Speaking for Ourselves

Kris Harris’ Story

Kris Harris’ Story

Michelle Fuller

 Migrant Voice -
 Migrant Voice - Kris Harris’ Story

When Kris Harris lived in Norway she was a migrant but didn’t feel like one: when she moved back to Britain she was technically at home but she felt like a migrant.

The daughter of a British father and Norwegian mother, Kris was born in London in 1976 and moved to Norway the following year.  She visited England every summer and eventually returned to settle in 1997 to attend university and “live in the big city.”

“I am basically a migrant in my own country,” she says, and though she has lived here for 20 years she is worried by the hostility to migrants which has gotten worse because of arguments about Brexit.

Kris’s interest in attitudes to migrants began when she was studying for her PhD at the University of London.  During which time, she became aware of struggles people face in the UK when trying to access health care. This motivated her to volunteer with ‘Doctors of the World’ an organisation which among other things run a clinic in London supporting the many people struggling to access health care.

It was an eye-opening experience, “After a few days in the clinic it became apparent how big the problem was,” she recalls, “I was happily studying, living, going about my life: I didn’t know there was any issue at all – I just thought that anyone can go to the doctor.” 

She observed the biggest difference between Norway and the UK is inequality. In Norway the welfare system goes some way toward evening out the differences and people are better cared for. 

During her work with Doctors of the World, Kris noticed that many of the people who struggle to access health care are migrants experiencing immigration difficulties. 

She says, “Everyone [including people experiencing immigration difficulties] is entitled to free access to the GP but there are complicated rules about who can and can’t access free secondary care.” 

“It is so fundamental that if you have a pain you should be able to go to the Doctor,” she adds, “if you can’t go to the doctor what the hell do you do?  The worry and the anxiety that people have when they can’t go to see a doctor is shocking in our society.”

Kris now works for Medical Justice as a research and policy worker taking on casework for people held in immigration detention centres. The organisation send independent doctors into detention centres to document evidence of torture and to help individuals access health care to which they are entitled, but don’t always get in detention centres.  

Kris’s role is to collate the findings from case work and work this into detailed research reports and policy papers which Medical Justice present to the Home Office – pushing for change within the immigration detention health system, the Home Office and the government.  

“The more I learnt about the asylum system [and] about what the Home Office is doing and what we are doing to people… I thought this can’t be true – this must be historic, it must be another country…. the use and scale of detention [is shocking],” she says.

Every year 30,000 people are locked up without trial in UK immigration detention centres, though they have not committed a crime. The UK has no time limit on detention, so those detained only know it is indefinite.  Some are locked away for years. The longest incarceration Kris has heard of is nine years. 

“There are very high levels of mental health issues in immigration detention centres and all the research shows detention is very damaging to people’s mental health” she emphasises.

People in detention often tell her, “I came to the UK because the country had a great human rights record and after fleeing prosecution when I arrived here they locked me up indefinitely with no charge. I haven’t committed any crime I just came here to find protection…I don’t know how long I am going to be here [in detention] if they lock me up in prison then at least I would have a sentence”

When Kris isn’t working her time is spent at kids’ discos and playgrounds with her family. She is married to a Swede, Anja, and before the birth of their son, Luka, they would open their home to destitute migrants through a charity which helps support such arrangements. Her interest in ‘Hosting’ as the practice is known, was sparked when she was working with Doctors of the World and realised that for many people housing was an even tougher problem to crack than healthcare: “This is me doing what little I can do on a personal level.” They hope to be able to host again in the near future.

Controversy over migrants has prompted Kris to think about her own situation, as someone born in Britain but who moved away when she was one year old: “The other day Anja asked me, ‘why do you always speak in English to Luka on the train and Norwegian to him everywhere else?’ I realised it might be some kind of self-protective mechanism where I don’t what to show off my foreignness.”

Kris argues that the UK needs to create situations in which migration is seen as something positive for everyone because migration is tied up in global inequalities and a colonial legacy which cannot be denied. People talk about migrants coming here and using our health service, she says, “but that health system was built with the money we raided [from] ‘their’ countries on the back of colonialism.  On the back of that history we created the welfare state, run largely on migrant labour – so migrants paid for and built it.”

She feels that the ‘hostile environment’ announced by the government is done with the belief it’s what people want to hear, but underneath all that it’s often about something else: “When you talk to people about what their problems are when they can’t get an appointment with the GP [for example].  Is that really about migrants or is that about the chronic underfunding of the NHS?  It’s just easier to blame migrants. If there are not enough spaces in schools…that’s not the migrants or the migrant’s children’s fault… [its] because we haven’t been putting the money into the education system.”

The 41-year-old says she would like her son to be part of a fairer world in which migrants are seen as an asset “where diversity is not a dirty word and multiculturalism is celebrated and not feared, with more grassroots involvement, strong labour rights, environmental responsibility and no detention.” 

Helpful links and information:

Medical Justice Research:

Doctors of the World: 

HOSTING  (Kris & Anja interviewed by the Independent):

The Guardian (article on immigration detention):