Policy, reflects on the policy actions that have left so many unprotected.

Date: 03 July 2020

Undocumented migrants (UDM) joins the large group of people in the UK facing disproportionate disadvantage by the current COVID-19 pandemic. The most recent UK estimate from the Pew Research Centre in 2017 claimed the number of undocumented migrants was between 800,000 and 1.2 million. Undocumented migrants are a group made up of asylum seekers unsuccessful in their applications, in addition to children of irregular migrants, those who have overstayed work visas, and members of the Windrush generation. Quantification of this group if challenging, and hence, their healthcare needs are consequently not well documented.

UDM face significant disadvantages in health, education, housing, safety and human rights.  Often subject to discrimination and persecution, many UDM live lives on the brink of society, outside the formal labour market, in overcrowded housing, and with limited access to healthcare services such as GPs, hospital, and specialist services.

The Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) highlights undocumented migrants’ key role in society, with many fulfilling key roles such as elderly and child care, food production and building. This emphasizes the importance of inclusion and universality in public health interventions – if we are to ‘pull together’ to fight the pandemic – this has to include all – not just UK residents.

A welcome clarification on the matter of undocumented migrants and COVID-19 was published by the Government on 3 June where the Government specified that ‘all overseas visitors, including anyone living in the UK without permission’ has the right to testing and treatment for coronavirus without charge. The Government also provided assurances that no immigration checks will be performed for undocumented migrants seeking healthcare for suspected infection with coronavirus.

However, the Government fails to acknowledge the substantial barriers to uptake of healthcare services amongst this patient group. Access to healthcare is multifaceted and considerations must be made of the characteristics of the patient group and their particular ability to access care. Undocumented migrants often poverty, language barriers, discrimination and fear of healthcare services. There is need for wider public health interventions securing undocumented migrants’ right to access COVID-19 related services.  Homelessness, precarious and dangerous work, and food insecurity are substantial risk factors for infection.

Further, there is a need for discussion and consideration of policy action when governments inevitably are presented with similar dilemmas in future. Do we regard healthcare as a commodity for which one has to be deserving, or, is it a necessity, a human right, and a crucial component to a safe and functioning society?

Torn sticker reading noone is illegal