COVID-19 makes it difficult, if not impossible to operate a normal immigration system. Travel restrictions make entering or leaving the UK a complex process, implementing ordinary work or income requirements for visas can undermine public health messages, and to make matters worse, the Home Office itself has been heavily impacted by the government-imposed lockdown, as their staffing levels have suffered and their workload is constantly changing. It is therefore not surprising that numerous changes aimed at ensuring that the UK’s immigration and visa systems continues to function properly have been announced in the past few months. Last week, a cross-party Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on the Home Office response to the impact of COVID-19 on the immigration and visa systems.
In the report, the Committee welcomes the government decision to scrap the immigration health surcharge for all NHS and social care workers, calling it “a recognition of the contribution made by the front-line workers fighting COVID-19.” However, it is said not to go far enough. Committee Chair Yvette Cooper MP said: “It is very welcome that the Government has agreed to waive the Immigration Health Surcharge and extend the bereavement scheme for NHS and social care workers. However, most care workers and low-paid NHS support staff are still excluded from receiving the free one-year visa extension granted to clinical staff, and as a result could be facing costs of hundreds or thousands of pounds this summer.
The Committee therefore recommends to open free visa extensions to the same range of employees as they have done for the immigration health surcharge waiver. It also recommends simplifying (and lowering the price tag) of paths to British citizenship and permanent residency to those health and social care workers who risked their lives during the pandemic.
“Excluding the care workers who hold dying residents' hands, the cleaners who scrub the door handles and floors of the COVID-19 wards, or the porters who take patients to intensive care is just wrong. The Government must ensure that all measures of support for NHS and care workers apply to all frontline staff equally, irrespective of grade or job title.”
The Committee also evaluated visa extensions for non-NHS staff. When announcing the Home Office policy change which allowed all visas due to expire before 31 July 2020 to be extended, the Home Secretary said that “nobody will be punished for circumstances outside of their control”. To make good on that promise, the Committee recommends that the Home Office implement automatic, blanket visa extensions instead of making individuals apply for them via email, to ensure that individuals do not overstay their visa unintentionally.
Highlighting a concern which lawyers and immigration experts flagged up immediately after the visa extensions were made public, the report reiterates there is currently no legal basis for any of these extensions. Individuals relying on government policy announcements (which can be changed at any given time and lack legal foundation) need legal reassurance that their extension is lawful and valid and that they can continue to live and work in the UK. The Committee therefore recommends that the Home Office implements a statutory instrument (a form of secondary legislation) to clarify the legal basis of both the extension of leave for all individuals who are unable to leave the country before the expiry of their current visa, and for the automatic extension of leave offered to NHS staff.
Analysing the financial impact of the coronavirus on the visa system as a whole, the report acknowledges the disruption and economic impact of COVID-19, recognising that many individuals have lost their jobs or seen their income significantly reduced through no fault of their own. It is within this context that the Committee recommends adapting visa requirements such as the Minimum Income requirement to take loss of income due to COVID-19 into account when evaluating applications. In order to ensure public health and safety for all, the Government is also urged to lift the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) conditions, which caused turmoil a few weeks ago when it seemed like the PM was not aware of the policy’s existence. The Committee Chair said the government “needs to make sure that these exceptional Covid-19 circumstances aren't pushing families into desperate hardship because of the NRPF rules which prevent them getting the urgent support they need.”
Last but not least, the Home Affairs Committee evaluated the impact of the coronavirus on the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS), calling upon the Home Office to step up their efforts to identify vulnerable persons who may not have applied to the EUSS yet.
The report shows that COVID-19 has exacerbated the underlying problems of the EUSS. One of those problems is the lack of information on how the Home Office will approach late applications (applications made after the deadline of 30 June 2021.) The Home Affairs Committee recommendations include a clarification of what support will be provided to assist vulnerable individuals in applying, especially for children in care, given that there is a low application rate for that particular group of people. At the minimum, it is said local authorities should increase their work to identify EU children in care who have not yet applied to the scheme, but ideally, more comprehensive measures should be implemented. The Committee therefore recommends that the Home Office grant automatic Settled Status to all children in care and care leavers, without requiring them to explicitly apply.
