Once again, refugees’ rights are being battled through the courts. This time, it is about the entitlement of asylum seekers whose claims have been turned down to access free hospital care.
In 2004, the government introduced a charging regime forcing refused asylum seekers to pay up front for secondary care, that is, treatment you would receive in hospital. This covers everything from maternity care and giving birth, to treatment for ongoing illnesses such as kidney failure, and standard operations. Only emergency treatment is free.
Ongoing campaigning by the Refugee Council and others, including outraged doctors and nurses who are appalled that they are being prevented from treating sick people simply because they are unable to pay, has led to the rules being relaxed for pregnant women, although they are still billed for treatment afterwards. Naturally it is a bit of a waste of time – and money – to harass a new mum for £3000 when she is living on vouchers but the government continues to insist on it.
So like so many of these things, we took the battle to the courts. Sadly, yesterday the Court of Appeal overturned a ruling by the High Court that refused asylum seekers should in fact be classed as ‘ordinarily resident’ and therefore qualified for free treatment. However, they did say that the definition of urgent treatment should be widened to include people whose conditions would severely worsen if left untreated, and that in these cases it may be unlawful for a hospital to withhold treatment until a patient has paid up front.
We can take some small solace in the fact that the Appeal Court recognised the inhumanity of the extent of the regulations. But it is not enough. And it shouldn’t be a question for the courts at all. This is not a legal fight, this is a battle for basic humanity. The government has already acknowledged that there is no evidence asylum seekers come to the UK to access healthcare. They have produced no evidence that this initiative has saved any money for the NHS at all. Refused asylum seekers have nothing, so all this rule does essentially is deny sick people help to get better. Surely that can’t be right?