“Why aren’t they eligible for Universal Credit?” That’s how Boris Johnson last week tried to brush aside the plight of migrants like Adaoma, who was forced into destitution under racist Tory rules.
Adaoma is one of the million migrants who are denied any benefits under an immigration measure known as No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF). The measure (see below) makes the lives of vulnerable people even more desperate. Yet politicians such as Johnson claim to be ignorant of the fact. “So many are suffering and they don’t have a clue,” Adaoma told Socialist Worker.
Adaoma and her four young children have been denied any state support since 2008, when she became single after suffering domestic violence. In the twelve years since they have survived solely off food banks and help from the church and friends. She had to wage a long battle with the authorities against NRPF, which was only lifted in the summer of 2019 after she appealed.
Adaoma says “it was hell” because “social services didn’t believe my case and thought I was lying”. At one meeting she described how a social worker told her, “I don’t believe people’s stories anymore” and “threatened to remove me”. “My social worker came to the house,” said Adaoma. “He went into the kitchen to see if there was food. The church provided some, so the social worker said why are you bothering? Each time I rang and said, ‘What about electricity?’ it was, ‘Oh call your church, call your friends, call your neighbours’.”
The food bank meant that “at least there was milk and bread”. But it affected what else the family could eat. “I couldn’t work and sometimes friends would drop by with £10 or £20,” she added. “I normally prepare food from scratch, but we had no choice.”
Theresa May, as Tory home secretary, pushed more migrants onto short-term visas as part of the “hostile environment”. This means more people are banned from claiming any benefits. The coronavirus crisis has made the situation worse as more migrants are laid off. And over 100,000 people banned from benefits could soon be sacked, according to the Migration Observatory and the Institute for Public Policy Research.
Solicitor Wendy Pettifer worked at the Hackney Community Law Centre, supporting people who had no recourse to public funds, for many years. She said the policy creates a “complete and absolute breach of the human rights of women and children” and forces women “into very risky and dangerous situations”. “All my clients were women,” Wendy told Socialist Worker, “single parents, many working in the care sector or elsewhere in the public sector.
“The policy causes massive hardship. They can’t afford rent so they end up having sex with dodgy blokes to have a roof over their head. Some women slept on buses, others in A&E, sometimes there would be a spare cell. It’s a horrendous, hidden world.” Adaoma has suffered under Britain’s racist immigration system for decades. Even after people come to Britain, they face crippling fees to renew their visas.
As Adaoma explained, “The Home Office was saying we had to pay almost £6,000 to extend our visas to stay in the country. When we wrote to them and said we couldn’t afford it, they said borrow the money. “My husband was struggling as a taxi driver and rent was stacking up. Eventually that affected my marriage. My husband would bring anger down on me. He got so bad. He hit me.”
She added, “When we were both in a house, we couldn’t afford to pay rent. When I became a single mother with four children, it became even tougher.” The Home Office suffered a blow in a test case at the High Court at the beginning of May. An eight year old boy known as “W”, with the support of his migrant mother, won a ruling saying the NRPF policy was unlawful and breached human rights.
The court had heard how W and his mother had been street homeless. She was on a ten-year route to settlement in Britain. This involves four visas, each two and a half years long, while the NRPF condition applies throughout. But it’s unclear what impact the ruling will have, and the Home Office can still impose the NRPF condition.
Wendy said it was disappointing that despite the court ruling “they weren’t going to hand down a full order”. Instead the government has time to respond. “Then we’ll have another hearing,” explained Wendy. “They’ll respond in a year and then the steam will go out of it.”
The policy is part of a Tory attempt to push the racist myth that migrants are a “drain on resources”. Johnson last week was forced to say, “Clearly people who have worked hard for this country, who live and work here should have support of one kind or another.” This fits with the Tories’ talk of only wanting “skilled” migrants to come to Britain. But policies such as NRPF show that racist scapegoating of all migrants underlines immigration rules.
Adaoma said it was insulting to say that people are trying to “rip off the system”. “Who wants their kids to see them crying because they have no support and can’t work?” she asked. “People are having breakdowns. It’s mind blowing how they treat people.”
What is ‘No recourse to public funds’?
‘One small trip and you’re down’
In scenes reminiscent of an aid distribution at a refugee camp in Calais, desperate people queue to pick up food. Volunteers give out bags of supplies and get tents for people to sleep in. But it’s not Calais. It’s Kenneth Robbins House tower block in Northumberland Park, north London.
