This is an extract from Broke: Fixing Britain’s Poverty Crisis (30 March 2023), edited by Tom Clark.
“I would sleep on the bus, or in doorways. I’d try not to sleep outdoors for long because I have asthma. When I slept outside, I couldn’t breathe and I coughed a lot, especially when it was cold weather”
Javed, in Leeds
This chapter tells the stories of people like Javed and Abena, people who live in Britain but who we collectively treat in a way designed to make them go anywhere else. Before we get to their individual accounts, we need a bit of context about the substantial—and growing—group of residents that policy seeks to make desperate. Who, exactly, is denied the basic opportunities and even the compromised safety net that most others in the UK can take for granted? And what is the system that locks them in penury?
The migration rules sort people into categories of deserving and undeserving. The logic is that the “undeserving” need to be treated harshly, both to punish them and to encourage them to leave the country. The state achieves this either by restricting their access to benefits, or by banning them from working—or sometimes, through a combination of the two.
The system is very complex, having been constructed by successive governments, largely over the past three decades. The aim is sometimes explained as curtailing calls on the public purse, and sometimes put in terms of deterring newcomers. A web of overlapping rules targets people of disparate backgrounds with many different reasons for wanting to settle here. But it’s useful to think of them in four broad categories.
The first is made up of people who have the right to live in the UK, but have the legal condition “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF) attached to their visas. These restrictions ban them from most welfare benefits, as well as social housing and homelessness assistance. NRPF was dramatically expanded by the coalition government in 2012, as part of a wider set of reforms designed to make the immigration system more punitive, known collectively as the “hostile environment”. People in well-paid, secure jobs may be able to cope with these stringent conditions, but for those who encounter hardship the options for easing them are extremely limited.
The second group is of people who come to the UK to seek asylum. Since the turn of the century, asylum-seekers have been banned from working in most instances, or from claiming welfare benefits. Instead, the Home Office offers subsistence payments to people waiting for their asylum claims to be considered. These are set at a much lower level than the regular benefits system—asylum support currently stands at £45 per week, or just £9.10 a week if you are living in Home Office-provided hotel accommodation.
The third is made up of EU nationals who came to the UK under pre-Brexit rules on freedom of movement. After Brexit, people who could prove they’d lived in the UK for 5 years or more were given “settled status,” which generally entitles them to benefits. Those who hadn’t lived here for as long—or couldn’t prove they had—were instead given “pre-settled status,” which carries fewer rights. As a result, people with pre-settled status can end up being denied essential benefits at precisely the moments they need them most.
Finally, there are all those who don’t have the legal right to live in the UK, either because they lost it or never had it in the first place. If your visa expires and you don’t or can’t renew it; if you are refused asylum and exhaust all your rights of appeal; or if you entered the UK without permission—by default, you are banned from claiming benefits or working.
This is no longer a marginal issue, but accounts for a substantial proportion of the deepest poverty seen on our streets and across our communities.
As a result of all these restrictions, the immigration system now leaves very many people with either partial support, or no support at all, and a higher risk of destitution. This is no longer a marginal issue, but accounts for a substantial proportion of the deepest poverty seen on our streets and across our communities. The leading academic analysis, which surveys users of crisis services, estimated that by 2019, 28 per cent of destitute households were “headed by a migrant.” That is twice the total proportion, estimated at 14 per cent, of migrants in the population as a whole.
The stories that follow are all of people who have been made destitute, or trapped dipping in and out of destitution, or whose destitution has been compounded, by immigration restrictions. I contacted them through three migrants’ rights charities—Praxis, in east London; the Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Network (LASSN); and Gyros, in Great Yarmouth—because I wanted to speak to people who felt supported enough that they could be open about their immigration histories. For the same reason, their names have been changed.
Although the system makes a distinction between the deserving and the undeserving, I would ask you to avoid playing that game when you read these stories. Instead, think about it this way: these are people who cook for us, clean for us, gut fish and pluck chickens for us, and staff our shops. Or at least, they do when the system doesn’t succeed in barring them from working at all. They have built lives here, or imagine the lives they might be allowed to build here. They have made the UK their home and have deep reasons for wanting to stay in that home. Their experiences are a part of our society, whether or not that is officially recognised.
