Today, March 23rd 2021, is the one year anniversary of the first UK lockdown. At the time, we packed up and left the office, thinking it would just be for a few weeks. And in the following months we began to reflect on what we could learn from this year like no other. From a GMIAU perspective, here’s what happened.

The practicalities

GMIAU’s Director, Denise, has recently spoken about the early days of the pandemic in an interview with the Legal Education Foundation. “We knew that it was a crisis situation, but we knew we didn’t really understand it,” she said. “There was a point when it just felt completely and utterly overwhelming. I thought, is this how it ends?”.

But in just a few weeks we managed to move our in-person and location-based service to operate remotely. Staff contacted the people they support over the phone and email; our drop-in service turned into a phone advice line. Conversations with funders meant we could weather the initial legal aid funding crisis caused by the courts and Home Office shutting down. We’re grateful to have received emergency grants from the Community Justice Fund, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Barrow Cadbury, Network for Change, and the Respond and Adapt programme.

Lockdown and the hostile environment

In April, we posted the first in what became a series of blogs about what we were learning in lockdown. We were learning about how a crisis affects the most vulnerable, how the hostile environment exacerbates this, and about what it means to protect each other.

COVID-19 has made it abundantly clear that the divisive politics of austerity and the hostile environment have left us all less safe and more vulnerable. There can be no going back to ‘business as usual’ after the pandemic: no more good migrant versus bad migrant, benefit claimant versus tax payer.

So, while we applaud the rebranding of last month’s “low skilled migrants” as this month’s “essential key workers”, this needs to be matched with a wider understanding that people’s rights are not based on their perceived economic or social value.

COVID-19 must bring about the end of the hostile environment and at GMIAU we re-commit ourselves to making this happen.

As we’d hoped, some changes did come about – opportunities to make gains against the hostile environment that had seemed wildly optimistic at the start of 2020. We wrote:

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.

New perspectives

The UK’s immigration and asylum systems contain many injustices, against which we at GMIAU have always fought. But the pandemic shone a greater light on these injustices than we’d seen before, showing their very worst consequences.

About the No Recourse to Public Funds condition, we wrote: People with an NRPF condition have to work to survive. That is how the system is designed. There is no benefit safety net to support them so, despite living in the middle of a public health crisis, people work – regardless of underlying health conditions and despite COVID-19 symptoms. The only response to these injustices is to scrap NRPF, right now and for all.  

The existing problems with the EU Settlement Scheme combined with the fact that Covid-19 caused months of delay in services. It became more difficult to acquire valid ID for the application. Anna’s story highlighted what this means for individuals at risk of being in the UK unlawfully after the deadline.

We showed the absurdity of the ban on people working while waiting for an asylum decision. A qualified doctor stuck in this position wrote for our blog: The ban makes no sense. Life combating COVID-19 needs to be a life that looks after everyone and lets us all participate according to our gifts and talents. If the government lets me, I am willing and able to make a valuable contribution and help with the pandemic.

Fighting for change

One big change brought about by lockdown was the Everyone In campaign. It aimed to protect vulnerable individuals and public health by ensuring no one had to sleep rough. GMIAU is helping people with NRPF and other immigration issues to access this security.

In autumn 2020, people seeking asylum started to be served eviction notices. Alongside Greater Manchester Law Centre, we continue to fight for them. “Everyone In” is a principle that should apply – and has now been proven possible – whether in a pandemic or not.

In October, our report gave practical suggestions for how to retain the changes that made the immigration system easier to navigate.

And now? We’re still determined to ensure that the possibilities revealed and the injustices exposed during this time aren’t forgotten. We’ve faced some tough challenges in the past year, and we know they’ll continue through 2021. We’d like to wish the best to all of our colleagues, friends, supporters and people we support. We’ll continue to work together to end the hostile environment and strengthen our communities.

Click here to sign up to our newsletter.