Hidden poverty in a ‘hostile environment’

by Fred Searle

(Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)


Why are destitute migrants being cut off from support?

British immigration policies are leaving thousands of migrant children destitute. And many of them are British. Cash-strapped local authorities are struggling to support them, and an under-funded voluntary sector is left to pick up the pieces.

“If no one’s broken into tears in front of me by Monday lunchtime it’s not going to be too bad a week – but that seldom happens.”

Dave Stamp, whose organisation provides advice and legal representation to asylum seekers and other undocumented migrants, battles every day with the stress, misery and “grinding poverty” he feels the Home Office has brought.

It is his view that the government’s immigration policies are creating a new and growing underclass. By making it increasingly difficult for undocumented migrants to access accommodation, employment or any kind of financial assistance, families are being forced so far off the radar that estimating actual numbers is difficult. And these figures include children: many of whom are British citizens or will soon become so if naturalised. 

“Successive governments have been trying to starve people out of the UK,” says Stamp, who is a project manager at the Asylum Support and Immigration Resource Team (ASIRT) in Birmingham. “It hasn’t worked; it doesn’t work and there’s no evidence that it will ever work,” he says.

Visa overstayer Samuel is a case in point. The father of four has been through a lot since he arrived in the UK from Nigeria in 2004. “My missus passed away in 2005; I had three refusals [for leave to remain] from the Home Office; and my house burned down in the Tottenham riots in 2011. It’s been a real struggle,” he says.

But Samuel has always been adamant that he and his family will stay. “I love London,” he says. “The sky is the limit here – especially compared to where I come from.”

Faced with the prospect of unemployment and poverty in their countries of origin, many of these migrants will do whatever it takes to remain in Britain. Most are here to stay and the Home Office’s attempts to push undocumented migrants to leave have, instead, driven families further underground and pushed them into ever-greater destitution.

A hostile environment for everyone

There is a real danger that in creating this hostile environment, the government will create resentment and anger among migrants and their children, warns Stamp. And this will not just affect them, but everyone in society.

“You can’t create a hostile environment for just one group of people,” he says. “An environment, by definition, is something that we all live in, so the meaner, nastier and more petty it becomes, so we all feel the consequences.”

There are an estimated 1.1 million migrants without status in the UK, and many have been in the country for over ten years, often living in cramped, squalid conditions with young children. Unlike refugees and asylum seekers with a pending claim, undocumented migrants – who include visa overstayers, refused asylum seekers and, more generally, people who have entered the UK in an illegal way – have no legal right to stay in the country – unless their circumstances change and they can mount a successful immigration claim.

Stamp believes we face a scandal of hidden destitution. “These migrants are cut off from public funds; they live well below the poverty line; they are destitute,” he says. Often this means they have no home and, since they cannot work legally, no income. Instead they must rely on friends and family for support.

“You can’t create a hostile environment for just one group. The meaner and nastier it becomes so we all feel the consequences”

With little political will to help families without immigration status, their plight goes largely unnoticed. When pictures of a drowned asylum-seeking child on the Greek island of Kos hit front pages in September 2015 there was a groundswell of sympathy towards refugees – particularly Syrians – among the general public.  For a time this cut through some of the anti-immigration rhetoric.

But, compared to other categories of immigrants, undocumented migrants (“illegal immigrants”) are at the bottom of the sympathy scale. They are widely seen as “undeserving people trying to get things they shouldn’t have,” Stamp says.

Invisible suffering

Since undocumented migrants are living outside the system, and have no access to benefits or tax credits – known as having ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) – the best way of attempting to estimate the number of families and children in this situation is by calculating how many receive support from social services.

Under section 17 of the Children Act 1989, local authorities have a duty to provide a safety net for these families – so long as they have children under the age of 18 and, crucially, can prove themselves to be destitute. Assistance, which is given in the form of accommodation and/or financial support – typically £20 to £35 per week per family member – is designed to protect those children from poverty. Unlike central government benefits, it is available to families regardless of their immigration status.

The University of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society calculated that in 2012/13 there were 5,900 children across almost 3,400 NRPF families accessing section 17 support. But in terms of the total number of destitute migrant children, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The figure does not include those unable to get support from their local authority – six in ten families that applied in 2015 were turned away, according to the Children’s Society. And since undocumented families are also cut off from welfare benefits delivered by central government, many are never counted.

