Last month, a 44-year-old woman at one of our London clinics burst into tears. The Filipino patient was terrified that, if she registered with a doctor, her personal data would be passed on to immigration authorities.

This was far from a one-off. At our UK clinics, we regularly see seriously ill people who are too scared to see a doctor even though they have a legal right to do so. 

The UK government has for many years sent information requests to the NHS when trying to track down undocumented migrants, and on 24 January it disclosed that these requests had been extended to ask for a patient's home address and GP details. On 1 February a former head of NHS Digital, the body that stores patient data, spoke out about being pressured by the government to share patient information. 

Doctors of the World strongly condemns the government using the NHS as an anti-immigration tool. This exploits the confidential relationship between a doctor and their patient. It also leads to extremely vulnerable people, such as pregnant women, parents with young children, and sufferers of serious illnesses, being too afraid to see a doctor.

"We totally oppose the Home Office using the NHS as part of its witch-hunt for undocumented migrants," says Leigh Daynes, executive director of Doctors of the World UK. "Doctors are not border guards - healthcare and immigration are totally separate matters." 

Most doctors do not want to play any role in immigration enforcement. They simply want to treat people in need, regardless of their race, religion, nationality, or any other such factor.

“Patients see their GP as neutral and unconnected to the government - and this trust matters," says Peter Gough, an NHS GP who volunteers at one of our London clinics. "If patients don't open up to us, it's harder to diagnose their problems and treat them.”

Home Office requests for patient data have risen threefold since 2014 as Theresa May’s government has stepped up efforts to create a “hostile environment” for undocumented migrants, the Guardian reported this week. This push includes a pilot scheme currently underway at 20 NHS hospitals, whereby patients must show a passport to get treatment, the Independent reported last week.

We find these moves particularly shocking because everyone in the UK has the right to see a GP and use hospitals’ emergency departments for free, regardless of immigration status. When GPs spot and treat problems early, this saves patients distress and ill-health, stops diseases from spreading, and saves the NHS money further down the line. Anything that deters people from seeing a doctor carries health risks for all of us.

In the UK, the majority of Doctors of the World's patients are undocumented migrants, who have lived in the UK for six years on average before seeking a doctor’s help. A fifth of our patients have said they are afraid to see a doctor for fear of arrest.

“Many of the people we see at our clinic are desperate and frightened - we often see victims of trafficking and torture," says Dr. Gough. "The threat of making their details known to the Home Office will deter many vulnerable people from going to the GP, even though they have every right to go. Many might instead simply disappear.”

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This blog was originally published on 25 January 2017 and updated on 1 February 2017.