The Committee also calls on the Home Office to clarify the legal position of those with pre-settled status. During the pandemic, people with pre-settled status have questioned whether they are able to access all public funds, specifically whether they can get benefits, or whether those rights are reserved for people with indefinite leave to remain only.
To sum up, just like many experts in the area, the Committee is willing to cut the Home Office some slack in these unprecedented times. It is appreciated that going through the normal routes to introduce new policies is made complicated by circumstances outside of the government’s control. However, it is in times like these that guidance needs to be clear, unambiguous, and publicly available so that practitioners know the law, visa holders feel secure, and the Home Office act legally to address the issues we face.
Measures taken to fight the COVID-19 pandemic are causing major societal and governmental upheavals not only in the UK, but everywhere around the globe. Individuals who are applying for a UK visa, and those who already hold one, are naturally concerned about various challenges posed by the pandemic. This post is an attempt at giving you an overview of the most significant ways in which the coronavirus affects immigrants in the UK, up to date as of 1 June 2020. Information changes frequently, so make sure to keep an eye on the government website, but also our twitter page and the freemovement website to stay fully up to date.
If you have any additional questions, feel free to contact us here or book an online legal consultation with us here so that we can help you further.
Visitors and short-term stays
The Home Office has stated that “no individual who is in the UK legally and whose visa expired after 24 January 2020, or is due to expire before 31 July 2020, will be regarded as an overstayer or suffer any detriment in the future if they cannot leave the UK because of travel restrictions related to COVID-19
Which measures have been taken to ensure this in practice?
- If you’re in the UK and your leave expires between 24 January 2020 and 31 July 2020, your visa will be extended to 31 July 2020 if you cannot leave the UK because of travel restrictions or self-isolation related to coronavirus (COVID-19). All you have to do is request an extension (which will be granted automatically) by updating your records with the Coronavirus Immigration Team (CIT) and the extension will be granted. You will be expected to return to your home country as soon as it is safe to do so.
- If your visa was previously was previously extended until 31 May 2020, it will automatically be extended further until 31 July. You do not need to do anything further – this additional extension is automatic.
- If you plan on staying in the UK longer-term, and the visa you are currently on expires before 31 July 2020, you can apply to switch to a long-term UK visa that date. This includes applications where you would usually need to apply for a visa from your home country.
You should apply under these temporary concessions if you are currently stuck in the UK and had leave to remain as a visitor, or under any other short-term category of the rules, which expired after 24 January 2020.
Are Visa Application Centres open?
After 10 weeks of lockdown, some UK Visa Application Centres (VACs) are starting to resume services, where local restrictions allow. However, ongoing global restrictions mean some UKVI services will remain closed. Contact your local VAC to find out the latest status:
- TLS contact if you’re in Europe, Africa and parts of the Middle East
- VFS global for all other countries
How do I schedule an appointment at a VAC?
If you had an appointment scheduled before lockdown measures came into force, you should receive an email from UKVCAS rescheduling your appointment. Due to the volume of appointments that will need to be rescheduled, it may take UKVCAS some time to contact you.
Anyone needing to make a new appointment will need to wait until these become available. People with previously scheduled appointments have priority.
What happens if I cannot get an appointment before my leave expires?
If your online immigration application was submitted when you had leave to remain in the UK, you will continue to be lawfully in the UK whilst waiting for a rescheduled or a new appointment. The same conditions of stay will remain in force.
Can I start working if I have not received a decision on my Tier 2 or Tier 5 application due to coronavirus-related delays in application processing?
If you’ve applied for a Tier 2 or 5 working visa and are waiting for a decision on your application, you can start work before your visa application has been decided if:
- you have been assigned a Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS)
- you submitted your application before your current visa expired and you show your sponsor evidence of this
- the job you start is the same as the one listed on your CoS
If your application is eventually rejected as invalid or refused your sponsor will stop sponsoring you and you will then have to stop working for them.
