Eve Dickson and Rachel Rosen
As the Covid-19 pandemic has generalised insecurity and exacerbated poverty, there have been increased calls for migrants ‘subject to immigration control’ to be able to access welfare support for their own well-being and because of public health concerns. The negative impact of the ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) policy has received substantial attention under lock down, not least because of a High Court challenge and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s seeming ignorance of the policy’s existence.
This increased public awareness and cry for change is an important development, but there is a need to enlarge this conversation. Our current research with migrant mothers and children demonstrates that there is a need to go beyond a focus on the pandemic, or on rallying around the ‘deservingness’ of only specific groups of affected migrants. The more systemic problems with the policy will not simply disappear as lockdown eases.
Access to welfare as immigration control
The relationship between immigration control and access to welfare has a long history and can be traced back to the Aliens Act 1905, Britain’s first modern immigration act. The current legislation restricting migrants’ access to social security is the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, which states that a person ‘subject to immigration control’ shall have ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF). The NRPF condition prohibits access to most mainstream benefits, such as Universal Credit and child tax credits, as well as local authority housing assistance. The NRPF condition is applied to undocumented people and most migrants with time-limited visas in the UK.
NRPF leaves migrants with no safety net to fall back on. This has been brought into sharp relief by the Covid-19 pandemic, as rates of unemployment soar and many people find themselves newly destitute. This has led to repeated calls for a temporary suspension of the policy from Labour politicians and migrants’ rights organisations.
A temporary suspension of NRPF gives the impression that the problem lies with Covid-19, yet our research suggests that the issues of destitution and debt created by NRPF are more long-standing than the pandemic. While the effects of NRPF have been multiplied by the current crisis, the policy has long caused hunger and homelessness (Jolly, 2018). Even before the pandemic began, participants in our research described being left on the street with nowhere to go, having to send their children to bed hungry, and being pushed to accept insecure work for immiseration pay.
Other research has shown that women with NRPF are also at higher risk of domestic abuse and often become trapped in abusive relationships because of their immigration status (Dudley, 2017). One participant in our study, Rita, described her experience of NRPF as one of abuse and exploitation. Rita, an undocumented woman from Nigeria and a single mother of two young children, had been in the UK for over 10 years. Rita told us: ‘When you don’t have papers, [men] think you are useless’. With no independent means to support herself and her children, exacerbated by no access to childcare or other welfare support, Rita felt trapped in a situation of continuing abuse.
While those in higher paid employment may be able to achieve self-sufficiency despite having NRPF, the policy heightens existing inequalities. It enforces destitution and debt on single mothers and children, those in low-paid employment such as care work, and people who come from countries formerly colonised by the British empire. The pandemic has shown that even those who may have been relatively comfortable are only one step away from destitution, with no social support to fall back on should their circumstances change.
Litigation around access to subsidiary forms of state support for families with NRPF, such as free school meals, has prompted the government to temporarily extend eligibility on the premise that the extreme hardship caused by NRPF will ease along with the pandemic.
The Department for Education has temporarily extended free school meals support to some families with NRPF ‘in recognition of the difficulties they may be facing during these unique circumstances’. This conceals the fact that children were forced to go hungry at school because of their parents’ immigration status before Covid-19 hit. With parents unable to claim the benefits that means-tested free school meals are tied to, families affected by NRPF have been faced with the stark choice of letting their children go hungry or incurring school meal debt.
Many families with NRPF will miss out even on this temporary provision, either because they are still ineligible or because there has been little effort from the government to communicate the changes to schools or parents. It took the government over a month to update the maximum income threshold in official guidance, which was increased after a further threat of legal action from a low-paid carer. This is likely to mean that many eligible families were not able to register in time to receive the summer holiday provision.
Like the temporary extension of eligibility for free school meals support, the focus on a temporary suspension of the visa conditionality therefore risks obscuring the more systemic issues with NRPF. These will not disappear when the pandemic eases. It is laudable that advocates are trying to improve the conditions of life for people with NRPF. But, in pressing for a short-term suspension of the policy, they risk legitimating a policy that causes the very conditions they are protesting against.
‘Deservingness’ as premise for inclusion
In attempts to make demands for change to NRPF policy seem more palatable or compelling, politicians and advocates have often focused on ‘hard-working families’, those with a ‘legal’ right to reside, ‘taxpayers’, and children with British citizenship. These arguments to expand the category of who is deserving of welfare provision risk reinforcing the category of the ‘undeserving’ in the process. That is to say, they inadvertently replicate the nativist and meritocratic logic that underpins the policy itself.
The NRPF policy categorises and orders migrants according to whether they are deemed worthy of access to welfare provision. It suggests that access to adequate food, shelter, and livelihood is something that should be determined by place of birth, or parents’ place of birth, rather than something which we should strive to ensure for all. Simply put, this is based on the logic that some lives matter more than others.
When arguments along these lines are made, who is left out?
Undocumented migrants, whose exclusion from the welfare state is compounded by their inability to take up formal employment and their deportability (De Genova 2002), have been almost entirely absent from the current conversation around NRPF. Yet, as our research shows, they are at the sharp end of the UK’s immigration regime, which produces and maintains their ‘illegality’ through a variety of immigration policies —from ‘hostile environment’ measures to exorbitant application fees.
The current conversation around NRPF needs to be enlarged in order to recognise the breadth of people affected by the policy, including those who the state constructs and positions as ‘illegal’. Obscuring the impact of NRPF on certain groups of people risks implicitly accepting the policy’s underlying premise of exclusion.
As part of the wider deportation regime, NRPF has long made lives unliveable through enforced destitution and debt for negatively-racialised post-colonial subjects. Everybody should have the right to access the support that they need, during and beyond this current crisis.
Eve Dickson (RA) and Rachel Rosen (PI) are undertaking a British Academy/Leverhulme-funded research project entitled: Social reproduction in the shadows: migrant mothers and children with ‘no recourse to public funds’. Eve Dickson also works as a Policy Officer for Project 17, which provides advice, advocacy and support for migrant families experiencing exceptional poverty in the United Kingdom. Rachel Rosen is an Associate Professor at University College London (UCL) with expertise in unequal childhoods, migration and stratified social reproduction.
Main image: Royalty free photo by Miko Guziuk, taken in Kos, Greece.