Welcome to the normal of an undocumented migrant – Joseph’s story

Published 17th June 2021

This Refugee Week, Doctors of the World are introducing the members of its National Health Advisors. This advisory group is made up of people with lived experience of migration and healthcare exclusion, with the aim of ensuring that migrants have a greater influence over healthcare policy and practice.     

Joseph is one of the DOTW National Health Advisors, and he wants to share his story with you. 
In March 2020, I had some severe symptoms of COVID-19. I was struggling to breathe so I phoned 111 and was told to go to A&E. When I arrived, I saw a big sign outside and inside the A&E saying that you need to pay your health surcharge if you are a migrant, or you should have the right to use the NHS.  

In my whole life I have never had breathing problems like I started to have that day. 

At the entrance there was a triage nurse, who made sure everyone was wearing a mask and she decided where all the patients went. Some went to the children’s ward, others went straight past the waiting reception area and were admitted right away, I was told to wait in the reception area of A&E. 

I was told to wait in an isolated area in the reception area of A&E, where only those suspected COVID-19 patients were waiting. After waiting a few hours in that isolation area where suspected COVID-19 patients wait, I was seen by the doctor, then held for observation for eight hours.  

No COVID-19 test was done because they were only for patients who were fully admitted with severe COVID-19 symptoms. Indeed, I did see others getting admitted because their breathing and coughing was much worse than mine. They were walking, but only just, I was more able to walk than them. 

After the doctor was satisfied that I was unlikely to get worse, I was given some tablets to take, and I quickly took them. The doctor told me what they were, but I have forgotten what they were. He also gave me some to take home with me, then he told me to present it to the reception.  

The reception then asked me for proof of whether I am entitled to NHS care. As an asylum seeker I had an Application Registration Card (ARC) and I presented it along with my HC2 certificate. 

On reflection, as far as I am concerned, the signs in the A&E and the attitude from the receptionist was clearly indicating that if you don’t have an immigration status, they likely have no business with you even if you are ill with COVID-19. 

The law might have been changed around COVID-19 testing and treatment being free, but the attitude and culture of some in the NHS has not changed. If I was undocumented, I could have turned back and maybe I wouldn’t be able to get the healthcare I needed.  

When I was undocumented, I was turned away from a GP practice more than twice when I tried to register whilst I was ill, because they asked for a passport and proof of residence. I was struggling physically and mentally. I put on a lot of weight, my back was killing me, and I had suicidal thoughts. I hadn’t had a check-up for a lot of years.  

When I was an asylum seeker, I was able to show my ARC to show that I am in the immigration system. Unfortunately, even with this card, the process of registering with a GP was not sympathetic and easy. The staff at the GP surgery almost didn’t know what an ARC was, they wanted to see my ARC, proof of address and they asked me a bunch of questions, which also made me feel like I was going through another immigration check.  

When the lockdown came, many people found it difficult, yet I was used to being in lockdown when being undocumented and when seeking asylum. I simply said, “Welcome to my normal. Welcome to the normal of an undocumented migrant or to the normal of an asylum seeker. You will not be the same at the end of it.” 

The COVID-19 symptoms lasted for some six months, and I have nearly completely recovered from them. 

Joseph – DOTW National Health Advisor 

If you want to find out more about the work of our National Health Advisors, please visit our teams page, and to support DOTW, you can visit our website. If you want to find out more about the DOTW clinic, you can here. 


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