What if I am an NHS worker?
Some frontline health workers and their families will get their visas automatically extended because of coronavirus. There are also changes to the conditions of visas for some frontline health workers. These changes will apply to you if you work for the NHS or independent health and care providers as a:
- biological scientist
- dental practitioner
- health professional
- medical practitioner
- medical radiographer
- occupational therapist
- social worker
- speech and language therapist
- therapy professional
Check with your employer if you’re not sure whether you work in an eligible profession.
Can I volunteer or work with the NHS if I do not have a working visa?
There is no longer a limit on the number of hours you can work or volunteer each week if you are a Tier 4 student, Tier 2 worker with an NHS job as a second job, visiting academic researcher, or a holder of a short-term visa which normally holds working/volunteering restrictions
Access to public funds (and the Furlough Scheme)
The “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF) rule is imposed on people with limited leave to enter or remain in the UK. It prohibits the person holding limited leave to remain from accessing certain defined public funds, such as Universal Credit or benefits. A person who claims public funds despite such a condition is committing a criminal offence. Such an offence may well carry future immigration effects, as any existing leave can be curtailed, and any future application refused as a consequence. Recently, the High Court has ruled that the government must make it easier for migrants to access the welfare system if they are about to become destitute, declaring part of the no access to public funds unlawful.
What does this mean for the Furlough Scheme? Can I get furloughed if I have limited leave to remain?
The Home Office has confirmed that the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme can be used for migrants. They have to meet the same eligibility requirements as other employees.
This is because Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is not defined as ‘public funds’ in the Immigration Rules (Part 6 ‘Interpretation’). Therefore, migrants who are placed on furlough will not be in breach of their conditions of stay. However, it is important that they do not also claim any benefits which are defined as public funds.
New overseas applicants
Most visa application centres overseas are currently closed. The websites of VFS Global and TLScontact contain further information on specific locations.
Can I come to the UK I I obtained my visa before lockdown measures came into force?
Unlike other EU countries, the UK has not closed its borders – although flights and trains are limited – so you can travel to the UK if you already have a visa or you do not need one.
You should be advised that from 8 June 2020, people travelling to the UK (except from Ireland) will need to provide their journey and contact details by filling in an online form before they travel. After arriving in the UK they will need to self-isolate for 14 days. There will be exemptions for diplomats, transport workers and others.
Can I apply for a new visa?
It depends. UK visa application centres in most countries are closed but they are gradually starting to reopen.
You can still submit an online visa application, which is the first step of the visa process. You can also prepare your application so that it is ready to submit as soon as the visa application centres reopen in your area.
What if I am a Tier 4 student and my course is starting before I receive my visa?
You can start your course or studies before your visa application has been decided if:
- your sponsor is a Tier 4 sponsor
- you have been given a confirmation of acceptance for studies (CAS)
- you submitted your application before your current visa expired and you show your sponsor evidence of this
- the course you start is the same as the one listed on your CAS
- you have a valid Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS) certificate if required
If your application is eventually rejected as invalid or refused you must stop your course or studies.
Before I submit my Home Office application I have to pass an English language test and/or the Life in the UK test but the test centres are closed. What do I do?
Test centres are gradually starting to reopen but it may not be possible to get an appointment before your visa expires.
Even if you cannot get an appointment in time, you should still submit your Home Office application before your visa expires. Do not book your UKVCAS appointment until the English language / Life in the UK test centres have reopened and you have been able to pass the test(s). You may not have met the English language / Life in the UK requirement on the date you applied but if you meet it on the date of your appointment it would be unreasonable for the Home Office to refuse your application in the current circumstances.
Absences from the UK due to COVID-19 and their impact on residency (Indefinite Leave to Remain Applicants, EEA citizens, etc.)
What if you have a long-term UK visa (with a view to get indefinite leave to remain), but you are stuck outside the UK for several months?
If you have a visa which leads to indefinite leave to remain you cannot normally spend more than 180 days outside the UK in any 12-month period during the five-year qualifying period. This rule does not apply to every visa category and the way it works depends on the date when your visa was issued.