“This is my life—my life savings have been in there for years,” says Mary, gesturing to a grey and red rucksack by her feet. “My toothpaste, my toothbrush. Shield [deodorant], face towel, maybe my tights to wear once in a while. Tissues, Vaseline, medication, [sanitary] pads for women to have, those things—but sometimes you don’t even have them.”
We are speaking in 2022, exactly 20 years since Mary arrived in the UK from her native Zimbabwe. Yet for the entirety of that time, she has had no right to work, and has only very rarely had access to financial support from the state. For the past ten years she has rarely lived anywhere for more than a few months at a time—and when all else has failed, as it frequently has, she has slept rough in Leeds, the city she has come to call a home of sorts. “I can’t remember how many places I’ve lived in,” she says. “Dozens and dozens. You could even ask me my last address and I’d have forgotten.”
Mary came to the UK in search of asylum at the age of 30, after fleeing political violence in Zimbabwe. “I was being targeted. They threatened to kill me, they were coming at night trying to burn the house down and so forth. I ran. I had to run,” she says. “I had no time to look for my paperwork.”
That absent paperwork, however, proved to be her undoing. After staying with friends in the UK for a few years—to “work out what was happening”, she says—Mary applied for asylum, only to be rejected for lack of evidence. As her claim worked its way through the appeals process, Mary was moved from one set of Home Office-provided accommodation to another, under the UK’s dispersal policy for asylum-seekers. By the early 2010s, however, her options had run out: Mary could not appeal her case any longer, so she was faced with a choice between returning to all the dangers she had fled in Zimbabwe or trying to live undocumented in the UK.
If you have been refused asylum and have exhausted all rights of appeal, then the state will usually only step in to rescue you from destitution if you agree to leave the country
Since Mary had often been housed in Yorkshire, she gravitated towards Leeds. Some of the time, Mary says, she would try to stay with people she knew through the church she attends, but this was rarely a stable arrangement. While some friends were generous, she says, other people tried to exploit her, sexually or financially. “Sometimes you live with a ‘friend’ thinking: ‘I’ve got a partner.’” At other times, “you are the maid that does not get paid. People take advantage,” she says.
If you have been refused asylum and have exhausted all rights of appeal, then the state will usually only step in to rescue you from destitution if you agree to leave the country. The only other housing option for Mary has been to stay with hosts provided by LASSN—a network of volunteers in Leeds who loan out their spare rooms. But these were usually only short-term stays, sometimes offered on the day itself. As a result, she has become an expert at finding places to sleep rough in Leeds.
“I think I know most of Leeds now. I slept at bus stops. Or I’d go to sleep at St James’s hospital—it’s always open, people go in and out, so the doors are always unlocked. You just go inside, you look for a small place and just hide yourself there.” Sometimes, she says, she’d even take journeys on cut-price coaches travelling between Leeds and other big cities. “The Megabus goes overnight. Sometimes I would take that bus, it will go to London, it will reach there in the morning. Maybe you get a ticket, maybe somebody gives you a ticket or you find a ticket on the floor, and you come back again in the evening.”
In 2018, during a four-month period of sleeping rough—the longest stretch she can remember—Mary made friends with another asylum-seeker, a woman from Congo she met wandering Leeds city centre during the daytime. “We’d meet by mistake, not like we were making an appointment. We’d just find each other, sitting there trying to work out: where am I going next? During the day at least you move around but now you are tired, your legs are aching, so what do you do now?”
“We’d go and sit down in cafés at the end of the day before they closed. Maybe she’d have two pounds for us to drink a cup of tea. We’d chat, ‘hello, hello’ and say: ‘where are you going?’ Sometimes we’d part ways. Other times we’d say: ‘why don’t we go to St James together?’ It was either this or get on the buses. On the buses you can sleep because there are not so many people. But remember, this is my life—” she points to the bag again. “You have to hold it tight.”
Last year, LASSN found Mary a spare room where she could stay longer-term, but she will still have to leave if the family who owns the house needs the room back. Even if she can stay, Mary has no means to support herself and depends on donations from local charities for food and toiletries, along with the occasional voucher for new clothes.
The only way Mary can hope to resolve her immigration status is by applying for settlement on grounds of her 20-year residency—a costly process that could take many more years to resolve, since if she is successful she could be placed on the so-called “ten-year route” to settlement – a longer waiting period, introduced in 2012, under which she would have to apply for repeated visas over another decade before becoming eligible for permanent residence. For her 50th birthday this year, Mary says, her church congregation offered to club together and pay for a solicitor who could help her apply.
