UK offers COVID-19 vaccine to undocumented migrants

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British officials have extended an invitation for undocumented migrants to register for the COVID-19 vaccine, a move that will not jeopardize their stay in the country, according to local media reports.

The British Home Office has pledged not to take legal action against those who come forward for inoculation, however getting the COVID-19 jab does not extend to obtaining other rights, including access to other health-related services.

“What we‘ve said throughout [COVID-19], this disease is interested in looking for victims, it’s not worried about their immigration status,” Edward Argar, UK Health Minister, told London-based radio broadcaster LBC.

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“Just as we’ve said that people who have a COVID-19 test or need treatment for COVID-19, we are not going to chase up their immigration status around that,” Argar added.

No official statistics exist for the number of people with an undocumented status in the UK, however some estimates suggest that around 1.3 million undocumented migrants reside in the country.

Undocumented migrants not included in national vaccination plans

Despite urgent pleas by the World Health Organization (WHO), undocumented migrants, along with other vulnerable groups of people, including asylum-seekers, refugees and stateless persons, continue to be excluded from national vaccination plans around the world, with only a handful of countries as exceptions.

As early as December 18, right after the rollout of the first COVID-19 vaccines in the UK, the WHO issued a statement that for national COVID-19 vaccination plans to be effective, they must include migrants, especially those working in healthcare, regardless of their legal status in their respective country of residence.

Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, undocumented migrants have been reluctant to seek healthcare services due to a fear of immigration consequences and other legal repercussions, ultimately resulting in incarceration or permanent expulsion.

Undocumented migrants are, however, more likely to live in difficult economic circumstances because of their limited access to work and housing, which impacts their ability to uphold basic safety measures against the COVID-19 virus, according to the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM).

“In the UK, there is systematic communication between the Home Office and the National Health Service about the use of services by undocumented people, who do not qualify for free secondary care and therefore are liable to incur debts to the NHS if they are unable to pay for care,” Gianluca Cesaro, Communications Officer at PICUM said.

The lack of trust in institutions that provide healthcare services is often coupled with an absence of regular access to those services for many undocumented migrants, enabling a greater risk that infections go undetected.

“In order to account for [positive COVID-19] cases, migrants have to be diagnosed first. That means that have to access a healthcare facility and do a test. And if you want access to healthcare services, you have to say who you are and show your health insurance card in many countries. And for many migrants, all these things are impossible,” Jaqueline Weekers, Head of Migration Health at the International Organization for Migration (IOM), told Al Arabiya English last month.

One of the largest problems in assessing the needs of undocumented migrants within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, is the general absence of data on their health, status, and other vulnerabilities.

“Data on the health of migrants is in general very difficult to obtain,” Weekers added.

Collaboration and inclusion as a way out of the COVID-19 pandemic

From the WHO to IOM, many international organizations have urged for a more integrated approach to accessing, evaluating, and assisting vulnerable categories of people, including undocumented migrants, in the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

In order to gain their trust, the deployment of any COVID-19 vaccine to migrants, and in particular migrants with insecure status, should be undertaken in close cooperation with trusted community-based organizations that have a history of working with and providing services to migrants, according to PICUM.

“I think the most important issue that we have to look at today is to ensure that migrants are included in the national vaccine allocation plans,” Weekers said.

The extension of national COVID-19 vaccination programs to migrants, including those with an uncertain legal status, is only the first step.

While the actions taken by British authorities indicate a potential shift towards a more integrated inoculation strategy, more is needed to ensure greater healthcare access to vulnerable categories of people, Cesaro explained.

“Including undocumented people in national vaccination campaigns is certainly welcome, and we advocate for it, but governments need to take stronger measures to support this population well beyond the pandemic … In many cases, undocumented people rely on city-level and NGO-run initiatives for healthcare,” he said.

“The governments are the ones in the driver’s seat,” Weekers concluded.

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