Law and Policy

What happens to immigration detainees when an entire country shuts down? By Charlotte Rubin

The UK is one of many countries that has implemented lockdown measures to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. These measures include strict travel restrictions, and in over 50 countries around the world, they go as far as a complete aerial lockdown.

Immigration detention is only lawful if there is a prospect of imminent removal. With borders closing worldwide and flights suspended, that prospect is non-existent. That is why Detention Action, an NGO which fights for immigration detainees’ rights in the UK, issued judicial review proceedings on 18 March 2020. The proceedings challenged the lawfulness of continued detention, in particular of persons with medical conditions placing them at increased risk from COVID-19.

In response, the Home Office has committed to reviewing all detainees’ case files to release as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, unless they pose a grave danger to the public. When the government began their case-by-case review, one case of COVID-19 had already been confirmed in Yarl’s Wood IRC, two cases had been reported in Brook House, and symptoms were recorded in most other removal centres.

Under the current circumstances, detention centres are at risk of becoming hotbeds of coronavirus spreading, as both detainees and staff are constantly in close contact with each other and amongst themselves. In efforts to prevent the virus from spreading within the centres, some facilities have isolated detainees and barred them from leaving their rooms, effectively turning their bedroom into a prison cell.

Nevertheless, Detention Action lost their case in the High Court, and the Home Office still refuses to systematically release all individuals currently held in detention, putting all individuals involved in this system at continued risk of ill health.

Government action, however, shows awareness that keeping detainees locked up could come back to bite them. Since Detention Action launched their claim, the Home Office released over 350 people held under immigration powers. The courts are also playing their part, as a solicitor from Bail for Immigration Detainees (BiD), a London-based charity, reported that ever since the travel restrictions and lockdown were enforced, 13 of his clients were granted bail and no applications were refused.

This is good news, but it is not enough. People currently held under immigration powers still need to go through the process of applying for bail if they are to be released, a process which has been made significantly more complicated by the pandemic itself.

On 20 March 2020, visits to immigration detention centres were indefinitely suspended as part of measures to contain the virus. This does not only have devastating implications for detainees on a personal level, as they can no longer see their loved ones. It also means that lawyers can no longer visit their clients in immigration removal centres.

Meanwhile, the Tribunal has started holding hearings remotely, but it seems that the courts do not lean itself to the online sphere easily, and their infrastructure is not ready to make the transition. This failure of court proceedings weakens detainees’ access to justice even further, as bail hearings are frustrated by the practicalities of online hearings.

This situation is not sustainable. After calls from Strasbourg and the Council of Europe to release immigration detainees in the face of this crisis, it is time to release everyone currently held under immigration powers, close detention centres and ensure that every individual receives the necessary care and support they need and deserve during these unprecedented times.



From low-skilled to key workers: will the COVID-19 pandemic soften post-Brexit immigration policy? by Charlotte Rubin

Just a month ago, when the government introduced its new points-based immigration system, a lot of workers in the health, food production, and transport industries were considered unskilled workers, and unwelcome in post-Brexit Britain.

The basics of the proposed points-based system are clear. If a worker does not have a secondary school diploma, does not speak English, or their salary falls below £25,600, the door to the UK is closed for them. As it turns out, a lot of these “low-skilled” workers are now considered essential in the fight to manage, control and survive the coronavirus crisis. In the current circumstances, they have been put under additional strain.

The trend to bulk buy has put staff in supermarkets and grocery stores under significant pressure, with one employee writing that him and his co-workers have been working long days on their feet, anticipating the next few weeks to be “a nightmare,” and advising against panic buying. There is no reason to bulk buy: there are no food shortages anywhere in Europe, and supermarkets are staying open throughout nation-wide lockdowns as they are part of a (small) group of essential businesses which are exempt from the new rules.

But this may soon change. Agricultural workers from eastern Europe usually fill the majority of jobs on farms. The combination of Brexit caps on seasonal workers with strict coronavirus travel restrictions has slowed recruitment in agriculture, and the EU labour force is simply not coming through. UK farmers find themselves in a crisis and could face a shortage of 80,000 labourers this summer if the Government fails to intervene. These spots as fruit pickers need to be filled by British workers or fruit and vegetables will be left unpicked, and stocks could be put in danger.

