Today, MRN is launching a Know Your Rights guide for migrants. We want to help migrants understand and assert their rights in a context where these are being systematically eroded and routinely denied. This guide arrives at a time when institutional abuse of migrants’ rights is entering the spotlight, as evidenced by our legal challenge to an NHS/Home Office data-sharing agreement, or by the mounting critiques of detention and deportation on human rights grounds.
by JILNA SHAH
Towards a paradigm-shift: migrants as rights-holders
The guide is entirely focused on migrants as rights-holders. This framing aims to speak to the state’s flagrant double-standards when it comes human rights. The UK government is very good at highlighting human rights abuses ‘over there’ in distant countries, yet actively pursues a strategy of stripping undocumented migrants of the most basic of human rights. Supposedly ‘universal’ human rights rest at the whim of discrimination and racism when it comes to migrants’ situation. Centering migrants as human beings with human rights, rather than as inconvenient statistics, was the starting point for the guide.
A comprehensive and collaborative approach
The pocket guide is a collaboration between several organisations who work to defend and promote the rights of migrants, and who routinely witness the brutal impact of harsh policies on migrants’ lived experiences. MRN has worked with Against Borders for Children (ABC), Doctors of the World UK, Liberty, North East London Migrant Action and Project 17, who have authored specific sections relating to rights in 8 key areas of everyday life: banking, driving, education, employment, health, housing, social services, and the detention and deportation of homeless EU nationals.
The guide has been written for all migrants living in the UK. It will be particularly useful for people without documents and those trying to regularise their immigration status, including asylum seekers. We have aimed to make this guide comprehensive and informative, as well as easy to use. To this end, the guide deliberately moves away from the dry and euphemistically hostile language of immigration rules, instead communicating in a way that marks respect and solidarity, in addition to being readable by people for whom English is a second language.
Many migrants are not aware of their rights
Eve Dickson from NELMA suggests why it was important to produce the Know Your Rights guide:
This new guide supports migrants to understand their rights in an increasingly hostile climate. It’s not about scaring people, but making sure those who are directly affected by the UK’s punitive immigration regime have the knowledge they need. We are strongest when we understand what we’re fighting against.
So what are we up against? To start with, immigration rules are continually changing, making them even more complicated and inaccessible than other regulations. The arena of immigration has become a veritable labyrinth in recent years, especially since two pieces of legislation – the Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016 – were brought in to give teeth to Theresa May’s so-called ‘hostile environment’.
These acts established comprehensive rules and regulations that render it unlawful to allow undocumented migrants access to basic, essential support and services, including, renting accommodation, working, and having a bank account. Currently, undocumented migrants, and those who offer them these essential services can face either civil and/or criminal penalties. Trying to make sense of these new rules is a big issue in itself, the guidance being steeped in legal and technical jargon. Regulatory complexity itself is arguably one of the tactics used by the Home Office to deter migrants from entering or staying in the UK.
Knowing how to access rights where they exist
Even when migrants are aware of their rights, they commonly find it difficult to know where to get help to actually assert them. A defining characteristic of the ‘hostile environment’ has been the extension of immigration enforcement to the many institutions we interact with on a daily basis, including schools, employers, landlords, banks and the NHS. It means that, where migrants once sought advice, they now encounter new border guards and gatekeeping of services.
In this scenario, the Know Your Rights guide provides crucial information about how to access one’s rights and what course of action to take when they are abused. For instance, there is understandable anxiety among some migrants, especially those who do not have leave to enter or to remain, about the potential of having their bank accounts closed following the banking checks that were introduced in October 2017. The new regulations mean banks and building societies must tell the Home Office if they find customers they believe to be in the UK without permission. The guide outlines exceptions for opening new bank accounts, what the affected individual can do if a bank makes a mistake, and who to contact for help with these issues.
Migrants advocating for themselves
The need for Know Your Rights and other legal education materials is all the more pressing when access to affordable and quality immigration advice or legal support has been massively curtailed by cuts to legal aid. The overhaul of legal aid has directly impacted the support that immigration caseworkers are able to provide to clients – overwhelmed as most are with ever-growing case load and dwindling resources. Pro-bono immigration solicitors are also oversubscribed and are often only willing to take on strong cases due to limited capacity.
Sophie Roumat from Love to Learn confirms:
Immigration law is incredibly complicated and becoming more so. Add to that the language barriers many migrants must contend with, significant cuts to legal aid, and the number of unscrupulous advisors working in the field, and it’s a wonder how people can navigate the system at all.
Although the guide does not give immigration advice, it provides a step-by-step breakdown of the law and ways of navigating hurdles in the 8 key areas mentioned above. Instead of needing to rely solely on ‘experts’, we hope that the guide will have the impact of informing people and instilling a level of confidence in their ability to self-advocate.
Lucila Granada of Latin American Women’s Rights Service, testifies to the trying conditions currently faced by migrants in the UK, and to the importance of a guide for migrants’ rights:
We see so many Latin American migrant women who endure exploitation, physical or emotional abuse without seeking support or safety because they don’t know their rights. All migrants have rights. This booklet is an essential tool for migrants and for the organisations that offer support.
As a member of Akwaaba, a migrant social centre in Hackney concluded when reading the guide: “This guide will help a lot of people to start to understand their rights; even a big tree starts small.”
The guide is available in PDF format here.
If you have any questions or queries about the guide, please get in touch: [email protected]