In the latest installment of our blog series  “The Impact of COVID-19 on Kent and Medway”, Dr Laura Cashman reflects on the implications for migrants living in Kent and Medway.

Migrants have been in the news a lot this week. The Immigration Bill to introduce a new points-based system passed its second reading in Parliament, signalling the government’s intention to press ahead with its populist plans to make immigration more difficult and expensive. On the other hand, following a public outcry, the government was forced to exempt migrant NHS and care workers from the NHS Surcharge and extend the NHS Coronavirus Bereavement Scheme to support families of low paid migrant workers. It is clear that the politics around so-called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ migration will not go away any time soon and the fallout from COVID-19 will certainly play a role in how the debates are shaped.

First, we must remember that the label ‘migrant’ encompasses a wide spectrum of people. For example there is a world of difference between the pretty comfortable existence of an Irish academic working from home such as myself and that of an asylum seeker waiting for a (now further delayed) decision about her status, or of a cleaner who has lost her agency job and is at risk of eviction as she struggles to navigate the benefits system. Nevertheless, there are some key areas of concern which should be considered when we think about how migrants may be faring in Kent during this unprecedented crisis.

We know that Covid19 deaths are disproportionately high among certain categories of adults: BAME men and women and frontline key workers in particular. Many migrants in Kent fall into one or both of these categories. Extremely high numbers of Gurkha men work as security guards for example, which has been identified by the ONS as the highest risk occupation at the present time. The NHS and private care homes are key employers for migrants from both within and beyond the EU.

We also know that many migrants in Kent work in low-paid, insecure employment and may not know their rights when it comes to claiming benefits. The vast majority live in private accommodation and so there are risks of exploitation or eviction by unscrupulous landlords. For example, many East European Roma in Kent work in low paid jobs in the informal economy which have now all but disappeared. Living in overcrowded private accommodation, they will find it hard to adhere to social distancing protocols.

Furthermore, migrants who are still learning English may struggle to keep up with the changing public health guidelines and or to ‘homeschool’ their children. In poorer families, children may not have access to a laptop and internet connection to keep up with their school work, which will set back their progress.

To address these and other issues there has been a lot of work undertaken by community groups and local authorities to share information through video and leaflets translated into the necessary languages and dialects. Nevertheless, it is a real worry that all the efforts in recent years to build up community liaison relations to promote access to health, education and other social services will be lost.

A greater worry however, is the danger that racist discourses around Coronavirus will take hold among the majority population. Already we are seeing rising cases of racist abuse of Chinese and other members of ethnic minorities. If the statistics show that the highest risk is borne by poor migrants then there is a danger that they will come to be blamed for either importing or spreading the disease. Social distancing principles also actively hinder the kinds of activities which promote social inclusion and community cohesion such as coffee mornings, youth clubs, toddler activity groups etc.

COVID-19 has disrupted social and economic activities for everyone in Kent and Medway. It does not distinguish between nationalities or residency status. However, the health risks, financial worries and social isolation have an added dimension for migrants who have been trying to integrate and build new lives here. The first priority for both the government and local authorities may be to deal with the problems facing the average citizen but it is vital that minority groups with particular needs are not forgotten in the process.

Dr Laura Cashman is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University. Her research focuses on racism and social inclusion of minority communities. She teaches modules on our undergraduate and postgraduate degrees and welcomes applications from PhD students interested these themes.