Jobs now classified as “key workers” include NHS staff, social workers, the police and military, and those working in food distribution, energy, utilities and transportation. In other words, the people sustaining essential businesses are, by extent, deemed essential workers, as they help feed and care for a country in standstill.

Only a few weeks ago, Johnson’s government described these people and the jobs they filled as “low skilled”, stating that the government “intends to create a high wage, high-skill, high productivity economy.” If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the stark dissonance between this government’s policy on who is key in keeping the economy running and the truth on who is actually keeping the country together. It proves that “low-skilled” labour does not equate low-value labour. Recognising these workers as “key” or “essential” is a step towards recognising that they form the backbone of our society and without them, British civilisation would have already collapsed. The question remains whether this will be reflected in immigration policy when all of this blows over, and the pandemic finally dies down.






Absences due to Coronavirus (Covid-19): Is your Tier 4 student visa ‘safe’? by Natasha Lees

These are times of uncertainty and while the primary concern is for public health, without further assurances from the UK Government, the vulnerability of being subject to immigration control can compound other worries during any crisis. The large-scale postponement, suspension and cancellation of social activity, including working and studying commitments, poses some important questions about satisfying the conditions of student visas.

UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) requires all Tier 4 institutions (schools, colleges, higher education facilities and universities) to keep a record of sponsored Tier 4 students including their attendance levels. This is required in order to meet their sponsor duties towards the UKVI when sponsoring students to study with them.

There are consequences to students who are absent from studies or cannot complete their studies before their Tier 4 visa expires. If a student misses 10 consecutive expected points of contact, without the Tier 4 institution’s authorisation, the guidance normally requires them to withdraw their sponsorship of the student. If their sponsorship is withdrawn from the student, the student will have no longer be able to continue their studies in the UK.

What about absences due to Covid-19?

The current circumstances being exceptional, specific government guidance that addresses Covid-19, last updated on 27 February 2020 and since overshadowed by other announcements, has been issued (last updated on the 27th February) gives us some parameters to work with:

‘Some Tier 4 students or Tier 2/5 employees may be prevented from attending their studies or employment due to illness, the need to serve a period of quarantine or the inability to travel due to travel restrictions caused by coronavirus’.

This covers students who are taken ill by Covid-19, with absences authorised by the institution, as well as those whose movements have been restricted due to the threat. It goes on to say:

‘The Home Office recognises the current situation is exceptional and will not take any compliance action against students or employees who are unable to attend their studies/work due to the coronavirus outbreak, or against sponsors which authorise absences and continue to sponsor students or employees despite absences for this reason. The Home Office will keep this under review, especially if the length of absences mean a potential repeat of period of studies become necessary’.

This means Tier 4 institutions do not need to report students who are absent due to Covid-19, as long as those absences are authorised by them. This also means the institution should not withdraw their sponsorship of the student.

In light of the guidance and given that the situation is developing and changing constantly, it is advisable that students keep a record of any emails or letters sent by their institution, which confirm (in writing) the latest advice on, or authorisation of attendances, while Covid-19 is posing health and logistical issues to life in the UK.

What about institution closures or online studying?

The above guidance would apply if a Tier 4 institution decides to close completely or partially. This will be fine for short-term absences due to closures. Some Tier 4 institutions are deciding to close premises and transfer all teaching online – in these cases, they need to ensure they are confident the students are ‘attending’ online sessions in order to maintain their UKVI duties.

However, if the absences become so long that the student is unable to complete their studies before their visa expires then the institution will have no choice but to cancel their sponsorship. No one should be in this situation yet and we expect - given that this appears to be a long term situation - the above government Covid-19 guidance to be updated to inform us how they intend to deal with longer term absences.

We will update you when the government’s Covid-19 guidance is updated.