Families ‘pushed out of the system’

For several years the Home Office has been ratcheting up its attempts to drive undocumented migrants out of the country. When the Home Office first published its flagship Immigration Bill in October 2013 former Home Secretary Theresa May’s stated aim was to “create a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants” – with a policy of first driving out those already in the UK, and then discouraging others from coming.

Among other things, the Bill, which came into force in 2014, included provisions to make it easier to remove undocumented migrants, and to “prevent illegal immigrants accessing and abusing public services or the labour market. ” This was to be achieved through new policies like compulsory checks by private landlords on tenants’ immigration status and charges for migrants to access NHS healthcare.

“They are seen as undeserving people trying to get things that they shouldn’t have”

The Immigration Act 2016, which was implemented in July, went several steps further by making it a criminal offence to either employ or knowingly rent accommodation to an irregular migrant. The Act also introduced a so-called ‘deport first, appeal later’ scheme, which allows migrants that have made a human rights or asylum claim to be deported to their country of origin before a decision has been reached on an appeal against their removal.

Crucially, in July 2012, prior to either of these two Acts, the government also introduced a ‘no recourse to public funds (NRPF) condition’ for migrants granted ‘limited leave to remain’. This is a probation period during which you have the right to live and work in the UK, but are excluded from benefits and tax credits. Since a large proportion of those affected are single mothers with young children, it can be incredibly difficult to scrape by – particularly in London where the largest proportion of undocumented migrants live.

Faced with stringent budget cuts, local government – the safety net – is finding it harder and harder to catch those that fall.

Dr Reima Ana Maglajlic, who sits on the steering committee of campaign group the Social Work Action Network and is a senior lecturer in social work at the University of Sussex, reports that councils’ social workers are encouraged to work less and less with NRPF families i.e. those cut off from benefits. Meanwhile, budgets for this work are being “cut to the bone,” she says.

As a result, destitute migrant families are increasingly being “pushed out of the system.” And more and more, responsibility to support them is being left to the voluntary sector.

Single mothers hit hardest

Those who suffer most from this destitution are vulnerable young mothers. In 2012/13 89 per cent of NRPF families receiving social services support under the Children Act were single-parent households, the vast majority of which were headed by mothers. One of them is Angela, who came to London from Ghana in 2014 to be with a man, Emmanuel, whom she met on a previous visit.

Two months after her arrival Angela became pregnant and the couple’s relationship turned sour. Emmanuel stopped supporting Angela and told her to move out of his flat. “I felt deceived and let down,” she says. “I was left homeless and I had no money.”

“These women have very few options in life. They stay in abusive relationships having sex with men they don’t love”

Nine months later Angela found herself sleeping on a mattress in a friend’s corridor with her baby daughter Ruth. Eventually the cramped living situation became too difficult for her friend who asked the pair to move on, leaving them on the brink of homelessness.

Stamp says: ”These women end up in situations where they have very few options in life other than to stay in abusive relationships having sex with men they don’t love and would rather not be having sex with.

“Frequently, once a kid turns up, the guy doesn’t want to know any more. That’s the end of the relationship and they’re turfed out.”

Surviving outside the system

Angela ended up destitute within less than a year of arriving in Britain, and was referred to social services for support a few months later, but others survive off the radar of the authorities for much longer before coming forward for support.

Esther came to London from Nigeria fourteen years ago. As a visa overstayer, she is banned from working and cannot claim benefits.  Her Nigerian partner is in the same position. The pair, and their three children – one of whom has severe autism – share a single room in a friend’s house in the capital.

“It’s so difficult,” she says. “My son with autism can’t sleep on his own. He has to sleep with me. And he’s so rough. Sometimes he gets up in the night and starts screaming and shouting.”


Up until last year Esther somehow managed to make ends meet for her thee-, five- and ten-year-old children. For ten years she lived in her aunt’s spare room and worked in a care home under false documents. “That’s how we were able to survive,” she explains.

But in the space of just five months, Esther’s already precarious existence came crashing down. In October 2015, immigration enforcement officers forced her to stop working and in March this year her aunt asked her to leave her house to make way for her own son.

