Nearly 1.4 million people in the UK cannot access public funds due to their immigration status, with the burden of restrictions falling on people from black, Asian or other minority ethnic (Bame) backgrounds, a new report suggests.
The number of people seeking help with the no recourse to public funds (NRPF) policy – which prevents migrants from accessing state support – has almost doubled during the pandemic, according to Citizens Advice, which has helped someone affected by it every 20 minutes since the outbreak started in the UK.
New research for the charity, conducted by The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, suggests nearly 1.4 million people are subject to the NRPF condition in the UK – an increase on previous estimates, based on 2016 data, which put the figure at 1.1 million.
It finds that the burden of NRPF restrictions falls disproportionately on people of colour, with 82 per cent of people helped with an NRPF issue by the charity in the last year being of Bame background, of which a third (32 per cent) were Asian, 31 per cent were black and a fifth (19 per cent) were from another ethnic minority background.
The findings come days after the Home Office was criticised by the UK’s statistics watchdog for refusing to reveal how many people were on NRPF conditions attached to their immigration status.
The status, which had been blamed for causing poverty before the pandemic, has created significant problems during the coronavirus crisis because it has excluded many people who are struggling during the lockdown from accessing public assistance.
One person affected, Kwesi*, works as a security guard and has a 13-year-old son who lives with his ex-wife. The 40-year-old, from London, has type 1 diabetes and was advised by his doctor to shield during the coronavirus pandemic, meaning he was no longer able to work.
He said: “I couldn’t pay my rent, I couldn’t even provide for myself or my son. I was sleeping in a friend’s shed and then I stayed on the couch of a family friend but I became a burden to them and they asked me to leave.
“That’s when I started applying for public funds. At the same time, my leave to remain was actually expiring, which I didn’t have the funds to renew. I haven’t received any reply [from the Home Office]. They have my ID and passport with them, which is up to date.”
Kwesi ended up going back to work despite the health risks, and is now renting a room in a house share. “Even though I’m putting my health at risk I have no other option. With all the stress and agony I’ve gone through, it’s just a shame the government hasn’t been able to do anything for me.”
Citizens Advice said some people had approached the charity faced with the impossible choice of returning to work while ill, shielding, or living with someone who is shielding or losing their income.
It points out that migrants from non-EEA countries are disproportionately likely to work in frontline roles, including in healthcare, care work and security jobs, and argues that better support for people affected by these rules could support a safer easing of lockdown measures.
Dame Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said the revelation that almost 1.4 million people had no recourse to public funds was “shocking”, and called on the government to suspend NRPF rules for the duration of the pandemic.
“Without the security of the welfare safety net, many have faced and will continue to face impossible choices concerning their health and that of their families,” she said.
“People of colour have already been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Migrants who are overwhelmingly from Bame backgrounds should not have to take unnecessary risks as lockdown is reduced. Anyone experiencing hardship caused by the pandemic should not see any impact on their long-term immigration status.”
Dame Gillian said government measures to support people with NRPF, such as making them eligible for the Job Retention Scheme and providing emergency funding to councils, hadn’t alleviated the pressures on many people.
Zoe Gardner, policy advisor at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said the new data confirmed that NRPF conditions were ”entrenching racial inequality by cutting many black and brown migrants off from a state safety net”.
She added: “Long before coronavirus hit, NRPF conditions were forcing thousands of families into debt, unsafe housing and destitution. The pandemic has turned an already dire situation into an even graver one.”
It comes after cross-party MPs from the Work and Pensions Committee also called on the government to suspend the NRPF rule during the public health crisis, arguing that it cannot be in the public interest to expect people – some of whom are key workers and frontline medical staff – to comply fully with restrictive public health guidance while simultaneously denying them full access to the welfare safety net.
A government spokesperson said: “Extensive action to support those with no recourse to public funds has been taken, such as rent protections, the Job Retention Scheme, the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme, allocating £3.2bn to local authorities and £750m for charities to support the most vulnerable.”
*Name changed to protect his identity
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