Action is urgently needed to help destitute migrants
Many migrants in Britain who find themselves with no support or ability to return home face destitution; they are not allowed to work, have no access to benefits and in only a few cases get emergency help. Many of them have a case to stay in the UK but cannot quickly prove it. All are vulnerable to exploitation or otherwise at risk.
All reports from frontline agencies indicate that the problem is growing much faster than their ability to respond. While many of the issues discussed here apply to migrants from within the European Union, the needs of migrants from outside the EU (more precisely the EEA – European Economic Area) are particularly acute because they usually have more complex immigration issues and cannot readily return home. Providing accommodation and support for them is a huge challenge because of rules about ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF). The report focuses on this group.
What does the report aim to do?
The report explains the nature and urgency of the problem, what solutions might work and how obstacles can be tackled, including potential legal obstacles. It is inspired by, and draws on, learning from existing provision, some of which is described in a number of case studies. It aims to mobilise action and resources from charitable foundations, philanthropists and social investors, public bodies and social landlords, voluntary bodies and professionals.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation wants to help develop a strategic approach to tackling migrant destitution. In a complex area dogged by poor information, many agencies need to be involved and may not have links with each other. Maintaining momentum is key and there are various initiatives that need recognition and funding. The report aims to build support for, and help devise and implement, a strategy.
The report also tackles one of the main barriers to action – concern that there might be legal obstacles to helping destitute migrants.
How do migrants become ‘undocumented’?
Undocumented migrants are those who have no legal right to stay in the UK, those who could have a right but need to establish it and those who have a right but cannot prove it. Most have entered the UK legally, but small numbers are illegal entrants, of whom many have grounds to make an asylum claim which regularises their status temporarily. The reasons for becoming ‘undocumented’ are many and varied. They include: lacking or having out-of-date or incomplete documents, being in transition from one immigration status to another, poor or slow decision-making by the Home Office, discrimination (being denied services to hich they are entitled), people trafficking, losing a job, and health needs.
How does this lead to destitution?
Most migrants from outside the EU who become destitute have NRPF and also cannot legally work. This limits their options to getting basic support from family or friends, or from charities, faith-based or other agencies. Migrant communities themselves are a main source of support. Some migrants work illegally. All these solutions are fragile and can end at short notice. Many therefore become rough sleepers and are at risk of exploitation by people traffickers or employers, including severe forms of labour exploitation.
While asylum seekers are at least initially entitled to support, destitution can occur because of errors, delays or poor decision-making. Refused asylum seekers can get emergency support subject to conditions, but may not want or cannot easily get it.
How many migrants become destitute?
Evidence about how many migrants become destitute is uncertain, incomplete and often out-of-date. The main sources of evidence are:
• a 2007 study of undocumented migrants which estimated there were 618,000 across the UK but with wide margins of error and likelihood that much has changed in eight years. Not all undocumented migrants will be destitute but they are an ‘at risk’ group;
• rough sleeper studies, which show significant numbers of non-EEA rough sleepers in London (13 per cent of the total in 2014/15) but few elsewhere,
• estimates of refused asylum seeker numbers and/or destitute asylum seekers – there may be 50,000– 100,000 refused asylum seekers nationally; evidence on destitution comes from local studies across the UK (e.g. significant numbers in recent surveys in Manchester and Nottingham).
None of these studies provide an adequate assessment. The interim report of a JRF-sponsored study of destitution was published earlier this year and proposes a working definition. It is expected that the final report of this study will provide better estimates of numbers in destitution – including migrants – later this year (see www.jrf.org.uk/publications/destitution-uk-interim-report).
What does migrant destitution cost?
Assessing the costs of migrant destitution on services is very difficult because of limited entitlements (due to NRPF). A government study concluded that the annual cost of services for rough sleepers is around £20,000 per person. This gives an indication although costs of migrant rough sleeping may well be different due to more restricted entitlements to benefits and services and differing approaches to tackling it. However, ignoring migrant destitution is clearly not a ‘cost-free’ option.
Services and their limitations
Access to support services is very limited. They usually operate without public funding and are often outside the established network of homelessness agencies. Some groups, many of whom are members of the national No Accommodation Network (NACCOM), have been set up specifically to accommodate destitute migrants but capacity falls far short of the need.
