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‘It was bad, but now it’s been unbearable’: The children going hungry during the pandemic

‘We’re having smaller portions, and sometimes there is nothing. Sometimes we just have toast and butter for dinner,’ says teenager who isn’t receiving free school meal vouchers due to her father’s immigration status

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 22 April 2020 22:48 BST
Ismail, pictured with his two daughters following his surgery on 2 March, says he is sometimes having to skip meals due to a drop-off in support during lockdown
Ismail, pictured with his two daughters following his surgery on 2 March, says he is sometimes having to skip meals due to a drop-off in support during lockdown

Abeke*, 17, struggles to concentrate on the algebra in her A-level maths book because her stomach keeps rumbling. She would get a snack but there’s nothing to eat. Since the lockdown started, food has been limited.

“We’re having smaller portions, and sometimes there is nothing. Sometimes we just have toast and butter for dinner,” the sixth former tells The Independent. She lives at her aunt’s house in Hackney with her father and 13-year-old sister – with whom she shares a small bed – and they have all gone hungry on numerous occasions since the coronavirus pandemic started.

The Nigerian family has been in the UK for 13 years, so the two girls know nothing other than this country. But Ismail, their father, has a leave to remain application pending, and due to his current lack of status they have no recourse to public funds (NRPF) – meaning they cannot access state benefits, not even free school meals.

While this was just about manageable before, coronavirus has meant a lot of the support networks they previously relied on have fallen away, leaving them unable to afford the basics.

Ismail, 47, who has not been able to work legally since being in the UK, underwent surgery on 2 March for gallstones and a hernia, and despite not having fully recovered he has to sleep on the sofa every night.

“Since I’ve been here I’ve been struggling, but since the pandemic started, it’s been unbearable,” he says. “Before, some people were able to support me, but now everyone has their own problems. They are struggling as well. We can’t afford to buy food. Sometimes I go without meals so that my daughters can eat. If they need sanitary products, I struggle to get it. They are not happy.

“I just want to work. I feel bad relying on everyone else. If I was able to work I could provide for myself. I could pay my tax, be a good citizen, contribute to the economy. But I need my papers, and I need a place for me and my daughters.”

One ray of hope might have been the government’s decision on 6 April, following a legal challenge, to extend free school meals to thousands of families who have NRPF during the pandemic. This should have meant Abeke and her sister receive supermarket vouchers to pay for meals during the pandemic, but no guidance was published by the government until Monday – and when it was, it revealed that they didn’t qualify.

The Department for Education (DfE) said it would apply only to children receiving section 17 support – a form of local authority provision which charities say is notoriously difficult for families to access – or section 4 asylum support, meaning Abeke and her sister, along with thousands of other children, will not benefit.

A new report by Hackney Migrant Centre, seen exclusively by The Independent, warns that for people who were already made destitute by NRPF, their situation is likely to become even worse during the pandemic. It states that, as communities and charities are impacted, many with NRPF will have lost support they had been surviving on, leading to more people going hungry.

It also warns that many people with NRPF are losing their jobs or working shorter hours because of the lockdown, with those who work informally or on zero hours contracts unable to benefit from government’s support measures to protect incomes, often making rent and basic necessities unaffordable.

Amina, 35, arrived in the UK from Algeria with her husband Mohamed, also 35, in 2012. They currently live with their three children, aged nine, six and one, in Leighton, east London where they rent in two rooms – a bedroom and a living room – that belong to a friend of theirs at a reduced cost. But they have been given notice to leave by the end of May.

The Algerian nationals were granted leave to remain in October last year, after paying £14,000 to apply, but it has a NRPF condition attached to it. Mohamed had worked in a butcher’s shop, but it closed two weeks ago due to the pandemic, so they currently have no income, and they can’t claim any form of state benefit. They now rely on the local food bank where they pick up a package of food once a week to survive off.

“I’m worried. I’m trying my best to find somewhere to go. If you go to an agency they won’t let you have two bedrooms for five people. But then you go to the council and they say you’re lucky you have one bedroom and a sitting room for five people you’re fine,” Amina tells The Independent.

Her primary school-aged daughters have not been offered free school meal vouchers despite the government announcement two weeks ago. Amina says she hopes this does come to fruition, as the family is currently reliant on what the food bank is able to give them.

The Hackney Migrant Centre report concludes that free school meals are essential to protect some of the most vulnerable children from hunger when there may not be enough to eat at home, and calls on ministers to ensure that all pupils from low income families, regardless of immigration status, are able to rely on them during the Covid-19 pandemic and after it.

Stephanie*, a Nigerian asylum seeker, lives in east London with her 13-year-old British-born twins. She says their school gave her children free school meal vouchers last week, but could not guarantee that they would give anymore due to their status. Now she is having to ration their food.

“When they were in school it was okay, because by the time they come home it’s getting dark. You just give them food and everyone goes to bed. But now they want to snack. It’s not easy, but they don’t understand. If they say ‘Mum, I’m hungry,’ you can’t just say no,” she says.

“I try to feed them well, but I can’t give them a full plate. I have to ration it. It’s unfair on them because as they get older, they eat more. You can’t tell a child not to grow. They are suffering.”

The 43-year-old, who is appealing a refused asylum claim, explains that as well as struggling to pay for enough food for the family on the £116 she gets a week from the Home Office, she feels guilty that she can’t afford better facilities to enable her children to do their homework.

Stephanie adds: “We have no laptop, no internet at home. They have to take it in turns to borrow my phone to do their homework, and before you know it the data is gone. They are frustrated. I don’t know who to turn to. The school isn’t helping.”

Nadia Chalabi, school meals advocate at Hackney Migrant Centre, says the new guidance on children with NRPF is “shockingly discriminatory”, adding: “This extension has not been designed to reach all children in need, instead it feels like the smallest and most temporary concession that the DfE could come up with.

“Thousands of undocumented children who are not receiving section 4 or section 17 support continue to be excluded from free school meals despite being vulnerable to total destitution as they are cared for by adults who are denied the right to work and denied access to welfare support.”

She also raised concern that the DfE guidance states that families with NRPF on their leave to remain on the private life or family route can receive free school meal vouchers during the pandemic, but only if their whole household income is below £616 per month.

Ms Chalabi says it came as “welcome news” that some families with NRPF will now be able to access free school meals during the pandemic, but highlighted that many have continued to struggle in the two weeks it took for the guidance to be published.

“Low income families with NRPF faced financial, food and housing insecurity before the pandemic. Now families face eviction as hosts take measures to protect their household from the spread of the virus, and financial support is stopping as support networks face financial insecurity themselves,” she adds.

“Free school meals are essential for every child in need regardless of immigration status, there will never be equal access to education without them. It is shameful that the DfE continues to deny the support of free school meals from some of the poorest children in society because of where they or their parents were born.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We have temporarily extended the eligibility criteria for free school meals to support families with no recourse to public funds, in recognition of the difficulties they may be facing during these unique circumstances.”

*Some names have been changed

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