Frontline NHS staff are working around the clock to save lives, while putting their own lives at risk. Doctors, nurses and other staff are keeping the nation alive. But one group of these brave heroes is invisible. Primarily known as highly skilled migrants, these people are economic migrants often recruited to alleviate critical job shortages.
Highly skilled migrants are people who have achieved at least a level of higher education or equivalent, and have moved with their skills. They are migrant workers nonetheless, and have no access to public funds should anything go wrong. Their condition for being in the UK is that they fend for themselves and do not seek any help from the public purse.
It is unclear what happens to these people and their families should they get sick or worse still pass away in the line of duty. Indeed, many have spouses and children who depend on them and are also subject to current lockdown restrictions.
Without these highly skilled migrants on the frontline, the shortage of critical workers the government is facing would be even higher. This is clearly recognised by government, as the home secretary, Priti Patel, recently announced automatic visa extensions for 2,800 NHS staff and other critical care staff. A clear sign of the importance of these highly skilled migrants to the survival of many who are affected by COVID-19. Nonetheless, this is not enough – more has to be done.
A complex immigration system
Like many OECD countries, the UK encourages highly skilled migrants to take up jobs to fill shortages in the labour market. Employers and agencies put up massive recruitment drives for essential staff from overseas to work in the public sector – in health, education, social care, technology, and engineering roles. Their spouses often take up low paid jobs – usually on zero-hours contracts – or they struggle to get employment.
But from 2010, the UK government has been tightening the immigration system. In early 2020, there were yet more changes to the system, which has moved to the “Australian-style” Points Based System (PBS) as promised during the Brexit campaign.
At the same time, the government announced that the UK is interested in attracting the most highly skilled talent, who can achieve the required level of points.
But while this invitation may seem promising, what these migrants don’t know until they arrive in the country is that strict rules will mean that should they fall ill and are unable to work they will have no access to financial support.
No government support
Many non-EU migrants sell their properties to afford the travel cost, which is not cheap. They uproot their families to arrive in the UK intending to become citizens – which they cannot for for at least five years minimum. In that time, they are expected to be in perfect health without access to government support.
Instead, employers are responsible for helping migrants to settle. But things like how the housing system works, how to pay taxes and how to access health services usually falls on the migrants themselves to discover.
This isn’t the case elsewhere, indeed, countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand have government-backed settlement programmes offered to highly skilled migrants, to the benefit of both the receiving country and the migrants.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything, and there is now an urgent need for policy and practical help for these invisible heroes and their families. The government must go beyond merely appreciating the work these people are doing, and must offer them proper support at this time of crisis.
Help must be provided for highly skilled migrants along with reconsideration of the ruthless tightening of the immigration rules for the people the UK needs. These are extraordinary times – and the government must adhere to human rights by ensuring that migrants are treated fairly.
Amina Chitembo does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.