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‘I Look After People But No One Will Look After Me’ - Why The UK's Migrant Key Workers Are Facing Extreme Poverty And Abuse In The Pandemic

The Home Office has been accused of ignoring migrants with No Recourse to Public Funds in the Covid-19 pandemic, forcing many into destitution | PA Images

14 min read

Approximately 1.4 million migrants in the UK have no access to state funds – including hundreds of thousands of key workers in the healthcare and hospitality sectors. As Covid-19 pushes more people into destitution, Georgina Bailey reports on how they've been impacted by the government's policies.

“It's really hard. I'm really scared to go to work, especially because I'm a carer. I'm so scared. But I don't have a choice. I need to go to work. Because nobody will help me.” 

Maya*, 36, is a senior night carer at a residential care home in North London. Originally from the Philippines, she lives in a two bedroom flat with her British 8-year-old son and another family member. Maya has colitis and suspected Crohn's disease – a condition placing patients at high-risk for Covid-19, and in the ‘shielding’ category. 

However, Maya never shielded, despite being asked to by her doctor. She continued to go to work, earning £9 per hour, less than the London Living Wage, currently £10.75. “I just kept on working… while I'm on treatment as well. I just carry on working. Of course, I'm worried about, financially… how can I manage everything during the pandemic?” 

When she tested positive for Covid-19 in August, Maya took two weeks of annual leave to self-isolate with her son rather than rely on statutory sick pay – it would not cover her rent (£900 a month), and she is already in debt. She normally works 55 hours a week including overtime, totaling £1980 before tax and deductions. In the pandemic, she has cut back to 40 hours a week to try and protect her health as much as possible.

Maya is ineligible for most types of state support, despite her low income – and her situation is not unique. She, like approximately 1.4 million others, is living and working legally in the UK with No Recourse To Public Funds (NPRF) conditions applied to her visa, meaning that she cannot access Universal Credit, Job Seekers Allowance, child tax credit, or housing benefit, among other state funds. 

Many of those living under these conditions, like Maya, are key workers – around 850,000 migrants work in health – including the NHS – and social care, accounting for approximately one-fifth of the total workforce. 

I do look after people but no one will look after me. When I need it, nobody is there

NRPF is a standard condition applied to the visas of legal migrants who have Limited Leave To Remain. Although a similar policy has existed for decades, it was expanded in 2012 and now most legal migrants to the UK have NRPF conditions – illegal migrants, by default, cannot access most public funds.

Explaining the policy, the Home Office says: “Those seeking to establish their family life in the UK must do so on a basis that prevents burdens on the State and the UK taxpayer. It is right that those who benefit from the State contribute towards it.” However, charities have long argued that it pushes migrants into destitution, particularly as they are more likely to be in low-paid, insecure work. 

According to those who work with those with NRPF, the pandemic has made the situation “immeasurably worse”, with the number of people applying to have the condition lifted because of destitution increasing six-fold. The Children's Society estimated early in the pandemic that there were at least 100,000 children in families in the UK on the brink of destitution due to NRPF conditions.

According to The Unity Project, a charity which supports people who are destitute get their NRPF conditions lifted, a third of those they have helped in the pandemic have been key workers like Maya. 

“I don't get enough salary. I do look after people but no one will look after me. When I need it, nobody is there,” says Maya. After previously being rejected, she has now applied for her NRPF conditions to be lifted again.

The Local Government Association, the Labour party, the House of Commons Work and Pensions and Home Affairs Committees, and a number of charities have all called for NRPF conditions to be suspended for the course of the pandemic, citing pressures on homelessness and local authority services, the increased risk of destitution, and the public health risks of people being forced to work when they should be isolating or shielding. 

“It has been absolutely devastating,” says The Children’s Society, who are reporting “a huge rise in new referrals from families that they've never worked with before” since the pandemic started.

Safety4Sisters, a charity working with migrant women experiencing gender-based violence, reported this week that their number of referrals and cases had doubled over lockdown. All of the women they saw who wanted a refuge space were initially refused one due to their NRPF conditions. In one case, a domestic abuse service support worker Safety4Sisters worked with informed them that they were unable to take on outreach support for a woman with NRPF as their funders ‘do not allow it’. 

In the first six months of the pandemic, 15% of those helped by The Unity Project had been subject to domestic abuse, with both the amount and severity of harm increasing during lockdown. 

