Socialist Worker

Cast aside and left to die by New Labour

Simon Assaf uncovers the shocking human cost of the government’s racist crackdown on "health tourists"

Issue No. 2091

Women too terrified to give birth in hospitals, sick people refused treatment and some of the poorest people abandoned to die from HIV/Aids.

This is the cruel treatment meted out by a government that is happy to sacrifice the lives of the most vulnerable people so as not to appear “soft on immigration”.

In 2004 New Labour passed a law that stripped rights to secondary health care from asylum seekers, migrants and undocumented immigrants – including treatment for HIV/Aids and problems associated with pregnancy.

Now Gordon Brown wants to strip migrants of primary care too – access to GPs, pharmacists, dentists and midwives.

Tens of thousands of people are unable to seek treatment. They face steep hospital bills, debt collectors and possible deportation if they fall ill.

The home office rules are putting medical staff under huge pressure. They are required by law to report to immigration authorities if they suspect they are treating undocumented migrants or failed asylum seekers.

Invoices

Many hospitals now employ “overseas visitors officers” whose job is to recover the cost of medical care by issuing patients with invoices.

The only exceptions are the emergency cases known as “immediately necessary” care. But hospitals are now attempting to charge migrants upfront for their treatment, hinting that if they do not pay up they will not get medical care.

Susan Wright works for Médicins du Monde, a French charity originally founded to treat people in the Global South. Now it has set up clinics across Europe in an attempt to help the tens of thousands of migrants who are denied medical care.

In 2006 it opened a clinic in the East End of London.

Susan told Socialist Worker, “We had a case last year where a woman saved up money to pay for a birth, only to be told during labour that they needed to perform a caesarian section.

“The woman was terrified by the prospect that she would have to find another £4,000. It is the last think she wanted to think about when in labour.

“These regulations are creating a climate of fear that stop people from seeking help when they become ill.

“If they are not treated now the potential damage down the line to their health, and the cost to the NHS, will be far greater.

“The government is breeding fear and confusion among the most vulnerable people. Many of the refugees are easily spooked, and many pregnant women fear getting into debt with the government.”

The number of people passing through Médicins du Monde’s London clinic has doubled this year, the charity says.

“Over 70 percent of the pregnant women coming to the clinic had tried to access primary care or antenatal services, but had experienced difficulties,” the charity reports. “At least 30 percent of pregnant women had not had access to HIV screening.”

According to the charity the “most deprived communities are those most in need of quality healthcare, but least likely to receive such care”.

The government claims it wants to deter so called “health tourists” from coming to Britain, following scare stories whipped up in the media. Yet it has never provided any facts to back up the claim that such “health tourism” exists.

“The idea that there are ‘health tourists’ flocking here for free treatment is false,” said Susan.

One of the biggest myths is that Africans are coming to Britain to get free treatment for HIV/Aids.

In fact research by Keele university shows only 3 percent of migrants from Africa with HIV/Aids knew about their infection before they emigrated. Most only discovered they had contracted the virus when they became ill.

Médicins du Monde warns that the government’s policies are posing a danger to public health.

Under New Labour’s rules they are denied lifesaving drugs. Pregnant women who have contracted the HIV virus that causes Aids will pass it on to their child if they are not treated.

In 2007 the government let slip the real reason behind withdrawing crucial medical services.

In a document entitled “Enforcing the rules”, the home office published a set of guidelines stating it is vital to withdraw treatment so as “to ensure that living illegally becomes ever more uncomfortable and constrained until they leave or are removed”.

“Many of the people we see are fleeing war, famine, civil conflict. Those from countries like Iraq are here as a direct consequence of the war,” says Susan. “We feel this government has a moral responsibility to these people.”


Case studies in official callousness

The asylum seeker

Mohammed Ahmedi fled Iraq in 2006. He settled in Britain, got married and has a five month old daughter.

One night he was set upon by a gang of racists. During his recovery he was diagnosed with a treatable heart condition.

Doctors at the Gloucester-shire Royal Infirmary wanted to start him on a six week treatment plan – but this was delayed as the home office refused to pay for treatment.

The hospital stopped the treatment. On 7 February, Mohammed Ahmedi died of heart failure.

The immigrant schoolgirl

Zarine Rentia is a year 11 schoolgirl at South Camden Community School, London.

She suffers from Fanconi-Bickel syndrome – a rare genetic disorder that causes renal and intestinal problems. The disorder can be treated.

Her school raised a petition to the home office demanding she be allowed to stay in Britain, but the government refused.

On 26 February, Zarine was forced to abandon her education, friends and treatment when her family gave up hope and left the country.

The migrant worker

One man came to the Médicins du Monde clinic in London suffering from leukaemia.

He could not pay the £6,000 demanded by the government as a downpayment for his treatment and was refused a drug that could have prevented his condition from deteriorating.

He became depressed and was admitted to hospital with mental health problems. These were deemed deserving of “immediate necessary care”, but he was refused help for the leukaemia that had brought the depression on in the first place.

One year later he was back in hospital, as his condition became so grave he could be classified as an emergency.

But it was too late. Eventually he was given a plane ticket so that he could go home to die.

The refugee mother

An Ethiopian refugee living in Manchester was presented with a £1,750 bill after giving birth to a child five months ago.

She was living on £35 a week food vouchers and had no way of paying. She is now worried about taking her child for a post natal check-up, fearing that she will be charged again and presented with the old hospital bill.

To read Médicins Du Monde’s report go to » www.medecinsdumonde.org.uk

If you know of any migrants who have been refused medical treatment, please contact the refugee charity Medact at » www.medact.org


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Tue 4 Mar 2008, 19:06 GMT
Issue No. 2091
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