At what cost do we take back control? The new points-based system explained by Charlotte Rubin

The United Kingdom (UK) left the European Union (EU) on 31 January 2020. Since then, the government has been rolling out changes to the immigration system, adapting it to a world without free movement to and from Europe. Today, the government finally revealed its plan for post-Brexit economic migration in Britain. At its core is the idea of “taking back control,” a slogan which won the 2016 Brexit referendum, implemented through the end of free movement, a new visa system for EU and third-party nationals alike and a focus on “skilled migrants” to reduce overall immigration.

A transition…

Under the current immigration rules, EU citizens do not need a visa to work and live in the UK because they benefit from freedom of movement. Those from outside the EU have to meet certain requirements such as English language skills, sponsorship by a company and a salary threshold in order to apply for a visa. There is a cap of 21,000 on the number of visas awarded per year.

Following the new plan, freedom of movement with the EU will end, and EU nationals will be subject to the same exact rules as non-EU nationals. As such, people coming to the UK from any country in the world for the purpose of work or study, other than some short-term business visitors and short-term students, will have to obtain a visa for which they will pay a fee. In addition, employers will have to pay an Immigration Skills surcharge on their migrant employees, and migrants from in and outside of the EU will have to pay an Immigration Health Surcharge. The only group unaffected by the new rules are Irish nationals, which the government states will be able to enter and exit the UK the same way they always have.

… to an Australian points-based system?

Freedom of movement will be replaced by with what the government calls a points-based system, supposedly modelled after the Australian immigration system which allows economic migrants to settle if they can demonstrate that they have a blend of skills and qualifications adding up to enough points. The selling point of a true points-based system is its flexibility, as it allows migrants to mix and match from a list of characteristics to reach the necessary threshold, and then settle in the host country without having to meet any mandatory requirements, such as an employment sponsorship as one needs in the US for example.

The government proposals released today, however, fail to offer that flexibility and probably explains the complete absence of the term ‘Australia-style’ system. The plan requires all economic migrants wanting to come to the UK to fulfil three essential requirements, which are worth 50 points all together. In addition to that, individuals will have to score another 20 points based on their salary expectations to reach 70 points overall, and be eligible to apply for a visa. The minimum salary threshold to reach 70 points automatically is set at £25,600. If the applicant earns less than that required minimum salary threshold, but no less than £20,480, they may still be able to reach 70 points by demonstrating that they have a job offer in a specific shortage occupation such as nursing, or that they have a PhD relevant to the job. The policy paper specifically states that there will be no regional concessions to different parts of the UK, nor will there be a dedicated route for self-employed people.

The three essential requirements are knowledge of the English language, a job offer from an approved sponsor, and a job at the appropriate skill level. These mandatory requirements differentiate the system from its Australian counterpart, and therefore, the plan is not a true points-based system. Especially the job offer requirement flies in the face of the Australian analogy, where every year, the largest percentage of new economic permanent resident visas are awarded to individuals without a job offer, but who make up for it with other skills or abilities from the list.

(Un)skilled workers

For highly-skilled workers, the government laid out its extended Global Talent visa route on the day Britain left the EU. Through this scheme, the most highly skilled, who can achieve the required level of points, will be able to enter the UK without a job offer if they are endorsed by a relevant and competent body. For now, this forms the only exception to the job offer requirement, although the policy plan promises to roll out a broader unsponsored route within the points-based system to run alongside the employer-led system in the future.

The appropriate skill level under the points-based system is set at the equivalent to A-levels. Anyone who does not meet that level will not be able to apply, as it is one of the mandatory requirements. Additionally, the plan explicitly states that there will be no general low-skilled or temporary work route ‘…shifting the focus of [the UK] economy away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe…’, leaving immense labour shortages in specific industries. The list of low-skilled workers industries includes waiters, waitresses, elementary agriculture workers and fishery workers. The report unhelpfully states ‘Employers will need to adjust.’

Special arrangements are put in place for certain sectors such as scientists, graduates, NHS workers, to fill the gap, but these arrangements are unlikely to resolve the immense labour shortage created. The cap for the agricultural sector, for example, is increasing to 10,000 places per year for seasonal workers who harvest the fields, but remains far below the National Farmers’ Union’s (NFU) demands for 70,000 temporary visas in 2021. Nothing is mentioned of other groups likely to get caught up in the low-skilled workers group such as care home workers, waiters, cleaners or domestic workers. This drew immediate criticism from people in the sector, as the hospitality sector, for instance, famously relies on an EU national workforce, with Pret A Manger reporting that only one in 50 job applicants was a British national in 2018.