“It pains me to think I’ve wasted 20 years,” she says. “And look, I’m still in the same limbo, I’m still going around. The government thinks that if I become destitute, why wouldn’t I go back to Zimbabwe. But what about the things that made me leave? Do you think they [the people who threatened me] have forgotten?”
Instead, as difficult as it is, she remains. “Sometimes I feel like I should have died. This is not how I should be living, because I’m begging. I am a beggar. I don’t eat during the day because I don’t have the money,” she says. “I only have one meal a day. It’s very hard but I have to make a choice because if I eat a sandwich, it means I won’t have supper. I can hear my tummy at night just twisting and rumbling. My brain is saying: what am I doing here?”
When Stella’s son started secondary school recently, she had one piece of advice for him: don’t let your new friends see how we live. “When my son was a bit younger,” she says, “he would come home from school crying, saying his friends have their own room, so why doesn’t he have his own room?”
For the past two years, Stella and her son have been sleeping in the front room of her brother’s two-bed flat in south London. “One time, one friend’s mum came to our house because I was doing a bit of cash-in-hand work, looking after her children. The children started telling friends at school – you know how children are—saying they saw our things in boxes in the sitting room. My son was bullied. When he started secondary school I told him: ‘it’s better not to bring anyone home, you remember what happened to you the last time?’”
If she were somebody else, there would be no reason why Stella and her son should have been forced into a choice between crashing on a relative’s sofa and ending up on the street. In a good month, Stella can earn up to £1,500 from her job as a healthcare assistant—less than the London Living Wage, but still an income, and one that could be topped up with benefits. Until just a few days before we spoke, however, she had been banned from claiming Universal Credit or from applying to be housed by her local council.
To make matters worse, Stella says she is in so much debt that the money she does make disappears almost before she knows she’s got it. “If you look at my bank statements, every month you will see money is going to this person’s account, that person’s account—like, every month I’m paying three to four people,” she says. “Any time I work, my account is always minus because I have to pay back all the money I have borrowed. And when I’ve done that, my son might want something and I’ll find that I only have £5 left, or maybe only a little bit of food left.” She adds: “And you know children of his age, they want cereal, they want this and that—things that I can’t even provide.
“It causes stress and panic. I have to live and my son has to live. I don’t want him to join a gang, for people to be enticing him with new Nikes and things like that.” Stella’s situation—and many of those debts—are the direct result of the immigration system.
Now in her 50s, she explains she originally came to the UK from Nigeria in 2004, to escape an abusive relationship. “It got to the stage that friends in the UK told me: you will die one day if you don’t run away from this man,” she says. “I had a good job back home, I worked in a bank. But it’s the relationship that made me run to this country.”
Stella arrived on a visitors’ visa, but with no safe home in Nigeria to return to, she stayed when that ran out, with no way of regularising her status. For many years she lived in the shadows, surviving on cash-in-hand domestic work and cooking for social occasions among her network of friends and acquaintances. She met a new man, but he too started abusing her when she became pregnant. “He started beating hell out of me, saying he didn’t want the pregnancy. Later I heard he was married [at the time], but you know, when you are in love, it’s what they tell you that you follow,” she says.
It was only after Stella’s son turned seven that she became potentially eligible for leave to remain, on human rights grounds. (After a child has clocked up seven years of residency, the system begins to take seriously that it might have an interest in staying here, which can sometimes give the parent the right to stay too). In 2018, she borrowed thousands of pounds from friends to apply—Legal Aid, which covers solicitors’ fees for people on low incomes, is no longer available for most immigration cases.
At the same time, during the first lockdown, her main employer went bust. Stella was left unable to afford even the very basics
Stella’s application succeeded, but she was given a series of punitive conditions. Like many who regularise their status on human rights grounds in recent times, she was placed on the ten-year route to settlement. The extended waiting time is a punishment twice over: it allows the government to keep you in a state of limbo for longer, but also to charge you more money: you have to apply to renew your visa every two and a half years, at a cost of thousands of pounds each time. The standard application costs £1,033, far higher – on the government’s own figures – than the cost to the Home Office of processing the application.. On top of this, visa holders must usually pay the “immigration health surcharge” —a charge for use of the NHS, imposed even on those who already pay for the NHS via their taxes, which currently stands at £624 per year. And to cap it all, Stella’s visa came with the condition “no recourse to public funds” attached.
