Cats On The Run is a participatory project funded by Lankelly Chase Foundation, conceived and directed by Dr. Rhetta Moran, a founder and former Trustee of RAPAR, and produced by Sheba Arts in collaboration with Culture Bridge, Kanlungan Concercium, and SWAN. Working with 22 undocumented people from Greater Manchester including migrant workers, asylum seekers, and those who fell through the cracks because of Covid-19 and the lockdown, a team of seven artists, community workers, and creative helpers, supported the participants to create a piece of work and express themselves using creative tools. This essay sheds lights on the process of the project, and the socio-economic challenges these people are facing in the UK. It is adapted from a report by Dr Rhetta Moran.
'No project activity takes place in a vacuum. On the contrary, outside of this project but coincident with its timeframe (August 2020 – March 2021), socioeconomic, cultural, political and legal developments, framed as reactions to the emergence of Covid-19 related directly to this projects’ participants: migrant communities most marginalised by Covid-19.
The first lockdown began on 23rd March 2020. At this time, Minister Kevin Foster responded to a question about what measures had been taken to ensure those in the country would be able to seek medical help by asserting: “No one should fear accessing medical advice from our superb NHS due to an immigration reason.”
In some places, hotels housing asylum seekers during the coronavirus pandemic were attacked and a few weeks later, the Home Affairs Committee published its report on Home Office preparedness for COVID-19. This report highlighted many issues of concern relating to displaced people: the quality or levels of accommodation, personal allowances, safeguarding and risk assessments, impact on mental health, lack of provision of internet to enable people to access information, consult GPs etc, lack of provision of sanitising and other products and zero increase in allowances to enable people to buy these products themselves.
It was during this period that Boris Johnson was compelled to intervene in the case of Mercy Baguma, who had lost her Leave to Remain status (visa) and job. She was found dead in a flat in Glasgow next to her one-year-old son. In that case, very widely reported, the asylum application had been pending for the child’s father who, following the mother’s death, was now the boy’s sole carer. A week later, the Home Office ‘work’ that directly interfered in the lives of hundreds of thousands of displaced people, including children in families, was condemned by the Public Accounts Committee.They revealed a myriad of humanity-denying actions authorised through Home Office powers and leaving major question marks over a multitude of migration related decisions.
During the course of our third month, alongside other long established migrant and human organisations, we became involved in vigils commemorating lives destroyed by the hostile environment. The government mooted the idea of putting floating barriers in the English Channel to stop asylum seekers crossing to the UK, and using nets to stop dinghies. Widely reported, these announcements induced panic and fear throughout our migrant populations and the participants in this project. It stimulated extensive discussions about the impact of such announcements on the mental health and well-being of our communities in general and in particular the most vulnerable: undocumented people. Reports of the Home Office attempts to hire a private risk management company to provide a rapid review of initial accommodation for single adult asylum seekers - effectively outsourcing the monitoring of compliance with public health guidelines to prevent the transmission of Covid 19 for people housed in the asylum system - contributed further to the overall impression that, as far as the government is concerned, migrant people without status in the UK can be exempted from the public health standards that should apply to all.
By November 2020, organisations who had been working with us to secure the involvement of some of their undocumented contacts and through Status Now For All Campaing, spoke against the government intention to allow their private contractor SERCO to resume evictions into destitution during lockdown. At the same time, evidence was emerging of the alarming rise in backlog of asylum cases, even though the numbers of applications had been falling. For those who are undocumented, the knowledge that people were now waiting for over six months for an initial response to their applications to become regularised through the asylum system told them that, even when able to submit an application they may still be waiting for a further and extensive period before experiencing any real shift in their material circumstances or sense of safety.
From December onwards, moving into the second half of the project’s timeframe, the media began to become dominated by the question of the imminent availability of vaccines against COVID. However, for undocumented people, the multiplicity of barriers to their access remained. Countless people have been turned away from their GP surgeries when they tried to register, being told they needed proof of ID, of status, of address, or “we don’t deal with illegal immigrants”.
In early February Privacy International’s new report revealed the extent to which Britain is turning into a migration surveillance regime and, specifically, revealed that the current British Government is in the process of developing a ‘Status Checking’ Project which could result in any person on British soil being able to be assessed, presumably at the touch of a screen, for their status. This raised the fear that if people approached health systems for vaccination they might become detected for removal or deportation. Out of this realisation, an Early Day Motion #1442 was created through which, for the first time in British history and in direct response to the challenges posed by Covid, British Members of Parliament formalised a call for Indefinite Leave to Remain for all those undocumented and in legal process.
Later in this penultimate project month, news reached our participants of the Government’s intention to remove Osime Brown, a 22 year old man with learning disabilities and a PTSD diagnosis, to Jamaica. This was followed closely by the revelation that a new network of immigration detention centres for women was being quietly planned by the Home Office. contrary to previous pledges to reform the system and reduce the number of vulnerable people held.
Finally, as the last month of our project closed, the Government announcement of its intention to conduct “the biggest overhaul of the UK’s asylum system in decades” was met with widespread derision, summed up as: “based on false premises - particularly the actual availability of legal routes – and tears apart the principle of the right to claim asylum.”