Nobody is illegal: How British tabloids’ fear-mongering tactics create a false view of migrants

‘GPs told: you must treat foreigners’
‘Migrants milking Britain’s benefits’
‘Britain must ban migrants’

Author: Kate Hodgson
Artist: Moeno Sugiyama
Editor: Scout Barker

Frequently spotlighted across the front pages of British tabloids, headlines such as these are all too familiar. The consequence is a very frosty attitude towards migrants in the UK from British natives. A study by British Social Attitudes found that 55% of Britons believe that the main reason migrants travel to the UK is to claim benefits, and 47% of Britons believe that migration in the UK has negatively affected the economy. But how many of these negative perceptions can be backed up by scientific evidence?

Many headlines that concentrate on the ‘strain’ that migrants put on British benefits centre around the National Health Service. In 2014, the Immigration Act was implemented, redefining what it means to be an “ordinary resident” in the UK and restricting the entitlement to healthcare for many migrants. The laws were further escalated in 2015 when non-native patients would have to pay for the services provided by the NHS. Immigrants would be confronted with a 150% surcharge if deemed ineligible. From 2017, migrants wanting to receive treatment from the NHS would have to pay for the service before even receiving it. If the patient is unable to pay the upfront cost, medical care could be withheld unless deemed urgent or immediately necessary.

The effects of these regulations were devastating. A quarter of maternal deaths in the UK from 2015 to 2017 occurred in women born outside of the UK. What is deemed “urgent” or “immediately necessary” creates blurred boundaries, ultimately relying on the individual judgement of the doctor. The doctors involved have taken an oath not to harm any patient – it could be argued that refusing such care would violate the Hippocratic oath. Furthermore, the onset of illness or accidents is unpredictable, which makes preparing for any possible future events impossible and financially draining for migrants. 

Migrants make up 14.4% of the UK population yet only contribute to 1.83% of NHS expenditure. Social discrimination against migrants is prolific, yet few laws protect them from hostility relating to their migrant status. This culture of fear prevents migrants from seeking care and maintaining follow-up appointments. Frighteningly, the relative mortality associated with assaults is higher for international migrants in high-income countries. Furthermore, evidence by the UCL-Lancet commission discovered that, in advanced economies such as the UK, each 1% increase of migrants in the adult population increases the GDP per person by up to 2%. These statistics suggest that allowing international migrants to live and work in the UK, along with reaping the benefits of the NHS, could be beneficial for the UK economy.

A study by the UCL-Lancet commission released in 2018 exploring the mortality patterns of international migrants suggested that there is a reduced mortality rate among international migrants. Xenophobia-based articles in UK tabloids would like you to believe that migrants are a burden to our healthcare systems. Migrants actually had a lower frequency of death compared with the general populations of high-income countries. It is important to note that this study focused only on international migrants from high-income countries so this study is likely to be representative of international migrants who are studying, working, or have joined family members. Infectious disease relative mortality was higher in migrants for viral hepatitis, tuberculosis, and HIV. The increased rate of deaths from preventable diseases highlights the reluctance of migrants to seek medical care. The mortality advantage could also be attributed to the “salmon bias”, a phenomenon in which international migrants return to their country of origin upon the onset of poor health or close to death. This perhaps disputes the claim that the sole reason for migration to the UK is to seek free medical care.

The evidence presented is a direct contradiction to the three negative headlines quoted. It is widely believed that migrants travel to the UK with the sole purpose of claiming benefits yet countess regulations restrict them from accessing healthcare. Although nearly half of Britons believe that immigration has negatively affected the economy, only a tiny proportion of the NHS budget is attributed to migrants, and migrants themselves increase GDP directly just by living and working in the UK. If the government and general population can put their xenophobic biases aside, the outcome would be a wealthier and healthier Britain.

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