Since 2010, a range of cuts have affected advice provision and support services for migrants faced with destitution. In addition, cuts in legal aid funding and its scope in immigration cases mean that legal help is much more limited. Many places have become ‘legal aid deserts’ for migrants. Yet the need to regularise documentation can involve hours of research, exceeding the amounts covered by legal aid even where available. Many people therefore end up using poor quality and exploitative firms and advisers, with limited chance of success.
Until recently many homelessness agencies failed to address the specific needs of destitute non-EEA nationals. They cannot easily get such migrants ‘off the streets’ as most hostels require them to have access to benefits. To get this they need legal advice, probably for a lengthy period, which is extremely difficult without stable accommodation and the other basic necessities. However, with access to such provision many destitute migrants could clarify and/or regularise their status and be supported to consider their options which for some, particularly if they have exhausted their legal options, may include voluntary return.
Legal issues that arise
Legal opinion obtained for this research is reassuring on the four main areas where there might be legal question marks:
• Assistance to those subject to NRPF is affected only by the ‘public funds’ limitation itself. It is quite specific, including statutory housing allocations and nominations or homelessness assistance, and entitlement to housing benefit. But support for rough sleepers is not included, nor is an allocation from a housing association outside a local nomination scheme. If a housing association has had government grant to provide a property that does not mean that it could not be occupied by someone with NRPF.
• Criminal law does not prevent assistance being given to undocumented people to alleviate destitution or meet basic human needs. Accommodation can also be provided to give a fixed address so a person can more readily remedy their immigration status.
• The need to check a tenant’s ‘right to rent’ under the Immigration Act 2014 currently applies only in the West Midlands but is likely to be extended. However, it only affects tenancies that involve rent payments, and most charitable schemes for undocumented migrants do not. Some types of accommodation such as hostels and refuges are in any case excluded. Where an organisation such as a housing association provides a property for another organisation (e.g. a charity), the second organisation becomes the landlord and there is no obligation on the property owner.
• Individuals with no recourse to public funds who lack housing and employment and/or are destitute can be supported by charitable foundations in furthering their objects. A charitable foundation’s assets are not ‘public funds’ for the purpose of immigration law and can be used to help people with NRPF.
Although there is a criminal offence of assisting unlawful immigration, it is view of the legal opinion given to us that charities offering food, money, services or accommodation to relieve the destitution of persons unlawfully present in the UK are not liable.
Interventions needed and services currently available
In addition to the key area of accommodation (see below) there are seven others where concerted action is needed:
• Better data – about numbers and needs to inform planning and provision – see Section 2 for more detail on the need to improve information.
• Better immigration advice and legal representation – including case work, advocacy, advice and legal representation to enable routes out of destitution by empowering people to understand and regularise their status or return. A range of services exists but coverage is inadequate and the quality very variable. Much better tie-in with accommodation services is needed. A London-based project called Street Legal offers a practical example which could be replicated (see page 30) as does DASS, a newly established project in Scotland (see page 27) (for more detail see Clayton, in press).
• Addressing subsistence needs – provide basics, including cash, food, toiletries and clothing. The British Red Cross and local charities do this but services are time-limited and not available in all areas. Meeting subsistence needs should be better linked to accommodation provision. Some accommodation providers such as Hope (see page 42), Boaz (see page 45) and Praxis run destitution funds, provide food parcels, etc, and most ensure they are linked up to people who do.
• Addressing support needs – make sure that holistic and culturally sensitive support is available; for example some asylum seekers may have post-traumatic stress and specialist training and expertise may be needed to ensure support is adequate. Most of the examples of accommodation provision in Section 5 include a holistic approach to support.
• Engaging with migrant community groups – supporting and improving the critical role played by informal migrant networks. So far few of the recent initiatives targeting undocumented migrants have addressed how community networks can be drawn into any strategy, although Hope Housing is working with a newly formed Migrants Union. This is vital to effective provision and prevention work and ensuring that good services reach those who need them.
• Strategic alliances and joint working – develop more effective use of resources across sectors, including better evidence about replicable practice, mapping, consultation, training, capacity-building and coordination. A number of initiatives aim to identify existing provision and the potential for joint 7 approaches, and attempt to put them in place. The test will be whether they lead to delivery of sustainable solutions on the scale required, outside as well as in London. A Strategic Alliance on Migrant Destitution has formed hosted by Homeless Link and involving the British Red Cross, Housing Justice, Migrant Rights Network, Refugee Action and Refugee Council (see page 31).
