January feels like another world. Social distancing, shielding, self-isolation: words that weren’t part of our vocabulary as we began 2020, preoccupied with the brutality of the Hostile Environment and the government’s Brexit immigration plans. Instead, like everyone else, through February and March we scrambled to keep up with the impact of COVID-19, the protection measures that defined how we could operate, and the enormous impact of the virus on us and the people we support in Greater Manchester.

As lockdown eases for now, how – as an organisation standing alongside people in Greater Manchester fighting for immigration justice – do we learn from what has happened? How do ensure we are best placed to support our community and establish a new version of ‘normal’ after the virus that doesn’t leave people behind? Here are some of the things we’ve been thinking about.

How we help

The most obvious change to GMIAU in lockdown is that, in common with nearly all advice services in the city-region, our services are entirely remote. Our solicitors and caseworkers are supporting people by telephone, email and video calls. We’ve had to learn quickly and adapt fast. Zoom, Jitsi, WhatsApp video conferences – what’s secure? What’s easiest for people to use, especially if phone credit is a problem? How do we manage three-way conversations with interpreters? We’ve questioned our assumptions that things have to be done a certain way. Our weekly drop in, seeing 15 people, has become an advice line regularly speaking to 25 people a day. And we’ve understood that some things can’t replace face to face contact. By exacerbating structural inequalities, lockdown has re-confirmed that one advice model certainly does not fit all. The work of the Boaz Trust on digital inclusion is just one example of what’s needed so people seeking asylum can access services online.

Questions have arisen too for the funding of legal services. We’ve never charged for our advice and never will. We are supporting a lot of people, but few Home Office decisions or Tribunal determinations during lockdown mean little legal progress is being made. This makes it hard for us to re-coup our costs from the Legal Aid Agency. How will legal aid flex to the changed environment so that legal aid providers don’t collapse during the crisis and we are shaped to provide what our communities need afterwards? 

What we help with

We exist to provide immigration advice and representation, but we have always walked alongside people. And during lockdown that has meant supporting people with immediate needs arising from COVID-19. For some young people in our All4One youth group, it’s been help with getting face masks and hand sanitiser. Many calling our advice line have been worried about how their families will get food or have a roof over their heads. The impact of No Recourse to Public Funds conditions and appallingly low levels of support for people seeking asylum have always caused deep misery in Greater Manchester. In the middle of a pandemic these hallmarks of the Hostile Environment have been a living nightmare. At times we’ve been more like an emergency destitution hotline than a legal advice service. The immediacy of people’s needs will undoubtedly continue as lockdown eases and people have to recover from losing jobs, being evicted or struggling to access benefits. We are worried immigration needs – the visas running out, the deadline to the EU Settlement Scheme getting closer – will be overlooked. Which makes it vital we get the shape of our services right, making it as easy as possible for people to connect to us.

Who we stand with

COVID-19 has made it abundantly clear that divisive politics left us all less safe and more vulnerable, and that we are all utterly reliant on last month’s “low skilled migrants” as this month’s “essential key workers”. There have been opportunities to make gains against the Hostile Environment that seemed wildly optimistic at the start of 2020. We’ve never been more grateful for our relationships with others fighting for social justice in Greater Manchester – migrant survivors of domestic violence, young people facing racism or those fighting for housing rights. And for our parliamentarians pushing for change and raising up the experiences of people we support in Westminster. The changing context has also brought about unusual alliances. Greater Manchester Tory MPs rightly calling out the hypocrisy of the NHS surcharge, billboards on the side of roads in Manchester pledging that people will never be ‘low skilled’ again, mainstream broadcasters supporting migrants cleaning hospitals. After COVID-19, how do we keep a broad consensus and break through the silos of ‘them’ and ‘us’ that have hindered these coalitions before the pandemic? And how do we make sure people directly affected are able to tell their story of being subjected to immigration control in a pandemic?

What story we tell

The government’s U-turns on the NHS surcharge and bereavement scheme are just two examples of ‘public health’ and our ‘debt to keyworkers’ trumping tired arguments about ‘immigration control’. But we have to make sure we use this shift to achieve maximum change, not just for those valued by the government but for all those affected by immigration injustice. Of course, justice for migrant medics is vital. But so is justice for migrant bus drivers, carers and bin men. Not to mention migrant hairdressers, builders and chefs. If we allow the narrative of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ migrants to continue, we might win today but we store up much bigger problems for our communities tomorrow. We’ve criticised the government for its piecemeal protections for people subjected to immigration control during COVID-19. As advocates for immigration justice we’ve been thinking about our responsibility to connect the dots too. In the words we use and stories we tell, how do we link our campaigns together so they are seen, not as competing claims, but entirely interdependent? #LiftTheBan #Jamaica50 #Time4ATimeLimit #Windrush #NoRecourseToPublicFunds #StepUpMigrantWomen #HostileEnvironment are all part of one coherent story we must write, so that a person’s rights are not based on their economic value or social worth but on their humanity. If we can get this right it will have value for us all after COVID-19, not just those of us who have migrated to make Greater Manchester our home.