Despite U-turns, migrants are being failed miserably | Kenan Malik | Society

The government, under pressure, backed down from its insistence that families of migrant workers who die from Covid-19 would not be allowed to remain in the UK. Twenty-four hours later, it backtracked on its policy that care workers and ancillary hospital staff would not be exempt from the NHS surcharge imposed on all immigrants to Britain.

The government’s U-turns are welcome, but not only are the changes half-hearted they also establish a division between “deserving” and “undeserving” immigrants.

The coronavirus crisis has created newfound admiration for low-paid “essential” workers, from nurses and care staff to cleaners and bus drivers, many of whom are migrants. There was hope that such respect would translate into decent policy over wages, benefits and immigration status. Not so.

What is it?

Any worker who comes to the UK from outside the European Economic Area pays the fee to use the health service. The surcharge costs £300 a year for student visas and £400 a year for all other visa and immigration applications. It is set to rise in October. A migrant’s dependants usually need to pay the same amounts.

Who does not need to pay?

You don’t pay this fee if you are applying for indefinite leave to enter or remain, or if you are a diplomat or member of a visiting armed forces. Other exemptions include a dependant of a member of the UK’s armed forces and a family member of a European national, as well as asylum seekers and victims of slavery or human trafficking.

The government’s new immigration bill maintains the distinction between wanted “skilled” workers and unwanted “unskilled” ones. Many charges imposed on migrants are immensely unfair. The health surcharge, for instance, is not, as the health secretary, Matt Hancock, has claimed, to ensure that migrants make “a fair contribution towards our NHS”. Migrant workers already pay taxes, so are being charged twice. Nor is it a charge “to use the NHS”, as it is imposed whether or not a migrant uses the NHS. Most immigrants with a limited right to stay in Britain pay taxes but are denied benefits through the “no recourse to public funds” rule, often causing immense hardship.

Not only are immigration rules unfair, they are also divisive. Bus drivers or cleaners may be essential workers, but if you’re a migrant you still have to pay the NHS surcharge and don’t get an automatic visa extension. Some immigrants, the government is signalling, are more “deserving” than others.

Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

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