She could, however, now lawfully work. Stella found employment as a cleaner – sometimes working two or three jobs at a time—while she and her son lived with her brother, contributing what she could to rent and bills. But the situation deteriorated when Covid arrived. “Before, my brother and his wife shared a room and they gave us a bedroom,” Stella says. “But my brother has a kidney problem and goes to dialysis three times a week. He caught Covid in hospital, and it was serious. He stayed in the hospital for a month or two and when they dispatched him, the doctor said that nobody could share a room with him because he’s vulnerable and his wife had to move into the other bedroom.”
At the same time, during the first lockdown, her main employer went bust. Stella was left unable to afford even the very basics. “Thank God that at this time, my son’s primary school introduced me to an organisation”, a local migrants’ support charity.“They started giving us food, they’d put it in a bag and knock at the door. We’d have some, and I’d share it with other people—I have a neighbour, she’s a single mother with three kids and she doesn’t have [immigration] papers, she’s not on any benefits.” After the lockdowns lifted, Stella was able to resume work, eventually leaving cleaning for her healthcare job. “Now I’ve told the organisation they can stop bringing things, so that my own can go to other people.”
But her situation remained precarious. London’s private rental market is out of her reach – she even paid to rent a single room in a house-share but the landlord then told her they won’t accept children—so she has been forced to keep on living with her son in her brother’s front room. “My salary is not enough for two bedrooms. If I had a girl I would say ‘oh, we can live together, we can manage with one’, but I have a boy. We are different sexes. When I have to get dressed, he has to go out. That’s the way we live,” she says.
In summer 2022, shortly before we spoke, Stella’s visa was up for renewal. With the help of a caseworker at Praxis, she successfully applied to have her NRPF restrictions lifted, on the grounds that her son was at risk of destitution—one of the few exceptions the Home Office makes. For the first time in years, Stella says she has some hope that her living conditions might stabilise: she had applied for Universal Credit and was preparing an application for housing to her local council.
But she is worried about what might happen in future, if NRPF conditions are reimposed the next time she applies for renewal. “I used to do two jobs, three jobs,” she says. “I went from one place to another, I worked like hell, because I didn’t have any support and I’m the kind of person that doesn’t ask people for help. I don’t want to inconvenience people—it’s only when I’m pushed to the wall that I will ask for things. I was doing so much work that even the doctor pushed me to reduce it.”
Stella fears that her age and her worsening health mean she would not be able to withstand a return to her old routine. “The cleaning job was difficult for me: I am a diabetic patient, I have high blood pressure, I have sciatica pain,” she says. “But now I can’t even do two jobs any more. I stopped around December time. I looked at myself, people looked at me—they said I looked haggard, do you understand?” The next renewal date for her visa is only a year away. “I’ve been panicking already, because I don’t have any savings.”
At the start of our conversation, Zhenya takes his passport out of his pocket, opens it at the photo page and pushes it across the table towards me. The taciturn 60-year-old, a Russian with Lithuanian (and therefore EU) citizenship, looks uncomfortable speaking to me—in his eyes, probably, I’m an extension of the various agencies and charities he has been visiting to ask for help over the past few weeks. And he doesn’t like asking for help.
“I have problema,” he says, in a mix of English and Russian, gesturing to his back and his leg. “I’m angry and worried. I’ve worked here for 12 years and when I get sick, this happens.”
Zhenya is currently sleeping rough with a friend in some woods just outside Great Yarmouth, in Norfolk. “It’s a big tent, for four people, and two of us live in it,” he says, adding: “it’s not dangerous, I’m not afraid”. But when it rains, he says, making a gesture to show water soaking up from the ground, “everything gets wet”.
Zhenya has lived and worked in the UK for 12 years, mainly in factories. First he tried London and Birmingham, then he moved up to Peterhead, near Aberdeen, to work in a fish processing plant. For the past five years he has lived in Great Yarmouth. Agriculture in this part of the country—chiefly the poultry industry—has for many years relied on European migrant workers. Until earlier this year, Zhenya was working on the production line at a chicken factory in nearby Thetford, via an agency contract.
