COVID-19 Restrictions: Migrants Still Facing Uncertainty

by Five Fantastic Lawyers™ on May 17, 2020

As UK residents enter a new week of ‘lockdown’ (closely following in the footsteps of Spain, France and Italy) many are feeling anxious and uncertain about how their lives will be continued to be impacted by national and global efforts to stem the spread of the Coronavirus.

While the pandemic is raising unanswered questions about almost every area of daily life for all members of the public – with people concerned about a myriad of issues, from the health and wellbeing of their loved ones to their job security and financial stability – there are several vulnerable and minority groups living in the country who face even further hurdles.

People with non-permanent immigration status, such as those living in Britain under UK visa laws, have spent the last few weeks living in limbo; stuck between following the government’s social distancing measures and risking breaching the terms of their visas.

Although the government did, last week, offer some relief for migrants whose visas have/are set to expire amid travel restrictions, this has still left many migrant concerns unresolved. The extension is applicable for all people whose visas expired or are due to expire between 24th January and 31st May. It is not automatic, which means that those who have been unable to travel home must notify the Home Office of this by contacting their newly-appointed Coronavirus Immigration Team to be eligible.

While this has come as welcome news for some, who have been somewhat assured that they will not risk becoming an ‘overstayer’ if they are unable to travel back to their home countries, it does leave several issues still on the table. Firstly, the fact the extension is not a blanket allowance, automatically applied to all visa holders, raises questions about what will happen to those who do not or are unable to apply. What about vulnerable or isolated people, for instance, who cannot access this information or the resources to contact the Coronavirus team? And what will happen to those who do not make the application; will they still be classed as ‘overstayers’?

Secondly, while this measure does bring relief to those faced with the prospect of visa deadlines, it does not help to clarify other concerns which have been raised by migrants in a variety of roles and circumstances in the UK.

For example, what is the procedure for Tier 2 workers who are unable to conduct their jobs remotely? In the same announcement, the government offered relief for sponsors by suggesting that they would no longer need to uphold the duties of their Sponsorship Licences and should instead encourage all migrant employees to work from home in line with social distancing procedures. However, there are many roles in which this is not an option. Migrant workers contribute to significant portions of the UK’s current Engineering and Construction workforces for example, in which the majority of roles cannot be conducted from home. For those currently filling these roles under leave to remain as a Tier 2 worker, further questions remain unanswered. What are they entitled to in terms of salary compensation? The government is in the midst of rolling out its worker compensation plan currently, but there is still uncertainty surrounding whether this only applies to citizens and those with permanent settled status; in other words, those who are usually entitled to public funds. Equally, what will happen to workers whose sponsors have to lay them off due to business closure? Will they be considered in breach of their visas? Will they be classed as an ‘undocumented’, a status which jepardises future immigration applications, including for British citizenship?

And it is not only those subject to UK visa laws who have been placed in a limbo by the measures which have been implemented to tackle this pandemic. Those looking to permanently settle here and apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) in Britain, are also in a legal grey area.

According to the current ILR guidelines, a person must meet the ‘continuous residency’ requirement in order to be eligible for this form of settlement. In practice, this means that if they have left the UK for more than a total of 180 days in the 12 months leading up to the date they lodge their application for ILR, they become ineligible. The flight and travel restrictions which have been put in place to stem the spread of COVID-19 have meant that various people have been stranded while travelling. What will happen to those in the process of making, or planning to make, an application for ILR? It looks as though global restrictions on the non-essential movement of people will be prolonged for at least a month longer, and that’s a conservative estimate. If a person’s continuous residency period is broken because they are unable to return to the UK during this time, will this be factored into their settlement application?

This is of course a difficult and unprecedented time for all of us, including the general public and the government. Life, as it stands, seems to be made up by unanswered questions – many of which there can be no answers to at this time. However, it is vital that, where possible, we work to implement measures and policies which can provide some clarification for those who need it. Now is the time to come together, not divide; to do this we must ensure that everyone is fighting this on an even playing field.

Luna Williams is the political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers based in the UK and Ireland.

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