The Immigration Act 2014 is a vicious and xenophobic piece of legislation, rushed through parliament by a government fearful of the growing influence of the far right. For the first time in British history, the most vulnerable in our society are now to be denied access to a dizzying array of services – indeed in some instances it is now a criminal offence to knowingly help people whose immigration status in the UK is unclear – exposing these vulnerable people to the possibility of yet more exploitation.
The central principle of the NHS – that it is free for all at the point of use – has been quietly but fundamentally undermined by the act. All immigration categories will now require applicants to play a ‘Health Levy’ of £200 per year to access the same healthcare services as citizens. This includes spouses and family members who will arrive in the UK fully qualified and ready to work and pay tax from day one, such as my own partner, but who nonetheless are not eligible for citizenship for five full years because of previous changes made by this government. If we are thinking in purely economic terms – which ministers seem fond of doing when it comes to immigration – my partner didn’t cost the UK a penny to educate – unlike myself. The maternity care and immunisation costs he incurred as a child were not paid for by UK taxpayers (mine, of course – were), and yet he is suddenly considered a larger burden on the UK state than I am as a citizen. Now, of course, I’m not suggesting for a second that the government should think of its own citizens or residents in such terms, but if the Home Office are going to talk about human beings as though they are global commodities, they should at least be consistent. There is no logic to their thinking.
The worst outcome of this change, however, is the impact it will have on ‘irregular migrants’. People whose route to settlement in the UK is not clear cut, whose claims for asylum or protection are contested, whose English is not strong enough for them to complete the correct forms or find appropriate assistance. People with ‘irregular immigration’ status will no longer be able to privately rent property in the UK. They will no longer be able to open a bank account, and most crucially of all – NHS trusts will now be expected to refuse these individuals access to healthcare. It is hard to think of a more effective way to deter people from seeking help for chronic or taboo health conditions. Nigel Farage recently caused controversy by suggesting that the UK should not fund HIV care for foreign nationals, but anyone who knows the first thing about HIV prevention will surely know that this policy would be a public health disaster for the UK. It is never in the best interests of British people to ignore and further marginalise individuals with communicable diseases, end of. HIV, at least, does not discriminate by nationality.
Our willingness as a society to accept the narrative that ‘failed asylum seekers’ or ‘illegal immigrants’ are necessarily here to abuse the system has allowed the government to strip us of our humanity and treat people at risk of torture or worse in their own country as though they are mere customers passing through UK Plc – the Home Office have even started talking about ‘competitor nations’ in their press releases relating to immigration, as though vulnerable people are holidaying consumers on a pleasure trip.
Contrary to what the coalition government may like you to believe, the legislation continues the government’s relentless attack on families. Many of you might, quite reasonably, believe that having married a British citizen, my husband might be eligible to live here unhindered – not so. Next week, we have to pay the government our next instalment of over £1k for the privilege to stay for just another 2 years in the country of my birth. Far from supporting and nurturing commitment and marriage, the government are putting extra pressure on us in the early years of our marriage, saving up to pay their exorbitant and ever-growing fees whilst our friends and family start families and save for first homes. In parliament, government ministers justify this attack on my family by pointing to their own commitment to bring down immigration numbers. Quite how these charges are meant to achieve that aim has never quite been elaborated upon. It seems that the government are either hoping that I will leave the country of my birth so as to be with my spouse, and thus bring down the net migration figures – essentially squeezing a British citizen out of the UK – or they expect nothing of the sort, and know full well that whatever level the fee is set at, we will have to make further sacrifices to cough up. In what sense this is working in the interests of the British people remains to be seen.
The coalition governments approach to immigration is a failure. It has taken away resources and healthcare from the most vulnerable in our society, putting every single British citizen at risk of a massive public health crisis. It has torn apart British families and punished British citizens for falling in love. Xenophobic sentiment – and worse – xenophobic attacks are on the increase across Britain because of a narrative of fear and hatred stoked and encouraged by Whitehall. Considering that net migration to the UK has continued to grow year on year, one might well question the true motives behind this ideological attack on otherness.