NHS charges for migrants ‘discriminatory’ says support group leader

Protest against the privatisation of the NHS. Pic: Keep Our NHS Public campaign

Making financial demands of migrants for NHS services is discriminatory and continues the ‘hostile environment’ approach of the Government, a Hackney immigrant support group has claimed.

Rayah Feldman, chair of the Hackney Migrant Centre said NHS charges required of migrants on 6-month visas, and undocumented migrants, are the most concerning issue faced by the centre at the moment. “We’ve had people with cancer, and with other life-threatening conditions which require interventions, for which the figures are in tens of thousands.”

In an interview with Eastlondonlines, she said: “There’s no way most people could pay them. It’s discriminatory, it’s part of the hostile environment, there’s no other way to regard it. But the hospitals have a statutory duty to identify who is chargeable, and to ask them to pay. If they don’t consider the treatment urgent then they won’t do it, because migrants are supposed to pay in advance.”

Rayah Feldman. Pic: © Elizabeth Woodroffe

About Rayah Feldman: Outside of her work with the centre, Feldman has repeatedly campaigned against governmental crackdowns on illegal immigration. She has also published academic articles in a peer-reviewed medical journal, on subjects such as the divergence between a policy of charging migrants for healthcare and a “good” healthcare service, as well as the uneven quality of maternity care for people of different ethnicities. Until 2018, Feldman was the senior policy and research officer at Maternity Action, a UK charity which fights for maternity rights.

Feldman has been chair of the centre’s board of trustees since she was instrumental in its creation 12 years ago. Although it opened as a weekly drop-in in a church hall in 2008, since then the organisation has grown to a team of around 30 volunteers. 

“Since 2008, we do a lot more,” said Feldman. “We have a small hardship fund, and in the last few years we’ve been applying for grants for people that are destitute…We help people get their rights.”

Feldman was a cosignatory of the open letter to Hackney Council in October, which requested that the council lean on hospitals to stop charging migrants for NHS care during the pandemic. The letter was part of the Keep Our NHS Public campaign, and the centre joined organisations such as Migrants Organise and Docs not Cops in their public condemnation of the charges.

The letter also addressed the lack of public information surrounding COVID-19 testing for undocumented migrants. Feldman felt that the council must take responsibility for informing migrants that COVID-19 testing is free and will not require them to reveal their immigration status. 

Feldman was unsatisfied with the response from Hackney Council. “They haven’t responded to that issue,” she said. “In Hackney, as far as I can see there’s very little public information that [says] COVID testing and treatment is free, and that’s the role of the local authority.”

Given the Hackney Migrant Centre’s role in securing legal rights for asylum seekers and undocumented migrants, constant political engagement is part of the job. “We do campaign when we can,” said Feldman, “especially with other organisations on the issues which we know most adversely affect migrants. We have the data because we are seeing people every week.”

The centre’s latest campaign follows a period of dramatic change for the organisation, as the coronavirus pandemic forced it to alter its practices to fit with social distancing restrictions. According to Feldman, before COVID-19, the centre offered “a very holistic service” where migrants and volunteers would socialise.

“The drop-in is meant to be a welcoming place, and its ethos is to make migrants feel welcome and feel that we’re there to help them” said Feldman. “We have a kitchen team which makes lunch for everybody, so all the volunteers eat with the migrants who come.”

The drop-in has had to move to a telephone-based advice service during the pandemic. Although the team “can’t wait” to return to their original format, Feldman is concerned about the centre’s ability to sustain ongoing financial support to migrants. “We have turned many, many people away from our service because we have limited resources,” she said.

Leave a Reply