‘I’ve lost a lot of my life to this,’ explains Seema, ‘and I don’t know when it’s going to end.’
The thought that there are people in the UK who suffer as persistent and cruel ill-fortune as Seema has since she arrived here in 2009 is not an easy one. Over the course of 12 years, she has been ‘physically, emotionally, and financially’ abused, first by her then-husband, and later by a live-in landlord, who assaulted and sexually harassed her.
She’s suffered a serious head injury after being attacked at work, resulting in chronic physical and mental health issues, and has lived in persistent, extreme poverty – all this and more before the global pandemic reared its head last year.
Throughout this time, Seema has been entirely unable to access the barest level of state support, which many of us—threadbare and often woefully inadequate though it is—take for granted.
Until recently, her immigration status meant that she had ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF), a condition applied by default to anyone in the UK without permanent leave to remain. Introduced in 1999, NRPF leaves people unable to access support like universal credit, child benefit, working tax credit, and more, often for years – despite still being subject to the standard rate of tax.
The number of people with no recourse to public funds in the UK is unknown, because the government doesn’t publish the data, but it’s estimated to be at well over a million among those with some legal right to be in the UK, plus undocumented people.
And among that million, the burden doesn’t fall equally. BAME people are disproportionately affected: in the year leading up to October 2020, 82 percent of those who sought help for an NRPF-related issue were BAME.
A Cycle of Abuse
For Seema and others, the ways in which access to state support could make a life of struggle that bit more manageable hardly need stating. But worse still are the ways in which NRPF actually creates the conditions for individuals to be abused.
Concerns over destitution left Seema unable to seek shelter from abuse, she explains – a fact which her abusers knew and exploited. ‘Everything is a struggle, for food, for a visa, for my health, for everything,’ she says. ‘For such a long time I have had nothing.’
Seema is now able to access public funds, but her difficulties are far from over. The costs involved in the visa renewals and applications required before getting permanent right to remain in almost 10 years’ time will cost more than £10,000.
These figures and delays, coupled with the endless complexity of the immigration system and broader issues arising from long-term NRPF status, offer those on the path to full citizenship little space for optimism.
‘I get very stressed,’ Seema says. ‘It’s been so long, and always, every three or four months, something happens: my health, an eviction order, a letter from the Home Office.’
For Annie, who has worked in health and social care since coming here in the late ’90s, the unavoidable costs imposed on people seeking to remain in the UK make an already challenging financial situation almost unmanageable.
‘I earn just over £1000 per month,’ she says. ‘My rent is £450, I’ve got a car for work, and children to look after. There’s not much left by the end of the month. For 20 years I’ve had no real support.’
Annie has been forced to take on loans, resulting in significant debt, to cover living costs and her citizenship applications. She worries constantly about the money, but says: ‘I have to pay it, so I will find a way. I will save every penny. As long as my children are happy, I am happy.’
A year into the Covid-19 crisis, it’s evident that this kind of financial insecurity makes pandemic conditions all the more dangerous.
Research carried out by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) found that a majority of people with NRPF status lived with others who wouldn’t be able to self-isolate safely if they got Covid. For some, this is about living conditions; for others, it’s about a lack of support leaving them no option but to carry on working.
For Annie, working as a frontline healthcare assistant in the NHS throughout the pandemic, getting ill simply wasn’t an option.
‘When I started to feel poorly in mid-April time, I was so worried. I thought, “if something happened to me, where would my children be? How can I be stuck indoors for 10-14 days, not working? Who will care for them? How will we carry on?”
‘I drank boiled water and ginger, and I said, “Wherever you’ve come from, Coronavirus, you will have to go back there. Not me. I have to go to work.’
The obvious danger posed by this kind of pressure is one of the reasons that various bodies—think tanks, trade unions, social work associations, and local authorities, among others—have been calling for NRPF to be suspended over the course of the pandemic.
Individuals with NRPF status have been able to benefit from some of the measures introduced to mitigate the worst effects of the virus, including the eviction moratorium and the furlough scheme, but the threat of no income whatsoever means that many are still forced to put themselves in unsafe situations.
As a report by Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee noted, neither furlough nor statutory sick pay are enough to live on without other benefits – and widespread precarious employment among individuals subject to NRPF means that many can’t even access those.
Isaac, who came to the UK from Nigeria more than ten years ago, has struggled to care for his British-born son with severe autism as a result of these concerns. ‘When the pandemic came, I was very worried,’ he says. ‘I knew I would have to keep working, whatever happened. It was a lot to deal with on top of all our problems we had already.
‘My son needs a lot of support and we haven’t been able to do that for him. Because I work in care with people with autism, I see the support that’s available, but I haven’t been able to do that for my son. That’s very frustrating.’
While a change in his immigration status means he is now able to access public funds, Isaac says that the anxiety he felt for so long has prevented him from engaging with any type of support – ‘whether it was linked to the government directly or not.’
Even after the change in status, the psychological effects of NRPF remain. ‘That fear – you can’t forget it,’ Isaac says. ‘When I get my full citizenship I still won’t forget.’
For so many, NRPF makes the pursuit of a normal, secure life impossible. The visa limitations of which NRPF is a condition often bar individuals from certain forms of employment, meaning they’re more likely to find themselves in low-paid jobs with poor working conditions. Isaac has found himself having to take on all kinds of work in order to get by.
‘I’ve done virtually every job you can think of. I’ve worked in restaurants, cleaning, removals – lots of it difficult, and I wasn’t treated well. But I’ll do anything to survive, apart from crime.’ Despite that, people with NRPF conditions face recurring—and often racist—criticism for their supposed work-shyness.
The myth of meritocracy is a powerful one, and not easily upended: a recent study by Kings College London found that one in eight Britons think black people ‘do not have the motivation or willpower to pull themselves out of poverty, and that’s why they are more likely to earn less or be unemployed than white people.’ And then there’s the ‘immigration debate’, a regular feature of our media discourse, which so often casts migrants as grasping scroungers.
‘People like Nigel Farage say that immigrants in the United Kingdom just take, take, take,’ Isaac says. ‘That we claim everything on the NHS, and take the jobs. But we don’t – and the fact is that we couldn’t, even if we wanted to.’