Many children of migrants continue to face the unjust realities of homelessness, poverty and destitution in the UK as migrant families struggle to find a legislative safety net under current strict immigration rules. Amidst the complexities of reasons why migrant families often fall into destitution is the ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ condition; a prohibitive clause which strips away an individual’s access to welfare benefits, public housing or homelessness assistance if they are ‘subject to immigration control’.
Yet, this category does not simply include ‘illegal’ or undocumented migrants who have outstayed or been refused their visa. It encompasses legal, documented migrants who have a valid limited leave to enter or remain, in addition to asylum seekers and refused asylum seekers who instead must rely on the often inadequate financial and housing support from the Home Office.
Whilst the NRPF condition may not necessarily be problematic for self-sufficient migrants who study, work or live in the UK, it fails to address numerous migrants who are unable to support themselves or have had their immigration status changed after the collapse of employment arrangements or support networks.
Living in destitution is therefore a tragically common outcome, with the NRPF condition blockading an individual’s ability to access interim accommodation and temporary housing or apply for homelessness support. According to The Children’s Society, just over 50,000 individuals with dependants in the years 2013–2015 were given a NRPF condition despite the fact that they had leave to remain in the UK.
Protection for NRPF Families
Acting as the legislative safety net against child destitution, Section 17 of the 1989 Children Act imposes a responsibility on local authorities to provide financial and housing support for children – and their families with NRPF – where their standard of health or development is impaired.
Yet, while research suggests 6,000 children in families with NRPF to currently be supported by Section 17, austerity and cuts to local authority budgets combined with a ‘hostile environment’ policy has resulted in many more families being deterred from accessing section 17 support. This is due to brutal assessment processes and routine negligence. One just has to look at the shocking event of Lilian Oluk and her daughter Lynne Mutumba in March 2016 to see the system’s inherent failures in offering sufficient support. Tragically, they both died of starvation whilst being supported by a local authority under section 17.
For an individual to access section 17 support, they must meet the definition of ‘destitute’. Under the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, a person and their dependants are destitute if they have no access to adequate accommodation, food or essential items.
Families with NRPF are far more likely to work in exploitative conditions, forced to rely on lower paid and sometimes, illegal work. The precariousness of ‘informal’ work leaves many with no choice but to apply for Section 17 from their local council to meet the basic needs of putting food on the table for their children. In addition, a death of the main earner in the family – particularly if that family member can apply for British citizenship or has Indefinite Leave to Remain – could leave their partner or children suddenly undocumented, if they had initially come to the UK as a dependant.
The Truth Behind Section 17
Project 17, an organisation that works closely with migrants with the NRPF condition, found that 60% of its clients were wrongly refused support when they initially approached their local authority. Research has shown local authorities to repeatedly attack an individual’s credibility, with fraud-focussed local authority assessments becoming far more about ‘catching parents out’ rather than assessing whether a child is ‘in need’. Intimidation, aggression and racism are also commonplace: one woman from Nigeria supported by Project 17 was called ‘bush girl’ by her social worker.
On many occasions, families have been misinformed by local authorities or immigration officers working within these authorities. 22% of Project 17’s clients were wrongly refused Section 17 on the basis of their immigration status. Some local authorities stated that they only support families with leave to remain, whilst others stated to only support those without leave to remain.
For families who withstand the persistent hostility of the assessment process and ultimately are granted Section 17 support, the financial and housing support provided fails to alleviate families from destitution. In fact, breaches of human rights were exposed by The Children’s Society, who found some families to earn less than the asylum support rate of £36.50 per person per week. This figure fails to cover the basis cost for accommodation, food and other essentials such as school uniform. Additionally, poor quality and unsafe accommodation is more than often provided by authorities under Section 17 – 94% of children complained about not having enough space or privacy whilst 40% of families had remained in inadequate accommodation for more than six months.
Yet whilst health and developmental implications are commonplace for children in destitution, it is the emotional impact of having NRPF on children and young people that is the most saddening. Over two thirds of the children in Project 17 described feeling sad about trying to access local authority support, as well as feeling shame about their immigration status, stress about the impact the situation has upon their education and feeling unsafe because of their living situation.
So long as the NRPF condition exists, Section 17 will continue to provide a fundamental safety net for children whose parents are prohibited from welfare and housing benefits as well as protecting them from safeguarding risks. Yet a hostile policy environment created by a lack of funding and guidance will continue to undermine this legislation until the government recognises the importance of local authorities in providing financial support and housing. Migrant families should be supported by the system, not harmed by it.
Maddie is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of immigration solicitors which provides legal support to undocumented migrants looking to regulate their immigration status.