The newly released plan indicates a major overhaul in the UK’s approach to economic migration. It does not, however, affect students, family migration, or asylum law. Notably, none of these changes will take effect immediately. The transitional period, in which EU nationals are still free to exercise their free movement rights in the same way they were when the UK was still a part of the EU, is set to end on 31 December 2020. On 1 January 2021, then, is when the proposed changes will come into force. Even then, they will not take effect retroactively. As such, they will not affect the millions of EU citizens already living in the UK, and the job market is not going to change overnight. They will, however, change the composition of who comes and stays in the UK in the future. But for the 2016 Brexit voters, that future may be too far away to offer satisfaction.

Brexit Day immigration update: which changes to the immigration rules will take immediate effect? By Charlotte Rubin

On 29 March 2017, the United Kingdom notified the European Council of its intention to leave the European Union, in accordance with Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. After almost three years of delay, powerplay and disarray, the day has finally come. Yesterday, the European Parliament officially approved the Withdrawal Agreement. Emotional but sober images of Remain MEPs singing Auld Lang Syne as MEPs signed the Agreement. At 23:00 tonight the British Union flag will be removed from the European institutions in Brussels, and the EU flag lowered from City Hall in London. The UK will officially no longer be a part of the European Union. In anticipation of this, steps have been taken to prepare the country for a complete upheaval of the legal and political framework in the UK.

In an act of defiance, the Scottish government narrowly won a vote to keep the EU flag flying over the Edinburgh parliament building after Brexit. Because, as Fiona Hyslop, cabinet secretary for culture, tourism and external affairs, stated, “at times of uncertainty and disruption, symbols matter.”

And symbols do matter. They do not, however, define what will happen to EU citizens living in the UK in practice – not in the short term. What will change, here and now, for EU citizens coming to the UK and the other way around? Obviously, a lot. Today the government published a Statement of changes to the Immigration Rules, officialising the first immediate change in the law of the UK in practice.

It introduces a new visa category called “Global Talent.” This will replace the existing Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) category. The Global Talent visa is branded as a new type of visa for talented and promising individuals in the fields of science, digital technology, arts and culture wanting to work and research in the UK.

The process to receive this visa is not dissimilar from the old Exceptional Talent route: Global Talent applicants must hold an endorsement from an organisation engaged by the Home office to develop sector-specific criteria, just like before. The main difference is that the new Global Talent category will not be subject to a cap on the number of applicants, whereas the ole Exceptional Talent category was capped at 2000 places per year. The removal of the cap is supposed to ensure that migrants who can meet the qualifying criteria will be able to secure entry to the UK. Applicants will be able to choose how much leave, in whole years, up to a maximum of 5 years they wish to be granted in a single application, and pay their immigration health surcharge accordingly.

The new category will take effect on 20 February 2020 – real and tangible changes to many other areas of the law will follow until the end of the transition period in June 2021. Incremental change as well as major overhauls will transform the UK after Brexit, including Scotland, and no flag waving above Holyrood will change that.

What does immigration policy look like under the newly-elected Conservative government? by Charlotte Rubin

Last week’s general election means the Conservative Party now has a clear majority in government to fulfil the many promises they made in their manifesto, including major overhauls to immigration policy. Not only did Boris Johnson vow to get Brexit done by the New Year, but his party also plans to put EU nationals on the same level as third party nationals once free movement law ends. This in and of itself is a radical approach to immigration law, and will have major consequences for EU citizens in the UK.

After Brexit, once EU nationals are levelled with third party nationals, the conservatives want to introduce what they call a points-based immigration system, which they proclaim to base on the Australian visa system. The plan, broadly, is to introduce three visa categories after Brexit, for which anyone who moves to the UK will have to apply, and which replace existing categories.