Just over six months ago, however, Zhenya says he was forced to stop working by a long-term back problem that flared up and started causing intense pain. “I walk 50 metres, 20 metres and I have to stop,” he says. “It’s problema, standing or walking, for me.” As Zhenya’s job required standing on a production line for 12-hour shifts, he was signed off sick by his GP.
In theory, there should have been support available to prevent Zhenya from falling into destitution. His contract entitled him to several months’ sick pay—and after that, since he’d been living and working in the UK for so long, he should have been entitled to apply for benefits if he still couldn’t work. But two things have combined to make him homeless.
First, he says, he couldn’t afford to fully pay his rent and bills for the room in the flat he rented in Great Yarmouth town centre. “When I stopped working, I got into big debt,” he says. “I couldn’t pay for the room and, erm–” he makes a throwing-away motion to indicate he was out on the street. During the days, a friend lets him visit his flat to wash, and to make meals with the food parcels he receives from local charities.
Second, when Zhenya then went to his local Jobcentre to ask for support, he was told he wasn’t entitled to any because he only had “pre-settled” immigration status. In 2019, when the EU settlement scheme opened its doors, Zhenya didn’t know enough English to make the application himself. Instead, he used the services of an ‘advice shark’—it’s illegal in the UK for people to offer immigration advice unless they are officially certified—who was charging members of Great Yarmouth’s EU immigrant community to make applications on their behalf.
Over the last few years, the practice of advice sharking has become widespread as EU nationals grapple with an entirely new bureaucracy surrounding their lives. Some price gouge their clients, charging hundreds of pounds per application. In Zhenya’s case, he says, he was only charged £15, but the shark made the wrong application, getting him the lesser “pre-settled” status, even though he was eligible for settled status.
It isn’t only the state that is shutting off resources. One of Great Yarmouth’s main food banks, which is having to ration supplies because of increased demand, recently told Zhenya that he had been coming to them for help for too long, and should move on
EU nationals with pre-settled status aren’t automatically entitled to benefits, and in particular can be barred from them while they are either new in a job or after they have been out of work for a long time. After several months sleeping rough, during which time his sick pay ran out, Zhenya started to ask for help—but he has so far been rejected at every turn.
Gyros, a local immigration charity, contacted the borough council’s housing office on Zhenya’s behalf, but were told that because he has pre-settled status and isn’t currently working, the council couldn’t house him. All he has been offered is temporary accommodation, but even that hasn’t yet come through. Another local charity helped him apply for Universal Credit, but Zhenya was told that because he’d now been out of work for longer than six months, he wasn’t entitled to it. Which may or may not be true: the complex rules do have exceptions for people who can’t work on medical grounds. But staff at Gyros, as well as staff at several other migration charities I spoke to around the country, told me that because the EU settlement scheme is still relatively new, it’s common for officials at local councils or the Department for Work and Pensions to mistakenly tell people with pre-settled status that they’re not entitled to benefits, even where they are.
It isn’t only the state that is limiting its generosity. One of Great Yarmouth’s main food banks, which is having to ration supplies because of increased demand this year, recently told Zhenya that he had been coming to them for help for too long, and should move on.
“I didn’t know anything about all these rules here,” he says. “I was surprised, because I have been living here for 12 years and other people immediately receive this Universal Credit and all these benefits, so why not me?”
Now, Zhenya’s two options are to apply for settled status—a caseworker at Gyros has recently submitted the paperwork—or to find another job and earn for three months, which would qualify him for benefits.
“I want to work, but at the moment it’s very difficult,” he says, pointing to his back again. Even though it was damaging his health, he has considered going back to the chicken factory. The trouble is that living in the woods, and being unable to charge his phone, makes it difficult to keep in touch about shift patterns. But he has to try. “Three months’ work, and after, I will apply for Universal Credit and be able to live normally,” he says.
“Sometimes you don’t get to shower for weeks,” says Javed, a 34 year-old with piercing grey-green eyes. “You just walk around and look for somewhere to wash, or when it’s raining you just, you know –” He turns his face skywards and laughs. One of the worst things about being homeless, he says, is the constant feeling of being dirty. “You feel dirty, you think everything around you is dirty. It’s so –” he looks for a word. “Bad.”
