Government policy of using the NHS to perform immigration checks is stopping people at risk of mental health crises from seeking support through GP surgeries before they reach the point of needing emergency care, an international humanitarian organisation has said.

“Clinicians are telling us that the administrative side of visiting a GP surgery is terrifying people without documents.”

Persecution of the ‘Windrush Generation’ has led to evidence emerging this month of scores of British citizens of Caribbean heritage being not only refused medical treatment but in some cases incarcerated in deportation detention centres. It follows the roll out of tougher immigration policies and the failure of past governments to provide children of parents from the Commonwealth with paperwork demonstrating right to remain.

Alarming stories have returned to focus the immigration policies shaped by Prime Minister Theresa May when she was Home Secretary in David Cameron’s cabinet. The policies are coming into practice now.

You can take the politician out of the Home Office, but can you take the Home Office out of the politician?

Two of the policies Theresa May crafted are attracting increasing scrutiny: 1) GP surgeries being permitted to ask patients to prove their eligibility for NHS treatment. 2) A data sharing agreement between the Home Office – which is responsible for managing migration – and NHS Digital, the department of the NHS that decides what sensitive data needs to be safeguarded and what can be shared.

Immigration officials at the Home Office have requested addresses and other data attached to over 1,000 NHS patients this year.

“Clinicians are telling us that the administrative side of visiting a GP surgery is terrifying people without documents”, Ella Abraham of Doctors of the World told Mental Health Today.

“There’s been a memorandum of understanding in place between the Home Office and NHS Digital to share data since January 2017 but awareness has raised this year and it’s stopping people from going to see a doctor when they need to.”

Doctors of the World is an organisation comprised of volunteer doctors and other medical professionals that provides a safe environment for undocumented migrants to receive treatment.

Abraham says that trust in doctors has now dropped so low that patients have become nervous even of approaching her organisation, a group which is leading campaign efforts for the data sharing agreement to end.

As many as 50,000 British citizens of Commonwealth heritage are estimated to be affected by successive governments’ inability to provide right to remain paperwork.

Doctors of the World supports people from Britain, the Commonwealth and all over the world.

“When people without paperwork do get to see a doctor their experience with the doctor is good, but when frontline staff insist on needing address details in order to register it creates a lot of fear,” adds Abraham.

Doctors of the World stress this is not a legal requirement and the organisation is involved in educating both GP surgeries and the wider public to this end.

Putting off problems

Fear of deportation means patients without documents typically take six years longer than those with documents to present to a GP when they need medical support.

“People with depression or anxiety are likely to present with far more complex symptoms when they finally do see a doctor, compared to others who might have milder concerns when they first see their GP,” Abraham says.

Ironically, the issue has come to head at a time when the Prime Minister has professed interest in understanding why black patients are less likely to seek out preventative mental health services but more likely to be hospitalised for their mental health.

Theresa May appointed a committee to explore the disparities in mental health outcomes for different ethnicities and it is due to provide an interim report with its initial findings and recommendations next week.

The Prime Minister apologised to Caribbean leaders earlier today for ‘anxiety’ caused by the immigration clampdown. It was a fitting choice of words. The folly of involving health services in immigration work and its impact on mental health should not be underestimated.

To read more about Doctors of the World's #stopsharing campaign or sign their petition to end of the data sharing deal between the Home Office and NHS Digital, visit the webpage

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