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‘Having no recourse to public funds violates my human rights’

New Home Office proposals could see migrants deported just for sleeping rough as 'hostile enironment' policies lock them our of receiving help

David grew up in London. He went to school in the capital, made childhood friends and spent 20 years building a life, like millions of others. But now he has had both the right to work and claim benefits stripped away, forcing him to sleep rough. 

He is one of many people across the UK who have been subject to the no recourse to public funds policy, or NRPF. Locked out of receiving help and pushed towards poverty, this vulnerable minority are placed in an impossible position where they are not allowed the means to help themselves, putting extra pressure on local authorities who try to offer support.

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Many migrants, including asylum seekers, are subject to the NRPF rule. It shuts them out of state support, means they cannot access benefits in the UK and makes it difficult for them to secure housing through local authorities.

Migrants’ charity NACCOM stepped in to supported David after more than a year sleeping rough. He was handed a two-year prison sentence for a non-violent crime and released in 2017. 

After 20 years in the country, he found his indefinite leave to remain in the UK revoked, entitlement to benefits cancelled and restrictions placed on him that meant he couldn’t work. He was told he could be facing deportation from the UK and taken to a country he had not seen since birth, separating him from his family and home in London.

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick has announced funding to give 3,300 rough sleepers permanent homes following the Everyone In scheme. But according to councils, it will not be enough to protect people like David and the Local Government Association has urged ministers to suspend the NRPF policy as an essential measure  in easing the pressure on homelessness services.

New plans from the Home Office could put David at even more risk, however. The proposals, spearheaded by Home Secretary Priti Patel, will make it legal for the Government to deport migrants found to be rough sleeping.

The high court previously ruled that a similar policy was unlawful, in 2017, and the new proposals are seen as an extension of the “hostile environment” approach to immigration brought in by Theresa May when she was in charge of the Home Office.

The Home Office can deport someone if they have been convicted of a crime punishable with prison time, and if the Government thinks their deportation would be in the public interest. 

However there are legal grounds that can stop the Home Office deporting someone even if they have served a prison sentence. This often means it would put the person in danger, breaching the UK’s obligations under the Refugee Convention or the European Convention of Human Rights. If this applies, the Government can still remove someone’s indefinite right to remain in the country, leaving them in limbo: without support from the state and barred from supporting themselves.

Not having money to eat, to clothe yourself. Just waiting to die

After David left prison and found himself unable to work or claim benefits, he couldn’t afford or find a safe place to live. For the next year and a half he found shelter on friends’ couches, on night buses or at Heathrow Airport

But when the Covid-19 outbreak began, his friends were hesitant to bring him into their homes because of the virus. 

“Everyone was scared to have me in their house because I have an underlying condition and I am vulnerable. It’s almost like I had the virus because I am vulnerable. They didn’t want me around anymore,” he said.

“They said, ‘Look, we don’t want you here, we have to isolate’, so I had to stay on the street. It’s very scary, I was panicking when I heard if you have an underlying health condition you are more likely to die. I thought I was going to die, it was very worrying, very dangerous. My depression got so bad.”

He was forced to continue sleeping rough even as the Everyone In scheme brought 15,000 homeless people into single-room accommodation like hotels where they could stay safe from the virus. David eventually found emergency housing with the help of NACCOM, but said his treatment by the Government left him feeling he was “just waiting to die”.

He said: “Just because you don’t have a passport, you are not human. You shouldn’t be supported, you shouldn’t be helped. 

“Not having money to eat, to clothe yourself. Just waiting to die. That’s what it means.”

The “hostile environment” for migrants in the UK pushes many into crime as a way to survive, David added. 

“Yes, I committed a crime, but I did my time. And not just me. I met a lot of people — migrants, asylum seekers — who were denied their right to work or claim benefits. What I experienced is what this restriction makes people do. They must do something to feed themselves, to clean themselves, to put a roof over their head. 

“This restriction is a danger to public health. It’s violating human rights and denying your basic needs.”

The new plans, which will hit people with no recourse to public finds the hardest, are “callous and misinformed” according to NACCOM national director Renae Mann. 

“Ineffective, punitive government policies are often the direct cause of people’s homelessness,” Mann added. “The just and humane response to rough sleeping is to provide safe housing and legal advice, not deportation.” 

Councils have been forced to work against the policy during the Covid-19 crisis, trying to support people with no recourse to public funds despite receiving no extra Government funding to safeguard the vulnerable group through the pandemic. Local government representatives have made repeated calls for Westminster to suspend the policy and give migrants access to benefits to reduce the pressure on already cash-strapped local authorities.

“Forcing social services to view challenges through an immigration or criminality lens risks locking vulnerable people out of the support they need and ‘trapping them into prolonged hardship’,” says Henry St Clair Miller from the NRPF Network.

Earlier this year the work and pensions committee warned ministers that the NRPF policy was forcing migrants to make the “invidious” choice between “financial ruin” or risking their lives by continuing to work where they could be exposed to Covid-19.

And it costs the country. Research by NRPF Connect found that single migrant adults supported by social services in England are financially assisted for an average 1,055 days, at a cost of £18,000 a year to local authorities. 

St Clair Miller added: “Policy changes could help the response, but it is not about enforcement.”

Frontline workers and experts agree the threat of deportation will push vulnerable migrants further under the radar. 

Charities have asked councils to agree not to share the details of people they are supporting with the Home Office, for fear of it being used to deport people during the pandemic. 

The Home Office has described Priti Patel’s proposals as “firm and fair”, but in reality they will drive migrants into “homelessness, destitution and exploitative situations,” NACCOM’S Mann said. 

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are committed to transforming the lives of some of the most vulnerable in society and to ending rough sleeping for good. This year alone the Government is spending over £700 million in total to tackle homelessness.

“The new rules provide a discretionary basis to cancel or refuse a person’s leave where they are found to be rough sleeping and refuse offers of support or are engaged in persistent anti-social behaviour. The new provision will be used sparingly and only where individuals refuse to engage with the range of support available.”

David’s name has been changed.