Back home, in Nigeria, I would get slapped on the cheek by my Dad if I was found lying sick in bed, waiting to be discovered ill. ‘Do not wait for me! Get yourself to the hospital,” he would say. Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t like the hospital was round the corner. Feeling sick to the stomach, often suffering from type 4 malaria, and with unendurable high body temperature, I’d walk a mile under the sun.
Six years on, in the UK, I am still reeling from a level of culture shock when it comes to attitudes to healthcare here. Many migrants, like myself, who came to the Britain making social and economic contributions through education or employment, came without giving a moment’s thought to a ‘handout’ from the government, contrary to what many of the newspapers purport. But when an unpredictable turn of events afflicts you with a chronic illness, and you turn to social services for a safety net by applying for a visa extension on medical grounds, sadly the government – misleadingly – defines this as ‘health tourism.’
Health ‘tourism’ it is not. We migrants are already in the country, having overcome numerous financial, social and bureaucratic hurdles, and have been making a vibrant economic contribution to the governmental purse.
Despite suffering from a chronic liver condition brought on by Hepatitis B, I am currently facing the prospect of deportation from the UK. I am unable to get the monitoring and treatment in Nigeria that I need to stay alive. Yet I was told I am not allowed to stay in the UK to access this treatment unless I can extend my visa. My battle to stay in the UK on medical grounds, in other words, is a fight to stay alive. I believe it is barbaric to send me to my death.
Section 21 of the National Assistance Act of 1948, compels the state to intervene in the life of a migrant if it deems that the human rights needs of that migrant are in jeopardy, and obliges them to protect the dignity of the migrant, especially if a ‘no recourse to public funds’ clause is present on his or her visa, or if the person is at high risk of suffering from mental illness. However, it assumes a rather one-dimensional cause of poor mental health, implying it is instigated by internal factors, such as a chemical imbalance in the brain.
I have been following the cases of others who have fought for a right to health care.
There are women such as Ama Sumani, a Ghanaian widow living in the UK, who judicially battled for the right to life, to stay alive for her children, but her case was dismissed by the Home Office simply because she had not updated her contact information after moving.
Ama was deported whilst undergoing treatment for terminal cancer at the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff, and died just three months later in Ghana. The medical journal the Lancet described her removal from hospital by immigration officials as “atrocious barbarism”.
There are too many other cases similar to mine, such as Roseline Akhalu, a kidney transplant patient, whose battle to remain in the UK is subject to an on-going judicial review.
There are many people out there with chronic health conditions who are in similar legal situations, but they are not as brave as Roseline Akhalu, because they are intimidated by the notion that telling their stories will make their case worse.
I find it very dehumanising and humiliating that I have to justify and defend my existence as an equal human being. I have to fight for my right to life, by discussing that my two brothers have died from the same chronic liver condition, just to highlight how serious the situation is.
Denying healthcare is a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In my view, all things being equal, behind every financial obligation bestowed upon political subjects in a given geographical location to pay taxes and follow laws, there must be a corresponding human rights responsibility, fulfilled by statutory government action towards those political subjects.
The UK Border Agency must review its rules for FLR (O) (Further Leave to Remain) applications made on medical grounds, which set an abstract, high threshold, particularly for vulnerable migrants who have a medical condition. Basic support is needed to protect the decency and dignity of those same people who have contributed socially and economically to their local communities.