• Gaining official recognition and ownership of the problem – convincing central and local government to recognise the role it needs to play. Many cases of undocumented migrants are resolvable; destitution is not an inevitable consequence of NRPF but can result from bureaucratic failure or delay. Migrant destitution has already received some support from the Homeless Transition Fund, for example Street Legal (see page 30. Although aimed at tackling rough sleeping, this is an important precedent.
Accommodation – a major challenge
A secure place to stay is vital to those looking for a route out of destitution, but providing it for destitute non-EEA nationals is challenging because most do not have access to benefits. This report aims to increase the scale and number of accommodation options for people with NRPF, building on current services. These are focused around two main umbrella bodies – NACCOM and Housing Justice. The main types of accommodation, described in more detail in Hutton and Lukes (2015) are:
• Hosting: accommodation in the homes of volunteer hosts usually with allied support services, for example, the Boaz Trust (see page 45)
• Hostels: none specifically for NRPF migrants but some offer a small number of free bed spaces for them – some of the St Mungo’s Broadway and Salvation Army hostels do this.
• Providing rooms for migrants within a mixed, shared house with wrap-around: one or more migrants with NRPF accommodated in a house where rent is paid by other migrants who can work/claim benefits, for example Open Door (see page 46)
• Communities: houses shared on a communal basis, sometimes with a mix of migrant/non-migrant occupiers, for example the Emmaus Community and Catholic Workers.
• Night shelters: free or very cheap accommodation for a short period (often night-by-night) and mainly not for migrants specifically (with a few exceptions), for example the Boaz Trust .
• Hostels: none specifically for NRPF migrants but some offer a small number of free bed spaces for them.
• Paying rent for a migrant to live in a house or hostel: charitable arrangements to pay for B&B accommodation on a short-term basis.
Analysis of the characteristics of each accommodation type in terms of ownership, financing and legal arrangements shows that there are few legal obstacles but the main challenges are accessing suitable properties and achieving financial sustainability. The report also gives an overview of the different sources of property, lease arrangements and issues arising in taking on property management (including physical and housing management issues and responsibility for allocations).
Many groups want to make links with social housing providers who are willing to donate stock, such as in the Hope Housing model (see page 42) and several now have capacity to manage it. Most properties are currently obtained from personal and faith-based contacts; securing properties from housing associations has happened through informal networks with senior staff/board members. More formal approaches and/or those made via liaison staff in middle management have not been successful.
Groups want to be sufficiently robust to be able to partner with social landlords and others who will entrust them with properties. This is a delicate balance for groups run by low-salaried staff and driven by volunteers’ enthusiasm. Abigail Housing has drawn on support from several local housing associations (see page 43).
Specific issues arise where schemes involve sharing or where rent is charged (some groups do this to cross-subsidise those who cannot pay rent, for example, Abigail, Boaz, Open Door and Praxis and Commonweal Housing (page 44 ). There are successful examples which others could follow, and lessons from the experience of NACCOM members in general and Hope Housing in Birmingham in particular.
Lessons from the Hope Housing project include:
• its partnership with its referral agencies and four local housing associations,
• its focus on housing those with most chance of success in regularising their immigration status and its advocacy work to help them do so;
• its original practice of housing new migrants with no recourse to public funds (as well as asylum seekers) was a welcome innovation but could not be sustained as funding for it was ended;
• its engagement of residents and former residents in the running of the projects and in activities such as gardening and handicrafts.
Hope is supporting a fledgling ‘migrants union’ which is developing self-help and advocacy.
Replication of the Hope or other NACCOM models means that groups need other strengths, for example:
• a strong nucleus of committed people with access to a lot of willing volunteers;
• other charitable resources including a guaranteed flow of funds to support individuals and pay for utilities, day-to-day maintenance, etc;
• sustainability and the flow of funds could come from operating some of tis housing for renting to people with leave to remain who are in housing need; • access to advocacy and good quality legal advice to support people out of destitution. People are the most important resource. The work has a strong dynamic of changing people’s minds and promoting integration, with the many volunteers engaged in the work learning from migrants about their lives and journeys before their arrival in the UK and their experiences of the system and of settling in the UK