Human Insecurity: Food Insecurity in the UK during COVID-19
This is the second blog in a series written by LLM students on the Human (In)Security course at Edinburgh Law School. The series celebrates the top five blogs selected in a class competition. This blog is by Leah Cowling. Leah did her undergraduate degree in Philosophy and Politics at Edinburgh before starting the LLM in Human Rights. She is currently working on a project to complete settled status applications for EEA nationals living in Scotland. You can follow Leah on Twitter @_leahcowling.
No One Should Go Hungry Because of Their Immigration Status: Food insecurity in the UK during COVID-19
It wasn’t long into the UK’s first lockdown that the promise of the COVID-19 pandemic as a great leveller began to ring hollow. It is now clear that the effects of the pandemic have been experienced asymmetrically across the globe – demonstrating that COVID-19 does discriminate, in that it exacerbates existing inequalities.
Described as the best vaccine against chaos, food takes on a central role in times of crisis. During this pandemic, food has been revealed to be the lynchpin upon which other rights depend. Footballer Marcus Rashford’s successful campaign to force government U-turns on the decision to halt free school meals highlighted one aspect of this interdependency; without nutritious food, children cannot exercise their right to education.
COVID-19 has also demonstrated that the distribution of food is microcosmic of larger structural, political, social and economic inequalities – as the wealthy stockpiled pasta, foodbank use skyrocketed, with the independent food bank charity IFAN reporting a staggering 88% increase in use.
While headlines were dominated by Rashford’s campaign to reinstate free school meals, the situation of food insecurity within migrant communities during COVID-19 often appeared to be an afterthought. Following the threat of a legal challenge, the free school meals policy was partially extended in April 2020 to some individuals without formal immigration status and subject to No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) conditions, on the grounds that ‘no child should go hungry because of the immigration status of their parents’. No doubt a welcome challenge, this statement stops short of the universal acknowledgment that no one should go hungry because of their immigration status.
Underreported is the experience of food insecurity by migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in the UK whose access to affordable, nutritious and culturally appropriate food has been threatened by the existence of the work ban and inadequate state support. For many, the closures of community centres, charities, churches and support groups due to lockdown restrictions represented the severing of a crucial lifeline. Reports from March 2020 suggested that approximately 1 million undocumented migrants were plunged into severe food insecurity, with many forced to access food banks.
Numerous volunteer-run, grassroots migrant support groups, such as the Unity Centre in Glasgow, responded to the increased need with deliveries of essential food and medicine. This support was given to all those in need, including to those isolating in cramped asylum accommodation with young children. This community-led response is emblematic of a larger problem, in which support from the third sector allows the government to evade accountability for failing to protect fundamental rights.
The legal basis of the right to food
The right to food is a clearly defined legal right, articulated in a number of international human rights instruments, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) – both of which the UK is a signatory to. The right to food obliges governments to enact laws which respect, protect and fulfil the right to food, to ensure that all people are able to feed themselves in dignity. Crucially, the right to food is universal, applying to all individuals within a state’s borders, regardless of immigration status, and without any form of discrimination.
In its 2016 report on the UK, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) which monitors the implementation of ICESCR, noted its concern about the lack of adequate measures ‘to address the increasing levels of food insecurity […] and the lack of adequate measures to reduce the reliance on food banks.’ Notably, while commenting on the inadequate protection of the right to health among migrant populations, the report fails to comment specifically on the food insecurity experienced by migrants. This omission reflects a trend in which the issue of food insecurity in migrant communities is overlooked.
Considering possible solutions
Clearly, increased foodbank capacity is not a solution to rising food insecurity amongst migrant populations. Foodbank use represents the tip of the food insecurity iceberg; a symptom of pervasive structural barriers to the ability to access food in dignity. As such, we should not confuse food charity with the right to food.
In recognition of this, foodbank charity Trussell Trust recommended a £20 uplift to Universal Credit payments, which is expected to be extended in the March 2021 budget. While the £20 uplift has reduced the reliance on foodbanks for many, this policy continues to exclude those who are unable to access Universal Credit on account of their immigration status.
A possible legal route is through incorporation of the right to food in UK law – advocated for by civil society groups, such as Sustain, Nourish Scotland and the Scottish Food Coalition. It is argued that explicit recognition of the right to food at the domestic level would help individuals articulate demands on the government, and create more legal avenues to challenge government policy.
Incorporation of the right to food in Scotland appears increasingly likely with its proposed Good Food Nation Bill. It is encouraging to see explicit recognition of those who were ‘already food insecure before the crisis hit, including many refugees and asylum seekers who have no recourse to public funds’, but the Bill must be supplemented with specific and detailed analysis of nutritional vulnerabilities experienced by migrants in Scotland.
An important step towards food security following the effects of COVID-19, the incorporation of the right to food in Scotland offers an opportunity to embed the right to food within in a broader rights-based framework.
However, full realisation of the right to food will require appreciation of the linkages between hostile environment policies and food insecurity, as well as the multiple layers of discrimination faced by migrants in the UK. This must include calls for the removal of the NRPF immigration condition, and for increased asylum support payments in line with Universal Credit.
An integrated, person-centred, rights-based approach to food security in a post COVID-19 landscape will require commitment to the uncontroversial statement that no one should go hungry because of their immigration status.