“Last October my mother died in Nigeria and that same month these people came and stopped my work,” she sobs, pointing at the Home office logo on a letter in front of her. “I was walking down the street when two men [enforcement officers] started calling after me,” she recalls with fear in her eyes. Four other officers then appeared and Esther was taken in for questioning. They told her to go back to where she came from, she claims.

The Home Office didn’t deport Esther and, after seeking help, she and her family were referred to her local council for support under section 17 of the Children Act. After a dubious initial refusal from the council, Esther and her partner are now appealing the decision.

As a Nigerian and an overstayer she is typical of many others in her predicament. According to the University of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, just over half of the families supported under section 17 are either Nigerian or Jamaican, and 63 per cent are overstayers.

Proving destitution

In the eyes of the government, Esther – and other undocumented migrants like her – have no right to stay in the UK. Esther has had two applications for leave to remain rejected by the Home Office, which in the past has offered her £10,000 to return to Nigeria. Fortunately for Esther, her 10-year-old daughter was recently granted British citizenship, which will strengthen her latest claim.

Regardless of immigration status, destitute children like Esther’s have a right to support from their local authority under the Children Act. So long as a family can prove itself to be destitute, this should be beyond question. But after a series of local government cuts and, in many areas, a shortage of housing, local authorities simply do not have the resources.

If a section 17 referral is accepted, a rigorous 45-day assessment is carried out, involving interviews with parents, children, schools and health professionals to establish whether a family’s child, or children, are ‘in need’. The focus, in theory at least, is on establishing whether or not the children are destitute. The test most commonly used is whether the family has no adequate accommodation or is unable to meet basic living needs.

Proving destitution is difficult and the onus is on the applicant to prove they really need the accommodation and/or financial support.  This involves bank statements (if they have an account), debt letters, proof they have no accommodation, and evidence that all previous sources of income and support have dried up.

Judith Lancet, who makes section 17 referrals on behalf of destitute families at Haringey Migrant Support Centre in North London explains that social services often find it easy to pick holes in an applicant’s financial records due to their precarious, often chaotic, existence before coming forward for assistance. Unfortunately, the pressure on social workers to reject evidence is great.

‘A culture of distrust’

Faced with severe cuts and, crucially, no reimbursement from the Home Office for supporting NRPF families under section 17, local authorities are unsurprisingly reluctant to offer support in many cases, other than as a last resort.

Dave Stamp from ASIRT in Birmingham reports that, increasingly, voluntary organisations must threaten a council with legal action before it will even agree to carry out an assessment. In one London borough just 29 per cent of section 17 referrals were assessed in the second half of 2014.

Social workers manage budgets, and their large caseloads, by gatekeeping – using tactics to deliberately reduce the number of families to whom social services must give support. “We frequently hear from our clients that they have been, clearly wrongly, turned away by social services,” says Abi Brunswick, director of Project 17, which helps families facing destitution in London to access social services support.

“People are threatened with having their children taken into care, or wrongly advised to go back to their country of origin – even if they have leave to remain in the UK.” Often families are also told to rely on friends and family to continue supporting them instead.

Stamp goes as far as to identify a “a culture of distrust” towards NRPF migrants, which he says results from a combination of managerial pressures on social workers not to provide support and an “all-pervasive” notion that the applicants are essentially economic migrants, trying to abuse the system.

Judith Lancet at Haringey Migrant Support Centre agrees. “Social workers’ starting point is that the person is being fraudulent and lying,” she says. “They can use very negative language.”

But gatekeeping practices like these are not borne out of a desire to be unhelpful, stresses Durani Rapozo, a voluntary sector social worker at Asylum Link Merseyside in Liverpool who specialises in complex-needs cases. Instead, they result from attempts by the Home Office to shift its responsibility to manage migration to other agencies. Social workers are sometimes required to act as de facto immigration officers, he believes.

Since the Nationality Immigration Asylum Act was introduced in 2002, social workers have been required to inform the Home Office of any person they suspect to be in the UK illegally. This forces social workers to breach their trust with those they have a duty to protect, according to Rapozo. “It compromises our values as social workers,” he says. “Our values are to care for vulnerable people.”