One advocacy worker with Safety4Sisters stated in their report, Locked in abuse, locked out of safety, that:

“As Covid–19 restrictions were quickly embedded into households, perpetrators – who already used their wives or partners immigration dependency as a form of coercive control – were further empowered…

“In some cases they were persuaded by social services and the police that they should negotiate around the abuse and “humour” the abuser in the house or leave their children behind with the abuser, rather than risk homelessness under Covid or/and that as “NRPF cases” they neither had the resources nor statutory responsibility to ensure their safety.” 

The Government has repeatedly rejected calls to suspend NRPF, stating that the Job Retention Scheme, Self-Employed Income Support Scheme, Statutory Sick Pay, and the statutory duty on local authorities to provide a “a basic safety net” to the most vulnerable, can all be accessed by those with NRPF.

Additionally, if people have paid national insurance for two years prior, those with NRPF may be entitled to limited contribution-based benefits such as Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) to cover lost income. The ban on evictions which was in place from March to September also covered those with NRPF, and free school meals were also extended to cover the children of parents with NRPF.

However, with ongoing issues with eligibility and strains on local authority finances, and as further restrictions and more job losses loom, some are worried that the situation could worsen further, with MPs alleging that that more families will be forced into hunger and destitution in Tier 3 areas due to the lack of support. 

These are families who have literally no food at all in the cupboard, parents are regularly cutting down on the number of meals they eat each day to be able to feed their children

The topic of NRPF in the pandemic first came to public attention in May this year when Stephen Timms, chair of the Work and Pensions Committee and long-term Labour MP for East Ham, one of the most deprived constituencies in the country, appeared to trip up the Prime Minister about NRPF in front of the powerful House of Commons Liaison Committee. 

Timms had asked about the case of two constituents, originally from Pakistan, with two children. Living and working here legally, on the 10 year path to settlement route, the husband’s employer had not put him on the job retention scheme during the pandemic, leaving him with zero income. The wife’s income was less than their household rent. They had NPRF. 

“Isn’t it wrong that a hard-working, law-abiding family like that is being forced into destitution by the current arrangements?” Timms had asked.

After initially querying what no recourse to public funds meant, Johnson told Timms: “Clearly people who have worked hard for this country and who live and work here should have support of one kind or another… You’ve raised a very important point – if the condition of their leave to remain is that they should have no recourse to public funds I will find out how many there are in that position and we will see what we can do to help.”

But since then, the Prime Minister and Home Secretary have repeatedly said that they will not lift the condition, citing existing pandemic-specific support.

Timms however, believes that the Home Office “has absolutely failed to recognise the situation that people find themselves in”. He recently visited a warehouse of the charity FareShare, which gathers surplus food from farms and supermarkets and distributes it to food banks and other charities. 

“They told me that before the pandemic, they were sending one tonne of food per week to my borough, Newham. They’re now sending 20 tonnes of food per week to Newham. And the council estimates… probably around a third of that increase from one tonne to 20 tonnes is accounted for by people with leave to remain working legally, fully entitled to and complying with the law. But their work has stopped because of the pandemic and they've got no recourse to public funds. They've got zero income coming in,” Timms explains. 

Lucy Leon of The Children’s Society explains: “Some families we work with are sleeping on people's floors. We're talking about a whole family of three or four having to share a bed, or sleeping on a sofa with no privacy or space for themselves. People are at risk of potentially exploitative situations. These are families who have literally no food at all in the cupboard, parents are regularly cutting down on the number of meals they eat each day to be able to feed their children.”

The Unity Project reports that even before the pandemic, 52% of the people with NRPF they supported did not have a bed to sleep in, one-third shared a bedroom with their children and with other people who were not their family, and that 6% of single women they supported had been street homeless with their children.

Other cases reported by The Unity Project in the pandemic include several who work in the NHS. One couple who are both care assistants in the NHS could only afford to live with their 11-year-old British daughter in an unconverted office room in a business centre, with no bathroom and only a shared toilet and kitchenette.

Another key worker, Ada*, is an NHS healthcare assistant, earning just over £1,000 a month. She has to share a single room with her 6-year-old daughter in a house they share with five adult male strangers, who sometimes take drugs in the shared kitchen. 

It's survival really, when you look at the kind of conditions that many of the families are living in and the huge pressure they're under

While the government has repeatedly said that those with NRPF are eligible for many of the UK wide support schemes, The Unity Project reported that less than 13% of the people they supported had been able to access the furlough scheme and less than 3% had received a self-employed grant, and many couldn’t access ESA either, due largely to being in precarious or potentially exploitative employment.

