In the last four years, I have applied for three different types of visas and changed flats four times in the UK. Neither are prospects I ever look forward to. The last time I was searching for a flat was just a few months ago. I saw a cosy flat in Wapping and, walking around the canal and the pretty cobbled streets, decided to put down the "offer money". The landlord refused the offer on the grounds that I was on a student visa (I wasn't – I was on a post-study work visa, but not many people know the difference). I knew at the time that my housing and visa woes were not over.
So when I found another flat that I liked, I explained to the agents that I only had three months left on my current visa but was soon going to apply for a work visa sponsored by my employer. Luckily, I have a permanent job with a well-known employer and the agents accepted my explanation as a convincing one. But it was only that – luck. The agents could have just as easily rejected my explanation.
Every time I have looked for a flat, I have dreaded this situation. I can’t help but think how easily it could get worse if the proposals to make private landlords responsible for checking their tenants’ immigration status are implemented. It is no secret that housing is tight in London and so landlords have a lot more power and decision-making authority than tenants do. It is not unimaginable that if a measure making landlords liable for their tenants’ migrant status is introduced, landlords (and agents) would prefer to not let their properties to migrants at all to avoid "hassle".
These measures are among a number of absurd anti-immigration measures that have been discussed and proposed quite forcefully ever since the prospect of Romanians and Bulgarians being able to move to the UK to live and work has emerged. These have ranged from a negative publicity campaign (that is, "Don’t come to the UK! It’s a dump!") to not allowing children of illegal immigrants to attend schools in the country (because it’s completely the children’s fault for letting their parents come to the country and stay as illegal immigrants). The measures mentioned in the Queen’s speech, the third to be delivered since the Tories took charge, are yet more of the same.
The idea, if we are to draw any coherence in the proposed measures, seems to be to install proxy immigration officers within all vital services to make it difficult for migrants to stay in the country illegally and/or become "benefits tourists". However, the implications of these measures will be beyond just illegal immigrants; in practice, they will affect all immigrants (even the "good ones").
Any migrant in the UK (and I imagine in other countries too) will speak of how life seems to revolve around paperwork at every step of settling into some kind of normalcy – documents to prove your national identity, documents to prove your residence status, documents to prove your "leave to remain", documents to prove your finances and so on. Thankfully, one of the few places I haven’t been asked to produce my passport and visa in order to register is health centres. All I’ve ever been asked for is a proof of address (which is easy to produce, at least once the housing situation has been resolved). Healthcare is a basic human right and I have always liked to think that it is recognised as such in the UK which is why I don’t have to demonstrate the legality of my residence in the country to be able to see a GP.
But now there is speculation about even the NHS becoming another proxy immigration officer by being required to determine the status of migrants before allowing them access to treatment. Would this mean that with three months left on my visa, I would have either limited or no access to a GP? Worse, what would happen to vulnerable migrants, such as domestic workers, who often become "illegal immigrants" because of circumstances not under their control?
Under the new visa rules for migrant domestic workers, domestic workers are no longer allowed to change employers or the type of employment. Domestic workers are often made to work as slaves and abused by their employers. The most significant implication of these changes is that if a domestic worker runs away from the employer, they immediately become illegal immigrants – that is, if they try to escape violence and abuse, they face deportation. Requiring NHS to check residence status of migrants before offering them treatment would mean that healthcare would become yet another service they can’t turn to.
The government’s anti-immigration rhetoric is sloppy populism. The proposals have clearly not been thought through and demonstrate no understanding of current immigration issues, including those caused by the many complicated rules around visas. It needs to be recognised and acknowledged that migrant statuses are not always very straightforward. There are also more complicated situations, such as mine, where my visa was about to run out and I knew I’d apply for a new one but had no evidence to prove that. Or, more importantly, such as that of migrant domestic workers who have to often choose to put up with abuse to continue living in the country to support their families back home.
Obviously, with such complicated situations, the distinction between the "good hardworking legal immigrant" and the "bad illegal leaching immigrant" is not always a clear one, but this anti-immigration discourse creates and contributes to the sentiment that all immigrants are bad, undesirable and to be suspected and scrutinised all the time.
This growing web of proxy immigration officers – schools, landlords, NHS – not only belies the incompetence of the Border Agency but is also immorally and unashamedly targeting basic human rights without any relevance to or understanding of the practical situation. What’s going to be next? Show your resident card before you can buy food?