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Parliament's Health Committee hears how undocumented migrants are too scared to seek medical help

Date of Publication: 
24 January 2018

Committee holds hearing on data-sharing agreement between the NHS and the Home Office

Parliament's Health Committee hears how undocumented migrants are too scared to seek medical help

24 January 2018

Parliament's Health Committee last week heard oral evidence as part of its inquiry into the memorandum of understanding on data-sharing between the NHS and the Home Office.

Under the memorandum, the Home Office is able to seek confidential patient information from NHS Digital for immigration purposes.

Among those giving evidence to the Health Committee were Marissa Begonia of the campaign group Voice of Domestic Workers and Dr Lucinda Hiam of the medical care charity Doctors of the World. They both explained how the data-sharing agreement meant undocumented migrants were scared away from getting needed medical help.

Marissa Begonia told the Health Committee that one domestic worker had died because she was too frightened to seek help.

"We also have cases of death. Domestic workers are now mostly undocumented, because of the change that happened in 2012, with the six-month tied visa. We have one member who died, having never sought any hospitalisation or gone to a GP, because she was too frightened. She was not even aware of what kind of disease she had. She was coughing very badly and thought it was just a cold. This is very sad. She came from abusive employment. Hot water was poured on her. It was unreported, because she was too frightened to step forward to the authorities. That did not kill her—she survived that. What killed her was her being too frightened to access healthcare. It is very sad for me to witness that," Begonia said.

Dr Lucinda Hiam told the Committee: "In our Doctors of the World clinic in particular, we often see people in exploitative situations, where the GP is the only safe place they might be able to go to speak to someone safely and securely. One of the threats that they will be given from the people who are exploiting them is their immigration status being used against them. Turning the GP into a place that they can also fear is very dangerous.

"For example, a few weeks ago, I saw a woman from Eritrea who had been living in this country for seven years, being kept as a slave and subjected to horrendous sexual violence. She did not feel able to go to a GP. That is the atmosphere of fear that we are creating. For many of our service users, the distinction is irrelevant."

Hiam also recounted how pregnant women were among those too scared to seek medical treatment.

"In our clinic, there are pregnant women, in particular, who are too frightened to access healthcare. That really worries us. Just this morning, someone who was eight weeks pregnant was on the phone to our line. She was in tears, and she was too scared to go to the GP or to an antenatal clinic. Last week, we had a woman who was 17 weeks pregnant who would not even give us her address. We are trying to help her to access healthcare, and we cannot even do it, because she is too scared of us. Trying to assuage those fears is not working," Dr Hiam said.

The new immigration minister, Caroline Nokes, also appeared in front of the Health Committee.

In response to a question from Luciana Berger MP as to whether the Government should reconsider the data-sharing memorandum as it was a "life and death matter", Nokes said: "It is important that we know who people are and where they are, which is why the Home Office makes a range of checks with a range of different organisations, to try to identify where immigration offenders are, where they are living, where they are drawing on services. It is part of a suite of products that we have. We do not wish to deter anybody from seeking health treatment where it is necessary, but, equally, we have a public interest to make sure that we know where as many people are as possible."

Lord O'Shaughnessy, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health, told the Committee in response to concerns raised in the hearing: "Of course it is important. No one seeks to diminish the instances that you are talking about. The NHS exists to provide care to people. Again, I would reiterate the fact that primary care and emergency care are provided for free, whoever you are. That is quite an unusual feature, if you look internationally. That ability to access care is not diminished; that exists. At the same time, obviously, we have to weigh that in the balance for public interest with having a robust immigration system that has security concerns and that has the confidence of the public. I do not think these are ever easy judgments, but they are judgments based on the balance of evidence."

You can read the full transcript of the oral evidence here.

As we reported in November, Migrants' Rights Network has launched a legal challenge against the data-sharing agreement.

Migrants' Rights Network said yesterday that the evidence at last week's Health Committee hearing had reinforced concerns that the Home Office's 'hostile environment' policy has led to profound neglect and medical suffering.

"We do not believe it is ethical or legal for the Home Office to have access to confidential patient information without consent. This agreement violates patient confidentiality and puts vulnerable migrants at risk because they are too scared to access healthcare service," Migrants' Rights Network stated.