Photography via Unsplash
Covid-19 is in overdrive and the country has been plunged into a much-needed, if overdue, lockdown. But amid frequent government warnings that the current measures are doing little to slow the spread of the virus, people have started calling for more drastic action – like closing the UK’s borders altogether.
On the face of it, closed borders may sound like a good idea. After all, fellow island nation New Zealand adopted the policy to successfully (for now) shield themselves from the worst of Covid-19. But before self-proclaimed socialists start singing from the same hymn sheet as Jeremy Hunt, the left needs to take a step back and consider whether we’re really asking for the same thing.
It’s clear that sensible limits on travel are needed right now (some of which are finally starting to be adopted): compulsory testing, quarantines and restrictions on non-essential movement make sense when the whole nation has been ordered to “stay at home” for the third time. It’s understandable that the public are demanding stronger action from the government to help contain the spread of the virus. Yet travel restrictions are emphatically not the same thing as closed borders. This isn’t a question of semantics.
For the right, a narrative on “hard borders” and “border closures” has long been used to curtail migrants’ ability to live, work, and cross borders safely. These draconian demands have led to increased racial discrimination, deaths in detention, lives lost in the English Channel, and have pushed migrants into destitution. Reinforcing that narrative during a crisis is dangerous and has long-term repercussions, particularly for those who do have well-founded reasons to cross borders right now.
It goes without saying that everyone should be following local quarantine, testing and distancing rules if they’re on the move right now. And holidaymaking during a peak that’s left one in 50 Brits infected? That seems spectacularly unwise. But banning people from crossing borders? Closing the borders in their entirety wouldn’t just harm migrants, it would harm all of us.
We’re not talking about the right of influencers to head off for some winter sun here. As 2021 settles in, many migrants will be taking up vital roles in our hospitals, farms and factories, others will be re-joining loved ones after years of visa struggle and some will be seeking sanctuary in the UK after fleeing war or persecution. People should have the right to make these essential movements across borders. In fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has made clear recommendations for refugees, calling on governments to ensure that those who need to cross a border to seek asylum should be able to do so. The UK government has so far ignored this recommendation, already closing its borders to unaccompanied children and refugees from Syria. For these people, the borders have been closed since the pandemic began.
“Failures to limit virus spread don’t lie in the government’s reluctance to close borders right now. More dangerous is their willingness to put the lives of low-income workers at risk, many of whom are migrants”
In addition, throughout this crisis, it’s been clear that we’re dependent on key workers, many of whom are migrants. Working alongside British people in our hospitals, care homes, farms and factories, we wouldn’t have been able to weather this storm without them, especially in industries where we’re reliant on a migrant workforce.
Remember the infamously named “Pick for Britain” scheme, the initiative aimed to get unemployed Brits into seasonal fruit-picking work last summer? Almost 90% of those roles were filled by migrant workers, the same people who would be prevented from travelling to the UK if borders were closed. Despite the government’s post-Brexit “tough on immigration” grandstanding, the UK is still in desperate need of foreign workers. We currently have a shortage of 100,000 workers in our NHS trusts, and 122,000 vacancies in adult social care. We desperately need to boost pay, training and conditions for these roles, but we also need new workers.
Failures to limit virus spread don’t lie in the government’s reluctance to close borders right now. More dangerous is their willingness to put the lives of low-income workers at risk, many of whom are migrants.
Just two months ago, for example, in full sight of our fast-spreading new Covid-19 strain and another infection spike across Europe, the government decided that seasonal poultry factory workers would be exempt from 14-day quarantine rules. This decision came after widespread outbreaks in meat processing plants last summer, with some workplaces recording over 100 cases. Despite the grave risk posed to migrants, the government went ahead with the rule relaxation anyway, recklessly prioritising Christmas turkey output over worker safety and ultimately public health.
Right now we should be demanding safety for people who move, not unconsciously echoing the right’s anti-migrant rhetoric at a time of rising global fascism. The past nine months have shown us the deep harm this agenda can do. We’ve seen 1.4 million migrants persistently excluded from our public safety net, with many pushed into destitution and dangerous work.
“With Brexit under her belt, the Home Secretary will attempt to diminish migrants’ rights ever further, and it’s crucial we don’t play into her hands by joining the shut-the-borders brigade”
The Home Office have dumped asylum seekers in cold, crowded, prison-like conditions and discussed wave machines to push people away at sea. Many migrants have faced exploitation at work, and some have died – too fearful to report abuse or get care because of the hostile environment. Again and again this government has treated migrants like commodities instead of people deserving of safety and respect.
Now, with Brexit under her belt, the Home Secretary will attempt to diminish migrants’ rights ever further, and it’s crucial we don’t play into her hands by joining the shut-the-borders brigade. We need to keep our long-term vision in sight, and safety should be paramount. Many migrants have been acutely exposed to the virus – working zero-hours contracts in high-risk jobs, barred from state support, fearful of getting treatment for fear of arrest or deportation.
Given the stark inequalities the virus has exposed, this should be the year we demand everyone’s right to live, work and cross borders safely. Safety right now should include stricter testing at borders, quarantine rules for everyone, financial support to isolate. Now, and beyond the pandemic, it means everyone being able to access healthcare without fear, to report exploitation without punishment, to depend on a social safety net in times of need, and work safely for decent pay. We are currently “Plague Island” – the most infected country in the world. We won’t save ourselves by shutting borders, we’ll save ourselves by protecting everyone.
Nadia Hasan is Communications Officer for the Joint Council of the Welfare of Immigrants