Call to end migrant hunt through health data

Safya Khan-Ruf - 21 04 17

A campaign has been launched against the government’s use of NHS patient files to track down undocumented migrants.

Doctors of the World, a charity which provides medical care and support for excluded people such as undocumented migrants and sex workers, called for the practice of sharing patient details between NHS Digital, which stores patient data, and the Home Office, to end.

The deal between the UK government and NHS Digital, revealed in January, allows the Home Office easier access to patients’ non-clinical details in order to track, arrest and deport undocumented migrants.

“The deal makes vulnerable patients scared of getting healthcare… Patient confidentiality is essential for NHS staff to be able to do their job. Concerns raised by medical organisations have been ignored and the agreement was made in secret,” the campaign states, after launching on 20 April.

Courtesy of Jfcherry/Flickr

Working with the human rights charity Liberty and the National Aids Trust, Doctors of the World launched a petition to end the data sharing. It also produced a toolkit detailing practical methods doctors can use to provide confidentiality, keep patients’ addresses off the NHS records and circumvent the data sharing deal.

Home Office requests to NHS Digital have tripled since 2014 according to figures released earlier this year. More than 8000 requests for data were made in the first 11 months of 2016 alone, which led to nearly 6000 people being traced by immigration teams according to the Department of Public Health.

Anna Miller, policy officer at Doctors of the World, says the deal means they can’t reassure patients that a health check won’t lead to immigration enforcement and many leave without accessing much needed care. “Most GPs have no idea that it’s happening at all, that they enter the patients data and that it can be accessed,” she said.

Doctor at the GP office. Courtesy of World Bank/Flickr

Miller described how one woman in the late stages of her pregnancy refused to go to any antenatal care appointments because she was undocumented and was afraid of becoming known to the Home Office. “We’re not at all in a position to offer the level of care needed for a heavily pregnant lady going into a potentially high risk birth.”

Miriam Beeks, a GP in east London, told The Guardian she’s put up posters telling patients they can register as “no fixed abode”. “Doctors, in general, hate the idea that they are being used as immigration officers. Doctors should feel confident about standing against this. We are backed up by both NHS and GMC [General Medical Council] confidentiality rules – our interactions with our patients are confidential,” she said.

The National Union of Teachers has also criticised the Department for Education’s recent requirement that schools needed to record students’ nationality and birth countries which could then be supplied to the Home Office. Accessing this data is part of a wider strategy by Theresa May to create a “hostile environment” for unauthorised immigrants in the UK.


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