Crisis upon Crisis: Migrant families with No Recourse to Public Funds

Crisis upon Crisis: Migrant families with No Recourse to Public Funds

Umut Erel, Maggie O’Neill, Tracey Reynolds, and Erene Kaptani

The No Recourse to Public Funding (NRPF) policy means that migrants subject to immigration control are not allowed to access many benefits, tax credits or housing assistance. This affects both migrants who have the legal right to remain in the UK and those who are undocumented. Migrants and their families targeted by this policy are ‘in crisis’ because they often find themselves pushed to the margins of society as a result of poverty and racism. Many of these migrant families include young children, who are among are the most vulnerable people affected by this policy.

These precarious circumstances can make it very difficult for migrants to participate in reflection and critique of this policy, because all their energies are focused on day-to-day survival. In our research project, Participatory Arts and Social Action Research (PASAR), we worked with a group of migrant mothers affected by NRPF policy to enable their collective voice to be heard, and by doing so, counteract the effects of social isolation that so many of them encounter. Participatory theatre, mapping their everyday routes and walking with them (using video and photography, to better understand their experience) proved valuable because they allowed women to share their experiences, to develop collective knowledge, overcome stigma and articulate a critique of the policy’s detrimental effects. On this basis, we developed short theatre scenes shared at a workshop with policy makers and practitioners. The theatre methods allowed women to be actors, directors, story tellers, who can imagine and try out social interventions, rather than simply showcasing their vulnerabilities as a result of this dehumanising policy.

Elaine’s experience was shared in a theatre scene. Elaine had been working for many years for a large supermarket. When the Home Office required her to sign into the Immigration Reporting Centre, she needed to take time off every two weeks to do so. Her manager used his knowledge of her vulnerability to bully her and change her onto an unfavourable shift work pattern: from midnight to four o’clock in the morning, even though she had just had a baby. Her union representative’s response was that as an immigrant she should be glad to have a job! She also experienced stigmatisation by fellow workers who saw her as an ‘illegal’ immigrant. Eventually she lost her job because of her irregular immigration status. Unable to pay rent, Elaine, her husband and six year old son have been living in houses of friends and acquaintances, surviving on their monetary support for four years now.

This example shows how racism, anti-immigration policies and austerity intersect. An increasingly hostile climate to immigration has made it more difficult for migrants to find formal and informal employment. The economic crisis has precipitated competition for jobs, allowing racist practices in workplaces to go unchallenged. Support from communities or the voluntary sector is limited as they are already under pressure due to austerity. The NRPF policy thus contributes to creating crisis upon crisis for migrant families already under pressure.

Theresa, another of the mothers who shared her experiences of this policy, has lived and worked in the UK for 20 years and, like all the women in our project, who were either born in the Caribbean or West Africa nations, she expressed strong links with UK because of colonial ties. Theresa’s landlord increased her rent to an unaffordable sum. The letter to inform her of this arrived when she was out of the country. On her return Theresa and her children found they were to be evicted and made homeless. When Theresa asked the council to help her find alternative accommodation, she found that because of her migration status, she was subject to the NRPF policy. After a circuitous route, via various organisations, Theresa was able to apply for accommodation because under section 17 of the Children’s Act the local authority had a responsibility to prevent her youngest children from becoming destitute. She was housed in a one bedroom flat along-with her three children: a nineteen year old boy, a fourteen year old girl and a five year old boy. Theresa slept on the sofa in the kitchen due to lack of space and this resulted in her waking up every morning with back pain. Not only was the property infested with rats but it was also damp, cold and entirely unsuitable for Theresa and her children.

In addition, this accommodation was located in a different London borough from where Theresa had previously lived, meaning she had to travel for more than an hour by bus, to her youngest son’s school. Theresa has sometimes been late in taking her son to school and was promptly reprimanded and subject to teachers’ increased surveillance of her parenting practices. Theresa’s works in social care on a ‘zero hours’ contract, without sick or holiday pay. The precarious nature of her working conditions is reflected by the fact that when Theresa had to call in sick recently and take time off from work, she was not paid. Instead, she was reprimanded by her managers for being sick.

