Migrants Helped Save My Life: Denying Them Healthcare Hurts Us All

In our latest staff blog, Eleanor Weber-Ballard, Communications Coordinator at Migrants Organise, describes how international workers are crucial to the functioning of the NHS – and how government attempts to enforce immigration controls in medical settings lead to poorer medical provision for everyone.

Severe malaria that can kill in 24 hours.

Severe pneumonia that left only 20 percent of my lung capacity remaining.

Dengue haemorrhagic fever that caused thrombocytopenia and internal bleeding (and a host of startled looks from my fellow passengers as blood began to drip from my nose and gums on a flight from Tanzania to the UK).

Septic shock leading to approaching cardiac arrest and a near-death experience that I’ll never forget.

Weeks in an acute care ward followed by months of bed rest.

12 months of recovery, fatigue, and chronic pain.

This time last year, having contracted several life-threatening diseases simultaneously, I very narrowly escaped death thanks to the incredible treatment provided to me by the NHS. Without the expertise, care and compassion of the medical team that looked after me, I would not be writing this now.

This exact same time three years ago, my father died from pneumonia (one of the diseases that I survived) in the very same hospital in which I was treated. He died partly because his emergency heart surgery was delayed for two weeks due to a shortage of nurses. As my family personally discovered, the crisis in the NHS is real: cuts, lack of resources, and pressure on staff cause suffering and irrevocable loss.

When my father was dying, he was looked after by medical staff from all over the world. His surgeons were Italian, his nurses Indian. A staff member from Germany comforted my mum, brother and I as we sat around my father’s bedside, listening to his breathing as it became slower, shallower, and finally, stopped. Similarly, during my own hospital stay, medics from Greece, Hungary, and the Caribbean worked alongside British staff to carry out my platelet transfusions, screen me for suspected Ebola, and administer injections into my stomach. Cleaners from Nigeria kept the ward germ-free while catering staff from the Philippines cajoled me into eating when I was finally a little better. (Incidentally, during my stay, the lentil soup – the only thing that I could bear to eat – was removed from the menu due to budget cuts).

International workers – migrants – have helped make the NHS, and it cannot survive without them. Yet despite severe staff shortages, until recently the Home Office has been refusing to renew the visas of the many international medical workers within the NHS who provide care to those in need. It was only one month ago that Theresa May’s government finally agreed to relax immigration rules to allow more doctors and nurses – who are ready and willing to contribute their skills and experience in aid of others – to come to the UK to work.  An earlier government cap on skilled migration had meant that over 2,360 visa applications from foreign, non-EU doctors were refused in a five-month period earlier this year.

Arbitrary government immigration targets, combined with dystopian, discriminatory and deliberately hostile laws, are now preventing many people from accessing the health services they need, and creating less effective services for us all. Migrants in the UK are being charged for medical services upfront, with treatment being refused if they cannot pay; confidential personal information is being collected by hospitals for sharing with immigration enforcement; and doctors are being turned into border guards as they are forced to ask for passports before providing care. The real-life impact of this is a new-born baby having to prove its eligibility for free healthcare; cancer sufferers – including from the Windrush generation – wrongly denied treatment; pregnant women being asked if they are ‘economic migrants’; and patients becoming too frightened to access the medical care they need and for which they are eligible.

Charging for treatment and conducting immigration checks in healthcare settings undermines the founding principle of the NHS – that services should be free at the point of use for anyone that needs them. Enforcing immigration control at the expense of migrants’ rights is inhumane, degrading and ultimately counterproductive – it doesn’t save money, just threatens to burden the NHS with more costs when preventable conditions turn into healthcare crises.

All of this doesn’t just affect migrants: it impacts upon our entire society. The hostile environment policy is inherently discriminatory, and therefore encourages discriminatory profiling and racist behaviour. It disproportionately affects those who are already vulnerable, and singles out black and ethnic minority people or those who ‘look a bit foreign.’ It burdens already overstretched health-workers with immigration tasks which are at odds with their Hippocratic Oath, and creates a society which monitors, polices and surveils us all.

This past week, we’ve been celebrating the 70th anniversary of the NHS. If you care about what is still the world’s best healthcare system; think that universal health care is a right and not a privilege; and believe in compassion and equality for yourself and others, please join me in doing whatever you can to support the NHS and end hostile environment. Get involved in the campaigns coordinated by organisations such as Docs Not CopsDoctors of the World UKMedact and here at Migrants Organise itself; donate and support our work; or write to your MP.

Don’t let it be you, your dad, a migrant, or anyone else, who suffers due to the utterly avoidable and unnecessary degradation of our system of health care.

Migrants Organise is working to challenge the ‘hostile environment’, a set of immigration policies that the government is deliberately implementing in order to make lives for migrants without status so untenable that they leave ‘voluntarily’ or choose not to enter the UK at all. Our work tackling hostile environment in healthcare specifically includes supporting migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Manchester to access the medical services they need, and collaborating with other organisations on campaigns such as Patients Not Passports.

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