Lives are being put at risk by UK laws that have denied immigrants access to almost all public benefits during the coronavirus pandemic.
Tens of thousands of families have been unable to access the public safety net during the last 12 months under a longstanding rule that prevents migrants, including those who live and work in Britain legally, from claiming benefits if they lose their jobs, fall ill, or become homeless.
A new report from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants shows that one in five migrants surveyed lost their jobs after the first national lockdown in March last year. Of those, 74 percent had No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF).
Over 1.4 million people in the UK have a NRPF rule attached to their visa. This affects most migrants, including international students, people on spousal visas, and EU citizens who have moved to the UK since 1st January 2021.
No Recourse to Public Funds applies to most migrants in the UK until they become permanent residents, which normally takes at least five to ten years.. The policy was introduced in 1999 by the Labour government and was followed by other measures to appear “tough on immigration”, including the expansion of detention centres and denying asylum seekers the right to work. It has since been maintained and expanded by both Labour and Conservative governments for more than two decades.
In May 2020, with the majority of restrictions under the first national coronavirus lockdown still in place, Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared surprised at the rule when questioned by a committee of MPs.
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants research shows the impact of the pandemic was even greater on migrants in low paid work such as cleaners and hospitality workers – 44 percent lost their jobs. Migrants in low-paid jobs have been particularly affected by job losses during the pandemic, with many of them precariously employed and seen as expendable by employers.
The research, which is based on an online survey and in-person interviews with 310 migrant workers, reveals that migrants who are unable to access mainstream support were 52 percent more likely to say that it was not possible to safely self-isolate in their home.
The burden of restrictions falls on Black or Asian people, or people from other minority ethnic backgrounds, previous research has shown, and presents people with “an impossible choice” of returning to work which may be unsafe or losing their income.
VICE World News has reported how low-paid, precariously employed workers – many of them migrants – are having to attend workplaces that they believe are unsafe or face financial hardship and losing their jobs.
Maria, who spoke to VICE World News on condition of anonymity, is originally from Ecuador, and has lived with her husband in London since late 2018. She is one of the thousands of people who has struggled during the pandemic due to a combination of poor working conditions, not being able to access public support, and strict visa requirements.
The stress of working in her job as a cleaner during the pandemic, and not being able to take paid time off, led to her having a miscarriage.
Maria is now pregnant again, and is worried about the future. “I feel scared because I already lost one baby. I would like to receive support, so I can feel better about the pregnancy and about the future,” she says.
While her situation has always been tough, she said, 2020 was particularly difficult. “Everything was worse last year. I was pregnant, and was without help, without any support,” she says.
She continued working despite feeling like the stress of her cleaning job caused her to miscarry in the first place.
When Maria tried to talk with the boss and explain her situation, the only answer from him was, “If you stop working, you cannot receive any pay from me.”
She says received the same answer to queries about what would happen if she needed to self-isolate due to COVID: You can take time off, but you won’t be paid.
Maria has since been let go from her cleaning job, a decision she is currently appealing on grounds of unfair dismissal.
Like many on a spousal visa, she must stay in employment and earn over a certain amount, in order to ensure she is eligible to settle in the UK permanently, meaning her options are limited.
Maria says many of her colleagues at her cleaning job are EU nationals, and therefore can generally access Universal Credit – a social security payment – and other support if they need it. In most circumstances, EU nationals are not affected by NRPF. She says this illustrates the unfairness of the situation, where people working side by side cannot access the same support.
Maria says she wants the government to examine cases like hers and “really consider the circumstances in which people are living”.
“I really hope that there is a solution for me”, she said.
Latin American migrants have been severely affected by the pandemic, with 49 percent out of work, according to the Indoamerican Refugee and Migration Organisation (IRMO), a community-led organisation based in London.
“Many have visas with the NRPF condition attached – stripping them of any access to government assistance,” IRMO’s director Lucia Vinzon said. “Compound this with a lack of employment protection and an optional furlough scheme, and you get high rates of food poverty and destitution. Now more than ever the NRPF condition must be scrapped."
Since the beginning of the pandemic, calls for the Government to suspend NRPF have been made by countless NGOs, charities, Councils, as well as several Labour MPs – including shadow immigration minister Holly Lynch.
The Select Committee on Work and Pensions said last June that, “In these exceptional circumstances, the government should immediately suspend NRPF conditions on public health grounds for the duration of the outbreak.”
Housing and homelessness organisations have also stressed the impact on those rough sleeping. In March 2020, the “Everyone In” approach promised to provide temporary accommodation and support to all those rough sleeping regardless of nationality or immigration status. This was not renewed in England after the first lockdown, and migrants who become homeless are now unsupported.
This meant that many rough sleepers were not able to get help – putting their lives at risk as well as endangering the public health response. Some local authorities have taken it upon themselves to continue providing support, but the homeless charity Crisis has described the support being offered to people with NRPF as “increasingly patchy and inconsistent across the country”.
“Preventing people from becoming destitute is better for the public purse than allowing them to reach a point of crisis,” Satbir Singh, JCWI chief executive said. “The government cannot afford to pass the buck to local authorities who are already under pressure. Any roadmap to recovery must include suspending NRPF. No family should be going hungry or sleeping rough because of where they were born.”
“At a time when COVID-19 still poses a very real risk to millions of people, NRPF denies people the security they need to stay at home – pushing them into workplaces, even when it's not safe,” he added. “The government will continue to put migrants' lives and public health at risk if it doesn't urgently suspend NRPF conditions.”
While the Government has extended the furlough scheme to those with NRPF, this does not cover the many who were laid off altogether.
Other efforts include the relaxation of some visa requirements. Some people must maintain an income of at least £18,600 per year to be eligible to remain in the UK, but the Home Office has said those who can show a drop in income caused by the pandemic can be exempt from this.
Since the end of 2020, the Government also announced that it would be easier for people in certain circumstances to apply for the NRPF restrictions to be lifted.
But for JCWI, these are just more hoops to jump.
“These are incredibly insufficient solutions”, Zoe Gardner, policy advisor at JCWI and author of the report, says about the Government's different exemptions. She says the people must know about the exemptions in the first place, that there is very limited guidance, and the barriers to getting accepted are often quite high in practice.
JCWI is instead calling for NRPF to be suspended in its entirety for the duration of the pandemic, and is asking the Government to use the budget to announce this.
The Government has resisted calls to date to change the NRPF system, pointing to the different exemptions and support such as the furlough scheme. A Government spokesperson said in January that “it would not be right” to suspend, on the grounds that it also covers those who are in the country illegally as well as those on work, spousal, and other visas.
In response to the reports findings, a Home Office spokesperson said:
“This survey is based on a very small sample size and there is no evidence it is representative of the wider group. The provision of NRPF has been upheld by successive governments, and maintains that those seeking to establish their family life in the UK must do so on a basis that prevents burdens on the taxpayer and promotes integration.
“For this reason it would not be right to remove the condition, but we’ve acted decisively to support people through this pandemic – the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the Self-employed Income Support Scheme are available to all those with NRPF status.”
In response, JCWI say that the Home Office themselves have relied on surveys with smaller sample sizes, for example when the Home Office evaluated their own “Right to Rent” hostile environment policy based on a survey on 114 landlords, which was used as the basis of their legal challenge against JCWI in the Supreme Court.