The 180-day limit is usually strictly enforced. However, the Home Office considers granting indefinite leave to remain if your absences are over the limit but justified due to serious or compelling reasons. According to the Home Office guidance, serious or compelling reasons will vary but can include serious illness of the applicant or a close relative, a conflict, a natural disaster, for example, volcanic eruption or tsunami.
The Home Office has not confirmed that the coronavirus pandemic qualifies as a serious or compelling reason in this context, but it seems logical that it will.
However, note that this is at the Home Office’s discretion and therefore, if you stay abroad for too long, there is no guarantee that the excess absences will be accepted.
What if I have pre-settled status and I need additional years of residence in order to qualify for settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme?
For EEA citizens wanting to obtain indefinite leave to remain under the EU Settlement Scheme, the same thing applies as for other applicants wanting to obtain indefinite leave to remain via other routes. Normally, if you want to obtain settled status, you cannot spend more than 180 days outside the UK in any 12-month period during the five-year qualifying period. The Home Office has not confirmed that the coronavirus pandemic qualifies as a serious or compelling reason justifying exceptions for this rule in this context, but it seems logical that they will as it will be in accordance with EU law principles.
However, note that this is at the Home Office’s discretion and therefore, if you stay abroad for too long, there is no guarantee that the excess absences will be accepted.
Since the EU Settlement Scheme has fully opened on 30 March 2019, there have already been more than 3.5 million applications from EU, other EEA and Swiss citizens, and their family members. Applying to the scheme is mandatory for all EU citizens and other EEA/Swiss nationals who wish to continue living in the UK lawfully after the transition period. EU citizens have until the 30 June 2021 to apply under the Scheme. If they do not apply on time, they will be unlawful residents in the UK.
Just like every other aspect of life, and every other government service, the EU Settlement Scheme has been heavily affected by the coronavirus-induced lockdown. The (temporary) closures of phone advice lines, local scanning centres, and the inability to send in documents have had a severe impact on the reach and success of the EUSS.
When the UK lockdown measures came into force on 23 March 2020, all face-to-face support services for EUSS applicants were shut down. Visa centres and passport scanning locations closed. The postal route for making applications, which those without biometric passports or access to the mobile scanning application have to use in order to apply, temporarily stopped operating.
Additionally, many national embassies and consulates remain closed except for emergencies. This means that EU nationals who need to request or renew their ID documents in order to apply to the Scheme cannot do so. Even when those consulates reopen, there will be a backlog of applications, putting those who do not have a valid form of ID at an increased risk of missing the EUSS application deadline of 30 June 2021.
EEA nationals currently stranded abroad due to lockdown measures around the globe are also increasingly at risk of falling through the cracks. If an EEA national wants to obtain settled status under the EUSS, they will have to prove five years of continuous residence in the UK. Continuous residency means that they do not have more than six months of absences in any 12-month period. The general rule is that the Home Office allows for one longer absence from the UK for an ‘important reason,’ such as illness, but no pandemic-specific guidance has been given. As travel remains disrupted and discouraged across the globe, EEA nationals looking to apply for settled status in the next five years risk breaking their continuous residency and jeopardizing their future immigration status if the Home Office do not operate a flexible approach to absences. Although, the European Union perspective is that absences as a consequence of the pandemic should be disregarded entirely.
This week, Home Office support services and application routes are slowly but surely starting to reopen. In addition to a range of online, telephone and email support for those who have questions or need help applying, the postal route for making applications has now reopened, meaning that those without biometric passports or access to the scanning app can make their applications and send their ID documents to the Home Office. The ID scanning locations, however, remain closed.
Community groups across the UK have tried to make up for the reduced services, and continue to work with vulnerable EU nationals during the lockdown, but there is no denying that webinars and online assistance are less effective than the real thing. As a consequence, new applications to the EUSS halved in April, bringing them to their lowest since the launch of the Scheme. Yet, the Home Office has confirmed that they do not plan on extending the EUSS deadline, making EU citizens increasingly worried they might lose their ability to secure their right to long-term residence in the UK because of the pandemic.