Since 2017, Javed has been living in Leeds without a home of his own. He has sofa surfed between a handful of friends, although he never remains in one place for long because, he says, he worries about outstaying his welcome. He has also spent periods in temporary housing for destitute asylum-seekers—at the moment he is a guest of LASSN’s hosting project. But when nothing else is available, he takes to the streets. “I would sleep on the bus, or in doorways. I’d try not to sleep outdoors for long because I have asthma. When I slept outside, I couldn’t breathe and I coughed a lot, especially when it was cold weather.”
Javed’s story shows how insecure immigration status can end up compounding other problems in life. He came to the UK in 2011 from Peshawar, Pakistan, to study for a business and management diploma in Manchester. Buying, selling and marketing is his passion, and he had plans to launch his own internet marketplace, where he would sell goods from China to Westerners. While Javed was studying, he also fell in love.
“I met a girl, and we got married. We planned to live together and have children, but it didn’t go that way,” he says. Having arrived in the UK on a temporary student visa, Javed hoped that he would be able to apply for permanent residency via his partner, a British citizen. After a few years, however, the relationship broke down. “She got addicted to drugs and her behaviour changed. She became very abusive towards me and started stealing things from the house. So I decided to leave. But after that, my immigration case was stuck.”
After leaving his wife, Javed received a letter from the Home Office telling him that his application for a spousal visa had been refused, since he wasn’t in a genuine relationship. With his student visa expired, and no right to live or work in the UK, Javed felt trapped: he couldn’t go back to Pakistan, he says, because he is bisexual and during his time in the UK, he came to reject Islam, the religion he was raised in. His father “cut me off because he doesn’t agree with my lifestyle”.
In 2017, Javed moved from Manchester to Leeds—because, he says, his former partner was stalking him—to stay with a friend. His savings, money given to him by his father when he first came to the UK, were running out and he had been juggling credit cards to stay afloat. He spent the last of his money on solicitors’ fees to apply for asylum, on the grounds that he would be persecuted because of his sexuality and beliefs if he went back to Pakistan. Six months later, this application too was refused. “When my asylum claim was in progress, I had some hope,” he says. “When it was refused it put me in a depression. My savings were finished, I owed money. I was completely in the dark and I didn’t know how to manage things.”
Increasingly, Javed found himself wandering the streets of Leeds. When he wasn’t able to eat with friends, he would scavenge for food in the city centre. “Sometimes I’d eat leftovers—some days I’d have a few chips and drink water, that’s it. Or I’d wait outside shops and ask someone to buy me a meal.” He learned the schedules and the distribution points of the network of Leeds charities that hand out free food, and he’d try to hide his poverty from friends and acquaintances by staying in the city centre, “where there are lots of people and nobody who knows you around”.
The longer Javed stayed destitute, the worse his depression became. “I really started thinking it wasn’t worth living. When you don’t have hope you’re just blind and dark,” he says. At the beginning of the pandemic, in spring 2020, Javed lost hope entirely. “I jumped into the river Aire because I was so confused and depressed. I was really trying to, you know, take my own life. The cops came and they took me to the hospital and the psychiatrist.”
This marked a turning point, and a temporary reprieve. After being treated in hospital, he went to see a GP, who referred him to a Leeds-based refugee charity. They helped find him a place to live, in a house that was donated to LASSN for longer-term stays. For the moment, this has given Javed the basic level of stability he needs to try and resolve his immigration status: with the help of a caseworker from the charity, he is trying to gather evidence that will support a fresh asylum claim.
“Now I have time to think about my case,” he says. “If I wasn’t there [in the home], I would just keep running, I’d be worried about too many things—I’d worry about food, I’d worry about shelter.”
But his situation remains fraught with hazards. Without the right to work or claim benefits, he is entirely reliant on the support of charities. If his asylum claim is refused again there are few other options, short of remaining undocumented and destitute in the UK until he has been in the country for 20 years—which for Javed, who does not see Pakistan as an option, would mean another nine.
Already, he says, destitution means he has missed out on so much of life. “The worst thing is that I have been here in the UK for 11 years, but I haven’t travelled… I’m 34, so that 11 years is the golden era for a person. After that, how are you going to build your future?”
“I started being happy again,” says Abena, a single mother of two and a Londoner, of the moment in 2017 when she received her leave to remain in the UK. “I could finally have a proper job and get a proper salary.”
