Oxford City Council’s migrant champion and its cabinet member for safer, healthier Oxford, are backing calls from immigration and human rights charities for the government to protect migrants.
On 16 March, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), Medact and Liberty wrote to Home Secretary Priti Patel demanding urgent changes to ensure that migrants could access healthcare and other vital public services.
The councillors are signatories to this letter, which follows research from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) showing that coronavirus is exacerbating inequalities faced by Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) and migrant communities. Black people are four times more likely to die from coronavirus than white people, and Bangladeshi or Pakistani groups are three times more likely to die from the virus.
The NEF’s evidence shows:
- migrants are not seeking healthcare because of concerns over the Home Office’s so-called ‘hostile environment’ or ‘compliant environment’ policy
- the coronavirus exemption for treatment is not working
- migrants face a wide range of additional barriers – including language and digital exclusions – to accessing care. This includes emergency services.
Councillors Dr Hosnieh Djafari-Marbini and Dr Louise Upton have issued a joint statement in support of the charities’ letter. This reiterates Oxford City Council’s opposition to the Home Office’s hostile environment policy and highlights the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on BAME communities.
The councillors have also asked Oxford health trusts to ensure that migrants always have access to healthcare.
“During the coronavirus crisis, it has become clearer than ever that we are only as safe as the least protected amongst us. Our migrant residents and especially those with no recourse to public funds have been at risk of destitution and suffering the terrible consequences of Covid-19.
“We are proud that hostile environment policies have no place in Oxford. Oxford’s advice centres followed Oxford City Council and Oxford homelessness services in pledging non-cooperation with the Home Office’s hostile environment last November. We welcomed the government’s ‘Everyone In’ scheme which supported councils across England to ensure rough sleepers were housed during the coronavirus pandemic. During this time, our staff and partners have worked together to ensure that everyone in Oxford in need of assistance can access the support they need, including people with an uncertain migration status.
“However, we are concerned that in the weeks to come, it will become impossible to protect all at risk of Covid-19. We were particularly concerned by the findings of Public Health England’s report into the disproportionate number of Black, Asian and minority ethnic deaths of coronavirus, alongside a comprehensive survey of migrant and refugee support organisations and community groups from across the UK. It is clear that our migrant residents are struggling to access the support that they need to protect themselves during the pandemic, including struggling to access healthcare when they are ill.
“We have therefore taken the step of supporting the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants’ call. As such, we have written to the Home Office and our hospital trusts, asking them to take the steps needed to help break down the barriers which prevent some of our residents from seeking help, accessing public services and being safe. We welcome Oxford University Hospitals’ ‘reaffirmation of its commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion at OUH’. We urge it and Oxford Health to ensure migrants always have access to healthcare.”
Councillor Dr Hosnieh Djafari-Marbini, Migrant Champion
Councillor Dr Louise Upton, Cabinet Member for Safer, Healthier Oxford
Oxford City Council support for refugees and asylum seekers
Between 2015 and 2018 the council resettled 30 refugee families under the Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement Scheme (SVPRS), the Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme (VCRS) and a community response scheme – more than any other council in the South East.
The council has also been successful in winning two rounds of funding from the government’s Controlling Migration Fund (CMF). Working with education providers and other partners such as Asylum Welcome, Connection Support and Refugee Resource, the council has used CMF funding to support migrants integrating into their new lives in Oxford. This support includes language classes, help finding work, volunteering and mentoring programmes, information resources and taking action against landlords letting illegal ‘beds in sheds’ to migrant communities.
In July 2019, the council responded to reports that the Home Office planned to use charities to target non-UK rough sleepers by promising that Oxford homelessness services would never pass on people’s personal data to the Home Office without their explicit consent.
Later that month, councillors unanimously passed a cross party motion reaffirming the council’s commitment to being a city of sanctuary, upholding the principles of dignity and respect for all and signing up to Oxford’s commitment to asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. At the same meeting, they appointed Councillor Dr Hosnieh Djafari-Marbini as Oxford’s first migrant champion, helping migrant communities to access services and ensuring their needs are considered and voices heard in council policy.
In November, Oxford’s independent advice centres followed the council in pledging non-cooperation with the Home Office’s hostile environment on immigration.
The council is once again supporting Refugee Week, a UK-wide festival running from 15 to 21 June that celebrates the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees. This year Refugee Week has the theme ‘imagine’, and Refugee Resource, Oxford City of Sanctuary and Oxford Human Rights Festival are holding a series of online events and activities to mark the week.