Every day, at 8PM, millions of people across the country clap for our healthcare workers, an initiative which has been encouraged by the government. Meanwhile, as coronavirus numbers soar to almost a thousand deaths a day in the UK, the Home Office published updated guidance for employers on navigating working visas once the new points-based immigration system comes into force on 1 January 2021. Whilst encouraging signs of solidarity, the government is thus detailing the ins and outs of an immigration system which will likely stop many of the people we clap for from coming to work in the UK once it becomes law.
The new guidance lays out that all workers will have to be sufficiently qualified (at the minimum, they must have A-level equivalence) and speak sufficient English in order to get a visa. Highly skilled workers are the only ones who can come to the UK without a job offer. In order to do so, they need to get an endorsement from a relevant competent body in order to obtain a Global Talent Visa.
Any other individual who wants to come work in the UK will need to have a job offer from an approved sponsor. To become an approved sponsor, employers who want to recruit migrant workers will need to take active steps. They will have to check that their business is eligible, and choose which type of workers they are looking to hire: skilled workers with long-term job offers, or temporary workers. Employers will then have to put in place a framework within their business to deal with the sponsorship process, apply online and pay an application fee ranging from £536 to £1,476, depending on the type of business. The whole process usually takes about 8 weeks. Once they become an approved sponsor, they can recruit people without UK residency to fill their job openings.
If an individual, then, receives a job offer from an approved sponsor, they will need to meet a minimum income threshold on top of the language and skill requirements. The general minimum salary threshold is set at £25,600. For some jobs, the threshold may be higher, if the Home Office estimates that it is a higher paid occupation.
If an individual does not meet the income threshold, they may still be eligible for a visa if they can demonstrate that they have a job offer in a specific shortage occupation or a PhD relevant to the job. For these occupations, the income threshold is lowered to £20,480. The list of shortage occupations, which includes doctors and nurses, is published by the Migrant Advisory Committee.
Concerning lower-skilled workers, the guidance explicitly reiterates that “there will NOT be an immigration route specifically for those who do not meet the skills or salary threshold for the skilled worker route.” The skill level for different jobs can be found in Appendix J of the Immigration Rules.
Considering that the average health care worker in the UK makes £19,080 a year, the timing of this publication seems peculiar to say the least. As our Director suggests, how does it make sense for the Home Office state that care workers, nurses, hospital porters, cleaners, logistics personnel, postal workers, etc. will not be able to apply for visa under the new immigration system in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis? It is hard to imagine that the Home Office has a valid reason for needlessly doubling down on an immigration policy which fails to take care of the workers who, in times of crisis, put everything at risk to take care of us.
Over 3.6million Syrian refugees made Turkey their home since civil war tore their country apart in the 2010s. Polls show that most of the Turkish population want them to leave. On February 28th, President Erdogan announced that his government would heed that request, and Turkey would no longer stop refugees from crossing over to Greece.
Mr. Erdogan’s promise of free passage to Europe led tens of thousands of migrants to leave Turkey and resume their journey to Europe. What the President failed to mention was that on the European side of state lines, borders would remain closed.
The current political impasse originates from the 2015 refugee crisis, when over 1 million migrants entered Europe from Turkey. In an attempt to stop the influx, the EU struck a deal with Mr. Erdogan. As part of that deal, the EU gave Turkey over 6.0 billion euros in aid. In exchange, Turkey promised to keep the refugees inside their borders and prevent them from migrating to Europe through Greece. When Turkey ran out of aid last year, Mr. Erdogan requested more funding to keep up his end of the bargain, but the two parties failed to reach an agreement.
In response to the arrival of so many people, Greece doubled down on their border security. The government sent riot police, armoured vehicles and 1000 soldiers to the Turkish border, and suspended the right to apply for asylum for a month. Greek authorities as well as rogue actors detained, assaulted, robbed, and stripped asylum seekers and migrants, and then forced them back to Turkey. Tens of thousands of people now find themselves in limbo between borders.