Abena has lived in the UK since moving here from Ghana in the early 2000s, but spent more than a decade undocumented after her initial visa ran out and she was unable to renew it, despite repeated applications. As she describes it, she spent her two sons’ early years – one is now 18, and the other ten—living “hand to mouth” to support them. Cash-in-hand work cooking and cleaning for acquaintances was supplemented by loans from friends and family, but it was rarely enough to fully cover the basics. “There were times I had to starve to make sure my kids had food,” she says.
In 2017, Abena’s local MP in east London helped her make an application for leave to remain on human rights grounds. “I was literally in tears in the local library and he gave me a letter for the Home Office and recommended a solicitor,” she says. Abena was placed on the long and costly 10-year route to settlement, and with the unforgiving “no recourse” conditions attached. But at least she could now work in the formal economy. She took two jobs—one as a school cook, and the other as a customer assistant at M&S.
“There have been so many times that I had to go hungry just so the kids could eat,” she says. Sometimes I would just eat the leftovers from their bowls.”
Even so, Abena soon found she was still struggling to make ends meet. “It was very difficult, because I had debts to pay. In 2017 my oldest son was naturalised as British. But I needed around £6,500 to pay for the [settlement] application for myself and my little one.” Paying off the resulting debt—and saving up for the renewal fees two and a half years later—meant that her take-home pay of around £1,000 a month simply wouldn’t stretch, even with a third job, a bit of cooking and cleaning work, on the side. Life was slightly easier than when she had no legal right to work at all, but Abena was still trapped in poverty.
“There have been so many times that I had to go hungry just so the kids could eat,” she says. Sometimes I would just eat the leftovers from their bowls.” At times, she says, “I’d go for like two weeks where I didn’t have money to buy food for all of us—I’d have what was on the sides of their plates and I’d just drink water. I used to go to sleep very early because sometimes I was so hungry I couldn’t stay up. It was just… hard,” she says. “Sorry, I’m being a bit teary now.”
Having repeatedly gone short of food over the years means Abena knows various ways to make things stretch. A bag of rice and some eggs, she says, can feed two children for most of a week: rice pudding for breakfast, and Ghanaian egg stew for lunch and dinner. But even that wasn’t always possible. “Sometimes I would just buy a bag of chips and they would have chips with nothing at all, only mayonnaise or ketchup. If I had a bit extra I would stretch myself and maybe I’d buy a value box of chicken or something. “I’d just treat them. I’d go: ‘oh, I’m treating you today’. And they’d go: ‘yeeeeahh we’re having a treat today’. They’d know they were going to have food with a bit of protein in it.”
There are limited forms of support available for parents with no recourse to public funds whose children are at risk of destitution. Local councils can provide emergency funds under a rule known as Section 17—and specialist food banks exist in major cities like London to support immigrant families excluded from the welfare state. At the time, however, Abena says she didn’t know about these options – and, fearful of a surveillance state that wanted her out of the country, that she would have been too scared to ask for help anyway.
“I didn’t know who to call, I didn’t know who to talk to,” she says. “And I was taking care not to get into any kind of trouble. Because really and truly, when I got my leave to remain I was frightened. I didn’t want anything to ruin my settlement application.”
It was only in 2020, just as her visa was up for renewal, that she discovered it was possible to apply to have NRPF conditions removed. “I went to a lady’s house to cook and she said: ‘why do you work so hard? You work too much.’ I remember telling her that I need to survive, my kids need to live. And she said: ‘ok, I have a friend who just got her no recourse to public funds taken off. I can get a number for you.’”
Through this friend, Abena was put in touch with a caseworker at Praxis, who successfully applied to have the restrictions lifted when she renewed her visa in 2020. As a result, Abena now receives just under £200 a month in Universal Credit and child benefit, which she says is vital to keeping her head above water.
Two and a half years on, however, and her visa is up for renewal again – with no guarantee the Home Office will not simply reimpose the restrictions. “I don’t know what’s going to come now, so I’m a bit worried,” she says. If NRPF is reimposed, “it’s going to be working from hand to mouth again”.
- For information and support, please visit:
- The No Accommodation Network, a group of more than 140 frontline organisations that work to end destitution among refugees, asylum-seekers and other migrants denied access to public funds
- The British Red Cross also offers support services around the country
- Praxis, London, a charity for migrants and refugees
- The Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Network (LASSN), responds to the needs of refugees and asylum seekers in Leeds and raises awareness of the issues they face
- Gyros, Great Yarmouth, supports migrants and culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities in the East of England