A large number of people waiting for help are destitute migrant workers from eastern Europe. Many have been laid off during the lockdown and can’t claim benefits because of immigration rules. Some are forced to sleep tents in local parks. Piotr, a Polish migrant who worked as a building labourer, queues up every Thursday. “I only eat two times a day with help from charity organisations,” he told Socialist Worker. “I come from Liverpool Street on the bus because it’s free for now. It means you only survive to the next day. I have applied for benefits, but I don’t know if I will get anything.”
It’s not just migrants from outside of the European Union (EU), subject to NRPF, who are prevented from accessing welfare support. EU migrants have to prove that they are “exercising their treaty rights” to work in other countries.
This requires proof that they have been working. And they can only keep their jobseeker status for “longer than three months if there is ‘compelling evidence’ that the EEA national is continuing to seek work and has a ‘genuine chance’ of being employed”.
For many cash-in-hand workers, even showing they have worked is near impossible. Martin, another Polish building worker, worked in Manchester and London until he was sacked following a work injury last November. He lives in a hotel in North Acton, west London, and travels two and a half hours every Thursday to pick up food. For Universal Credit I needed three weeks’ pay slips,” he said. “I had pay slips from Manchester, but in London I was paid straight into the hand.”
Piotr added, “I had no documents because someone stole my bag. With no documents I had no job. With no job, I had no accommodation. He described a “vicious circle” of poverty where “one small trip and you’re down”. “I was homeless for one or two years with breaks,” he said. “When I had a job for a few months, I had somewhere to live, when I didn’t I’d lose the accommodation.”
Fear and anxiety in Urban House in Wakefield
Refugees inside Urban House in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, have “fear and anxiety” of catching coronavirus. More than 250 refugees have been classified as a “single household” at the Initial Accommodation Centre (IAC). Asylum seekers are placed there before being put into housing.
Photographs sent to Socialist Worker show bites from bed bugs on people’s faces and bodies, crowded bedrooms and communal areas, and unsanitary lavatories. Reza, an Iranian refugee, said social distancing is impossible. “When I came to Urban House, the lockdown had started,” he told Socialist Worker. “Always I have fear and stress about getting coronavirus. There are very narrow corridors and we’re always touching the doors and passing each other.”
Urban House is part of the Mears Group’s outsourcing empire. The Accommodation and Asylum Support Contract for Yorkshire, Humber and the North East is worth more than £1.15 billion over ten years from August 2019.
Mears has subcontracted the facility to Urban Housing Services LLP, part of the Citrus Group that owns and manages it. At the Home Affairs Select Committee on 7 May Mears CEO John Taylor tried to rebuff evidence that refugees were at risk. “We had a visit to the building from the director of public health at Wakefield Council and the Home Office on 7 April,” he said. “I am not sure when those pictures were taken, but certainly we have been exercising social distancing from the outset of the restrictions.”
More recent pictures from the Urban House canteen contradict Taylor’s claim. Taylor said that a visit on 7 April by the director of public health was “able to confirm that the social distancing, the mealtime arrangements, the washing arrangements and the household arrangements were in keeping with the guidance”.
But Reza explained that the inability to social distance is part of wider problems. “I have changed rooms three times because of bed bugs and most people’s hands and bodies have some bites,” he said. “Most people have the problem and it’s always itching their bodies.”
Reza added that there’s “no cleaning stuff in the toilets”. “They’ve got one material which is called shampoo, shower gel and soap and most of the time there isn’t enough,” he said. “It’s liquid, it feels watered down, and I have to go to the next shower to get any.”
Another photograph from 29 April shows an Afghan refugee, blood on his arm from self-harm, sleeping in a reception area of the building. The South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) said he had “gathered all his belongings and pillows and went to the reception area to demand to be moved to housing”. “The security staff made him sleep outside between the two double doors at the entrance for the rest of the night,” it said.
Reza knew someone who lived in the room with the Afghan refugee. “He was harming himself,” said Reza. “He was cutting his hands with a knife and shaving blade, and the floor was always covered in blood. “That’s why he couldn’t stay in the room.” Reza said that making the man sleep between the two doors is “the kind of behaviour that’s happening to us and getting very normal”. “Issues like this are happening every day,” he said. “It’s racism.”