The first is the “Exceptional Talent/Contribution” category, and includes the entrepreneur and investor visa. These visas are geared towards “highly educated migrants who have received world-leading awards or otherwise demonstrated exceptional talent, sponsored entrepreneurs setting up a new business or investors.” These people will not require a job offer and will receive fast-track entry to the UK. This category is not dissimilar from the current Tier 1 visa category, albeit with some minor changes.

The second category is for skilled workers, and to some extent, is a rebrand of the current Tier 2 category. The vast majority of these visas would require a job offer, in line with how work visas are allocated to third party nationals now. The skilled workers category is the only way for workers who meet the criteria of the points-based system and have a confirmed job offer to get limited leave to remain. It will effectively require all non-British nationals to prove that they have a job offer as well as reach the amount of points required under the points-based system. Needless to say, implementing this will constitute the most significant change compared to free movement law, which is currently in force, as it requires EU national to comply with visa requirements. This will have a massive impact on fields such as hospitality, where EU nationals make up more than half of the workforce, and the NHS. The Conservative party propose to make up for that potential labour shortage by introducing fast-track entry and reduced fees for certain special types of work, such as a NHS specific visa.

The general idea behind a points-based system is that people are scored on their personal attributes such as language skills, education, age and work experience. If their score hits the minimum required, they can acquire a visa. Crucially, there is no one fixed way to score enough points; a plethora of work experience can make up for older age and excellent language skills might make up for lack of formal education. As long as an individual’s different attributes add up to enough points, they will be granted a visa. The key point about points-based systems is not that they are inherently liberal or progressive; whether it is a liberal system will depend on how points are awarded. Rather, the key feature is their flexibility and the ability to get enough points by making any combination of characteristics. That is how the Australian points-based system works.

Contrastingly, the UK immigration system today is based on mandatory requirements. This is a system where applicants need to tick all the boxes in order to be granted a visa. For example, an applicant will need to prove his language skills, have a certain amount in savings, show that they have a job offer AND show that they will be making a minimum salary. If the individual lacks one of those requirements the visa will be refused, that is how simple it is.

The issues with the Tories’ proposals is that they want the best of both worlds. They want to introduce point-based characteristics, but keep the mandatory requirement of a job offer, combining mandatory requirements with points-based elements. Essentially, they want a points-based system where, after making the points-based selection, they can cherry pick who is granted a visa and who is not. As such, although they like to call it a points-based system, it not really points-based, and it is certainly not as simple or easy to navigate as portrayed by the Party.

The third category is the “sector-specific rules-based” category, which will be made up of specific temporary schemes such as for low-skilled labour, youth mobility or short-term visits. These visas will be time-limited and will not provide a path to settlement. They are how the government will attempt to match the demand for workers in specific sectors with enough visas to supply that demand. Supposedly, these visas will replace the free movement of labour with state planning. Deciding which markets need workers will be outsourced from the Home Office to the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC). This means that the MAC would react to gaps in the economy, flag them up, and the government will then create a temporary visa category to fill the gap. These will be revised on an ongoing basis based on expert advice from the MAC. In other words, the temporary visas will be reactionary in nature. They will be time-limited and will not provide a path to settlement. If this sounds difficult, that’s because it is. The economy adapts to reality more quickly than the law, and new policy takes months, if not years, to come into force. By the time a new visa category actually opens, the gap in the job market it was trying to fill may well have been resolved by market forces.

As an attentive reader may notice, the only migrants mentioned in the Conservative policy proposals are economic immigrants. The manifesto does not mention changes to other areas of the current immigration regime. It retains the status quo of Theresa May’s controversial hostile environment policies, fails to tackle legal aid cuts, and does not propose any change to the clear human rights violation of indefinite detention, for example. Additionally, the manifesto indicates an attack on judicial review
. Since the removal and erosion of appeal rights in the 2014 Immigration Act, judicial review is now often the only recourse to justice for many people who have been wronged by the immigration system. Reforming judicial review, and limiting its scope, removes another layer of checks and balances on Home Office powers, suggesting that not only labour rights, but also human rights, are set to be qualified and watered down after Brexit and once this government starts rolling out policy.

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