Theresa’s story exemplifies how this policy places families who already experiencing crisis into further crisis. It also affects the most vulnerable groups in society: migrant women, families affected by poverty, and people who suffer adverse working conditions as a result of the deepening economic crisis. This is reflected in the expansion of low pay and zero hour contracts, supported by wider research evidence. The Women’s Budget Group finds that female-headed households’ living standards over the 2010-20 period will fall 20% on average (2016: 3). Moreover, poverty affects migrant and black and minority ethnic families more profoundly: by 2020 black and Asian women will lose around twice as much money as low income white men as a result of tax and benefit changes (Women’s Budget Group and Runnymede Trust 2016). Therefore the effects of racism put pressure on living standards and access to quality jobs and services of racialized families, irrespective of their migration or citizenship status. Even before the austerity period, ethnic minority groups have been disproportionately more likely to be unemployed or underemployed, regardless of their educational levels and were concentrated in low paid, insecure jobs (Emejulu and Bassel 2015). While cuts to public services affect all families as users of services, minority women are further affected as they are more likely to be employed or subcontracted by the public sector in teaching, nursing, social work, cleaning and caring. They are also more likely to be single-mothers with sole or primary economic responsibility for their household income (2015: 88).

As a consequence of increasingly stringent migration regulations, particularly since 2012, more and more migrant families are subject to migration control, prevented from accessing public funding and rendered unable to economically support themselves (Price and Spencer 2015). This can occur even after many years of living and working in the UK: for example our twenty participants had been living in the UK between eleven and more than twenty years. While some were over-stayers, others were legally entitled to live and work in the UK, yet still were subjected to NRPF. In a situation of crisis, due to loss of job, accommodation, relationship breakdown or health problems, they cannot draw on the relative safety net of public funding to help them overcome these points of crisis.

Some are able to rely on informal support from family, friends, ethnic or faith-based networks. While a lifeline for many families, such support can be ambiguous as dependencies can allow for economic and sexual exploitation. Furthermore, these informal networks are limited in the extent and duration of their support. Some families then turn to local authorities who – under section 17 of the Children’s Act – have a duty to prevent children in their area from becoming destitute. This can be a very difficult process in itself, where families are scrutinised and find that even where eligible for support, this can be minimal, making it very hard to care for themselves and their children. While levels of monetary support vary across local authorities it is not unusual for families to receive only twenty pound per week per child (and nothing for the adults).

We have found that there is little awareness of this policy, despite the increasing number of families affected. Price and Spencer (2015) estimate that across England and Wales 3,391 families with around 5,900 children are supported by local authorities on the basis of Section 17 of the Children’s Act. In 2012/13, this represented a 19% increase on the previous year. However, these numbers are only the tip of the iceberg, as many families do not approach social services even when they are destitute. In addition, only those with children are even considered for support, while those who are childless are left without any form of support. This needs to be challenged. Creative and participatory methods can generate better understanding, facilitate space to engage participants in critical conversations and action with researchers, practitioners, policy makers and activists. In so doing research can highlight the right to care for one’s children in dignity, regardless of migration status.


Emejulu, A., and L. Bassel. 2015. “Minority Women, Austerity and Activism.” Race & Class 57 (2): 86–95. doi:10.1177/0306396815595913.
Price, Jonathan, and Spencer, Sarah. 2015. “Safeguarding Children from Destitution: Local Authority Responses to Families with ‘No Recourse to Public Funding.’” Oxford: COMPAS.
Women’s Budget Group and Runnymede Trust. 2016. “New Research Shows That Poverty, Ethnicity and Gender Magnify the Impact of Austerity on BME Women.” London. Women’s Budget Group 2016. “The Impact on Women of the 2016 Budget: Women Paying for the Chancellor’s Tax Cuts.”


Umut Erel is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the Open University. She is Principal Investigator of PASAR an ESRC funded research project investigating opportunities and challenges of using participatory theatre and walking methods for social research. Maggie O’Neill is Chair in Sociology/Criminology at the University of York where she co-chairs the migration network, crime network and is a member of the Centre for Women’s Studies. Tracey Reynolds is a Research Professor and Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Greenwich. Research awards include Economic Social Research Council on Caribbean youths and transnational identities (with Elisabetta Zontini); She is Guest editor of ‘Transnational and diasporic youth identities’, Identities’ (with Elisabetta Zontini) (2015) Erene  Kaptani is an anthropologist, participatory theatre artist and dramatherapist with expertise in applied theatre/arts for social research, community building and public impact. Currently she is a Research Fellow at the Open University, investigating participatory theatre as a social research method.