Greece, like all EU countries, is bound by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Charter recognises the right to seek asylum and guarantees protection from forcible return of anyone at real risk of persecution or other serious harm. Greece’s suspension of the right to claim asylum, in combination with their appalling treatment of migrants on the border, is a gross violation of human rights.
Yet this violation has received very little scrutiny. As the spread of COVID-19 pushed the images of men being shot, children being hit, and faces behind barbed wire to the back of the news cycle, these breaches of the 1951 UN refugee convention and EU law went unnoticed. Instead, Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission, announced the distribution of a £609 million aid package to help and support Greece’s border infrastructure. She called Greece “our European shield”, and praised the country for its tough response, as it has helped avoid another “crisis” like the one in 2015.
Instead of taking collective responsibility, the EU, yet again, has shown lack of leadership on the issue of migration at an astronomical human cost. The only solution to this endless plight remains unchanged from 2015: meaningful change to EU asylum policy allowing for coordinated resettlement and shared responsibility for all EU member states. The UK should be leading the charge, accepting a number for resettlement and providing for safe routes to claim asylum in the UK. Instead, in the midst of a global health crisis, the violence and human suffering at the border persist. We should fight to end it and create an immigration which actually reflects the European discourse of enlightenment and human rights in practice, rather than the dysfunctional and divisive system that is in place now.
The UK is one of many countries that has implemented lockdown measures to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. These measures include strict travel restrictions, and in over 50 countries around the world, they go as far as a complete aerial lockdown.
Immigration detention is only lawful if there is a prospect of imminent removal. With borders closing worldwide and flights suspended, that prospect is non-existent. That is why Detention Action, an NGO which fights for immigration detainees’ rights in the UK, issued judicial review proceedings on 18 March 2020. The proceedings challenged the lawfulness of continued detention, in particular of persons with medical conditions placing them at increased risk from COVID-19.
In response, the Home Office has committed to reviewing all detainees’ case files to release as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, unless they pose a grave danger to the public. When the government began their case-by-case review, one case of COVID-19 had already been confirmed in Yarl’s Wood IRC, two cases had been reported in Brook House, and symptoms were recorded in most other removal centres.
Under the current circumstances, detention centres are at risk of becoming hotbeds of coronavirus spreading, as both detainees and staff are constantly in close contact with each other and amongst themselves. In efforts to prevent the virus from spreading within the centres, some facilities have isolated detainees and barred them from leaving their rooms, effectively turning their bedroom into a prison cell.
Nevertheless, Detention Action lost their case in the High Court, and the Home Office still refuses to systematically release all individuals currently held in detention, putting all individuals involved in this system at continued risk of ill health.
Government action, however, shows awareness that keeping detainees locked up could come back to bite them. Since Detention Action launched their claim, the Home Office released over 350 people held under immigration powers. The courts are also playing their part, as a solicitor from Bail for Immigration Detainees (BiD), a London-based charity, reported that ever since the travel restrictions and lockdown were enforced, 13 of his clients were granted bail and no applications were refused.
This is good news, but it is not enough. People currently held under immigration powers still need to go through the process of applying for bail if they are to be released, a process which has been made significantly more complicated by the pandemic itself.
On 20 March 2020, visits to immigration detention centres were indefinitely suspended as part of measures to contain the virus. This does not only have devastating implications for detainees on a personal level, as they can no longer see their loved ones. It also means that lawyers can no longer visit their clients in immigration removal centres.
Meanwhile, the Tribunal has started holding hearings remotely, but it seems that the courts do not lean itself to the online sphere easily, and their infrastructure is not ready to make the transition. This failure of court proceedings weakens detainees’ access to justice even further, as bail hearings are frustrated by the practicalities of online hearings.
This situation is not sustainable. After calls from Strasbourg and the Council of Europe to release immigration detainees in the face of this crisis, it is time to release everyone currently held under immigration powers, close detention centres and ensure that every individual receives the necessary care and support they need and deserve during these unprecedented times.