There was also some confusion as to whether those with NRPF were covered by the government’s Everyone In scheme, which provided emergency accommodation to nearly 15,000 people who were rough sleeping or otherwise unable to comply with “lockdown” due to their living arrangements at the start of the pandemic. Councils were told to “use their judgement” to assess support they could legally give, leading to difficult decisions around legality and finances, and reports of some people with NRPF being turned away.

“Because of NRPF a lot of the provision out there hasn't been applicable for them so they've got very limited routes of what they can turn to in terms of - I was going to say support, but actually, it's survival really, when you look at the kind of conditions that many of the families are living in and the huge pressure they're under,” Leon adds.

For migrants and families who become destitute, there are two main avenues for support. 

Firstly, families may be able to access support from their local authorities under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 if the welfare of a child is at risk, with 8,117 families with at least 16,331 dependents being supported this way between 2015 and 2019. Charities report that the money provided by local authorities was often very limited – under £3 per child per day.

Councils may also provide basic safety net support if there is “a genuine care need that does not arise solely from destitution”, for example, such as community care needs or migrants with serious health problems. 

Secondly, migrants can apply to the Home Office to have the condition lifted if they are destitute, at risk of destitution, have exceptional financial circumstances, or the welfare of a child is at risk. Home Office data shows that the number of people with NRPF who applied to have it lifted increased by 567% in the first three months of the pandemic, with 5,665 applications and a 89% success rate.

Labour MP Stephen Timms

The process is labyrinthine. “We have seen cases with people having to send 15 separate emails each with huge attachments,” says Leon. “It’s a huge burden especially as we're talking about families who sometimes don't have smartphones. If they do, they have very limited data and the pandemic has made it worse, they can no longer go to a drop in centre and see someone face to face to provide evidence, instead they're having to go into a supermarkets or shopping centre, to access Wi-Fi to be able to send over these documents. There’s also a lot of back and forth - so it's a really challenging process.”

The average time taken for the Home Office to process an application between April and June 2020 was 30 days – with some cases taking up to four months. However, charities working with those with NRPF say that the government’s processing speed has improved over the course of the pandemic. People without internet access or who are not confident using a computer can access phone support to complete their application, although this is not widely referenced among charities supporting those with NRPF.

As well as lack of access to government schemes, there are also sector-specific demographic challenges to contend with. Migrants subject to NRPF are disproportionately represented in the food, drink, accommodation and hospitality sectors, with Migration Exchange analysis revealing that around 16% (74,000) of migrants arriving in the UK from non-EU countries work in a business that was largely or entirely shut down in the first lockdown.

However, as Tier 2 and 3 restrictions are introduced across the country, again hitting the food, drink, hospitality and accommodation sectors the hardest, questions have been raised again about whether the government have considered the needs of the 1.4 million people living with NRPF in their calculations. 

It’s another sneaky way of excluding certain people from support without explicitly saying people with NRPF can’t apply, which is obviously a public health risk

One such example is the Chancellor’s recent announcement that workers in impacted sectors in Tier 3 will still receive 67% of their pay if their places of work have to shut down, compared to 80% when the furlough scheme was running.

In the House of Commons on Wednesday, health minister Ed Argar said that those losing a third of their income should apply for Universal Credit – something which is not accessible to most with NRPF, leading charities to accuse the government of “stacking disadvantage upon disadvantage”. 

Timms told The House that: “Yet again, the government is overlooking hard-working families with No Recourse to Public Funds. They cannot access this Universal Credit top up. So, in Tier 3 areas, many will receive just 67% of the national minimum wage. More families will be forced into hunger and destitution.”

“It’s typical of everything they’ve done with NRPF,” says Caz Hattam, from The Unity project. “It’s another sneaky way of excluding certain people from support without explicitly saying people with NRPF can’t apply, which is obviously a public health risk.”

For some the concern is that the issue will soon be forgotten. “The pandemic has exacerbated existing problems,” adds Hattam. “We're worried that after the initial shock of the pandemic, people might think that the problems have gone away, and they most definitely won't have done - if anything, the inequality and discrimination faced by people with NRPF will be worse.”

A government spokesperson said:

“The government has acted decisively to ensure that everyone is supported through this crisis, including those who have no recourse to public funds. 

“Many of the wide-ranging coronavirus measures we have put in place are not considered public funds, and individuals who have a right to be in the UK on account of their family life or other human rights reasons can apply to have the NRPF condition lifted if their financial circumstances change.”

*Names changed for anonymity

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