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Brexit has left ‘bad migrants’ in the dust

A man walks past a sign created in support of the NHS during the pandemic. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA

When Brexit redefined the UK’s place in the world, migrants were left out in the cold. But, disabled migrants fell through the cracks entirely. 

“Can you spell your last name?” they ask.

I’m used to it by now. In France, it’s an easy question: I just answer “Castres, like the city.” But there’s no Castres here in England, so that would be confusing. Instead, I spell my last name, letter by letter.

“Castes?” they usually inquire.

“No,” I reply. “Castres. With an ‘r’. Like ‘referendum’.”

The Brexit referendum was five years ago. I was in London when it happened, waking up to a torn country waving two different flags. But I was just a tourist back then.

Two months after the referendum I wasn’t anymore; I was moving to the UK for good. I was leaving Brussels, the capital of Europe, right after British people had voted to leave the EU.

I have to spell my last name on many occasions. Most of them are during medical calls, and I have a lot of those. This makes me a bad migrant.

The good migrant is the one often portrayed in newspaper articles. They have a job and don’t need the NHS. Productive and not sick.

You see a lot of EU migrants using that narrative, particularly recently with the reporting of EU citizens being handcuffed at airports, made to sleep in parked vans, or prevented from accessing medication. “Can you believe this is happening to me? I work, pay my taxes, and I barely ever use the NHS,” claimed the EU migrants who had been detained. My heart sank.

I’m not that kind of migrant. I’m a disabled migrant. A migrant with a multisystemic condition who requires constant medical support. A migrant who needs pacing and flexibility at work. I’m the type of migrant you rarely hear about; the one that doesn’t only give, but also has needs. The one who can easily be told to “go back to your country”.

If you’re a migrant the expectations placed on you will be high; you’ll constantly have to prove your worth. Your right to stay will be scrutinised. Your right to healthcare might hang in the balance. Basic human rights might be taken away from you at any time. It’s all the more frightening when you’re disabled. Constantly asked to prove they aren’t useless, disabled people’s right to exist is challenged on a daily basis.

For instance, a government website about migration and health currently says “the NHS operates a residence-based healthcare system. Most NHS services are free to people who are ordinarily resident in the UK. This means living in the UK on a lawful and properly settled basis for the time being. You may be asked to prove this when seeking healthcare.” As someone who has experienced medical gaslighting, going to the doctor can be a stressful experience. But, having to prove that I have a right to healthcare when seeking it is another layer. No one should have to prove their immigration status in the middle of receiving healthcare. 

All of this is decided by politicians you have zero influence on, as you can’t vote in general elections.

The best protection for disabled migrants? Get citizenship. But it’s not an easy process. One of the key criteria to get citizenship is to have lawfully lived in the UK for five years. For it to be legal, migrants had to work for five continuous years. If they didn’t, they had to pay for private health insurance. But, disabled people are almost twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people, and many of us had to turn to self employment because accommodations were refused. 

As for private health insurance, many EU migrants weren’t aware that it was a requirement, and discovered this when their citizenship application was rejected. But even if they were, imagine having to pay for private healthcare when you’re disabled. Disabled people are some of the poorest people on Earth – it is estimated that 20% of the poorest people have a disability.

Some disabled people might also need to request an exemption from the knowledge of language and the ‘Life in the UK Test’ requirement because of a long term physical or mental condition. I’m not even going to talk about the cost here – which is a big barrier – but looking at the questionnaire, it is quite worrying to see the types of questions healthcare professionals would have to answer concerning their patients’ health. 

This is one of them: “In your opinion is this condition likely to improve sufficiently for them to be able to study and take the required tests? If so, is this likely to do so within the next 2 years?”. Do doctors have the powers to predict the future and how “likely” their patients are supposed to improve in two years time? If they do, I’d love to discuss my future life plan. Seriously speaking, such harm can be done here. Many disabled people have experienced being told by their doctor their symptoms were psychosomatic. The first GP I saw when I moved to London told me to “just get on with my life” when I described my chronic pain issues. 

When I lost one of my jobs after experiencing discrimination and bullying, I was the picture of the bad migrant. I was in the process of getting my diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, and had multiple health appointments.

Meanwhile I lived on the little savings I had from my previous job. Without a wealthy family to support me, I had to act fast. I had to find a job, or I could be asked to leave. Every bit of energy I had was spent finding another job. I eventually did, but my struggles with work didn’t stop there.

How many of us have to stop working? How many of us have five years of continuous employment? How many of us can afford private health insurance?

Anyone can become disabled at any point in their life, but disabled people are treated like a subspecies. We immediately become unattractive residents and human beings. We’ve lost our worth.

Disability benefit systems are another beast. It’s already hard to manoeuvre when you’re a British citizen. But what if English isn’t your first language and you have a disability? I learned English at school, but no one in my family speaks English. When I’m extremely tired, I can struggle to communicate, and sometimes find it easier to switch to French. That’s not an option during an assessment. So many disabled people have been misquoted during their Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment. Imagine what it’s like when English isn’t your first language, and you can easily be gaslighted.

I wanted to move to London because I fell in love with its culture several years ago, then I fell in love with a Brit. However, I’m also a health migrant. All my doctors agreed that I’d have probably never been diagnosed if I had stayed in my little hometown in the south of France. If I’m ever forced to leave, I’ll not only lose my identity and the life I’ve built here, but also my healthcare support.

As Brexit has redefined the UK’s place in the world, it has also suffocated its migrants and disabled migrants are too easily forgotten within those conversations. We’re deemed inferior, both as migrants and as people because accepted migration is above all a capitalistic operation designed to attract the most productive people. Forgetting disability can happen.

My life and value shouldn’t be based on my disability and my nationality. I should never be made to feel like a bad migrant. We need to look at how we not only protect migrants in a hostile environment, but also how we support the most marginalised amongst them. That includes us disabled migrants.

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