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Mat Nashed

Help us fight coronavirus, then go back to where you came from

Britain will automatically renew the visas of foreign healthcare workers without charge [Getty]

Date of publication: 1 April, 2020

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Comment: After years of anti-migrant legislation, the US and UK are calling on foreign medics, but denying them the rights they deserve, writes Mat Nashed.
This week, the US and UK began recruiting migrant and refugee medical workers to shore up their frontlines against the novel coronavirus. But unlike the Covid-19, there is nothing novel about this colonial policy.  

In both World Wars I and II, western powers conscripted men from colonised lands to fight against their enemies in Europe. The US and UK are now pulling a similar stunt, as coronavirus overwhelms their respective health care systems.

This time, though immigrants are eager to battle the pandemic, even as US President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson pursue anti-migrant legislation.

Trump has upheld his 'Muslim ban', while ripping families apart for trying to seek asylum. For his part, Johnson has dropped protection for child refugees and introduced a new immigration system that discriminates against low-wage labour.

Now though, as the pandemic overwhelms these nations, both leaders are begging skilled immigrants to risk their lives, without promising them any security in return.

A disposable workforce

Head of the UK Home Office, Priti Patel announced this week that all 2,800 foreign workers for the National Health Service with visas due to expire before 1 October, will automatically have their permits extended for another year. Despite framing her decision as a humanitarian gesture, Patel is effectively telling these immigrants that they're welcome to work - and risk their lives in the UK - just not settle here.

Meanwhile, Health Minister Matt Hancock - who recently tested positive for Covid-19 - is entertaining the possibility of fast tracking the registration of qualified refugee doctors.

Both leaders are begging skilled immigrants to risk their lives, without promising them any security in return

Even asylum seekers with medical backgrounds could be temporarily recruited to help mitigate the crisis, which has already claimed more than 2,000 lives in the country. But unsurprisingly, neither asylum seekers nor refugees will be guaranteed residency or medical license once the pandemic subsides. If being part of a nationwide effort to save peoples' lives is not enough to qualify someone leave to remain, then what is?

A similar picture is emerging in the US. Just last week, the State Department made a call for foreign medical professionals who already have a visa to fly to the country immediately. Doctors and nurses already in the US are also being urged to extend their visas.

These policies break with the rigid immigration measures that have seen thousands of foreign-born medical residents deterred from coming to the US since Trump entered the White House. From the get-go, his administration introduced excessive red tape to incentivise firms to prioritise hiring US citizens.

Never mind that the Association of American Colleges estimated that 105,000 hospital workers would be needed to fill a looming shortage before 2030. 
Thanks to coronavirus, that acute shortage has arrived a decade earlier, but that hasn't stopped Trump from scapegoating others to detract from his own incompetence.

Over the last month, he has insisted on calling covid-19 the "Chinese virus" despite the offensive term stirring up hatred towards the Chinese community and Asian Americans. And, as expected, Trump has claimed that refugees are carrying the disease to justify deporting thousands across the southern border.

Perhaps if Trump had dared to see migrants as something other than a drain on the country, his administration wouldn't be facing such a dire shortage of medical labour, at this time of need. 

Precarious lives

In both the US and the UK, the coronavirus pandemic is a stunning reminder that Global South immigrants will remain an afterthought, unless they are saving western lives.

This week there was an outpouring of condolences for Dr Amged El Hawrani, a British hospital consultant of Sudanese origin and the latest medical professional to die in the UK. His death came just days after two other doctors also succumbed to the virus: Sudanese surgeon Adil El Tayar, and GP Habib Zaidi, of Pakistani origin.

These men have been rightly celebrated for making the ultimate sacrifice. But to truly honour immigrants laying their lives on the line, Brits and their policymakers will have to address the racist epidemic that has made life so challenging for migrants and refugees. 

Neither asylum seekers nor refugees will be guaranteed residency or medical license once the pandemic subsides

For starters, popular pressure is needed to push the Tories to restore proper rights migrants, and ease prohibitive visa regulations. These changes should remain in place after the pandemic subsides. Obviously social distancing makes it practically impossible to protest in the streets, but solidarity can be expressed through calling government officials, signing petitions and pushing the press to be part of the solution, not the problem.

Americans, too, have to do their part. Back in January, the Trump administration extended its "Muslim ban" to include six more countries. Nigeria, the most populated nation in Africa, and Myanmar where Muslims are fleeing a genocide, are on the list.

Pushing back against these blanket bans would be a good first step. Because unlike Covid-19, racism can't be beaten with a vaccine, but only through collective action.

Mat Nashed is a Lebanon-based journalist covering displacement and exile. 

Follow him on Twitter: @matnashed

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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