Increasing the burden on local government

Henry St Clair Miller is the manager of the NRPF Network, which advises local authorities on how to assess and administer section 17 support. While defending councils’ right to carry out thorough assessments that scrutinise applicants’ immigration status, Miller criticises certain Home Office policies for giving rise to increased homelessness and adding to the heavy burden felt by local government.

The main policy that Miller objects to is the granting of leave to remain with no recourse to public funds – a policy that has affected over 50,000 families in the UK over the past two years.

“It is always very frustrating that instead of these people being able to get on with their lives through employment and in-work benefits, they are basically cut out of the whole system,” Miller says. He adds that voluntary organisations and local authorities alike are “opposed to government policies that give rise to increased homelessness.”

The Home Office refused to give a statement but highlighted the fact that under reforms to family immigration rules in July 2012, families are granted leave with access to benefits if they are deemed destitute, have significant child welfare concerns or face exceptional circumstances. Otherwise they are barred from claiming benefits, which, the department says, avoids placing burdens on the taxpayer. This ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) condition can be lifted on appeal.

“Instead of these people being able to get on with their lives, they are cut out of the whole system”

A recent report by the Children’s Society report found that a third of applications to remove these restrictions prove successful, raising concerns that they may sometimes be added without proper consideration for the migrant’s circumstances.

Stamp insists that families with NRPF are being used as “a kind of football” in a battle between local and central government. He believes that central government is “using destitution as an instrument of social policy.”

Hierarchies of funding

One voluntary organisation that is helping to support families caught in the middle of this tussle is Haringey Migrant Support Centre (HMSC) in North London. At the organisation’s weekly drop-in centre pro-bono lawyers provide immigration and welfare advice, while advocates assist with section 17 referrals and applications for asylum support – a weekly government payment for asylum seekers.  The legal assistance it provides is crucial for many families that cannot afford a solicitor following a £350 million cut to legal aid in 2013.

The charity, which receives no local or national government funding, is entirely financed by independent trust foundations and community fundraisers. Securing funding is a constant struggle and attracting money can be difficult – particularly for services aimed at the visa overstayers, and other undocumented migrants, who account for most of the centre’s visitors.

Jonathan Price, a research officer at the University of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society says there is a clear hierarchy in the funding of support services for different categories of migrants.

“Funders are more likely to work with asylum seekers and refugees than with other migrants,” he says. “Funds will often be restricted to people with lawful status or those with access to public funds, to the exclusion of others.”

But in March the Big Lottery Fund bucked this trend when it awarded HMSC £500,000 in joint funding, along with Hackney Migrant Centre and Coram Children’s Legal Centre, which provides legal advice and representation to children and their families. This will be shared between the three organisations over five years to finance an immigration caseworker and a welfare caseworker to work for two days a week at each centre.

“It seems like a breakthrough,” says Maroszek. “Finally we’ve got funding for people who are not necessarily asylum seekers or refugees – all these other people who are constantly overlooked by funders.”

An angry generation

Unfortunately, organisations like HMSC in London and ASIRT in Birmingham that support the whole spectrum of migrants, are still few and far between. And the obstacles their clients face are only getting bigger.

The campaign to leave the EU, which placed immigration scaremongering at the centre of the news agenda, unleashed an upsurge in racism and anti-migrant sentiment. The number of reported hate crimes increased by 57 per cent between mid-June and the end of July, prompting the director of civil rights organisation Liberty to blame Theresa May for contributing to hate crime through her policies and rhetoric as Home Secretary.

“Many of these kids are being brought up in horrific conditions, watching their mums getting humiliated daily”

The Immigration Act 2016, meanwhile, which came into force in July, has cut government support for refused asylum seekers, thereby pushing even more people into the NRPF category and further increasing the strain felt by local authorities.

Stamp predicts that in the current climate it will only get harder for NRPF migrants to access support. He is concerned that the government’s approach is not only damaging society today, but will create even more serious problems further down the line.

“Many of these kids are British, or they are going to be British [if naturalised],” he says. “They are being brought up in these horrific situations, watching their mums getting humiliated daily by social workers, and the immigration authorities.”

“I think we’re raising a generation of very angry people,” he warns. “It really worries me what the future is going to look like.”

Migrants’ names have been changed to protect their anonymity

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