No Recourse to Public Funds leaves migrant abuse victims in the lurch

The Coronavirus crisis presents one of the most testing times for all aspects of daily life in post-war Britain. Yet as Britons have had access to furlough schemes and welfare support, vulnerable migrant families have been left to fall through the cracks.

Instead, migrants are burdened by ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF), a condition attached to their immigration status until they can achieve Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) status which can be a ten-year-long route that is littered with costly visa renewals in-between. As a result, over 100,000 people with NRPF in the UK have become vulnerable to destitution during the pandemic, and for migrant women, domestic abuse victims and survivors of honour-based violence, the NRPF condition coupled with a staggering lack of supporting services has been devastating.

Campaigners have long argued NRPF unjustly prohibits families from benefits, yet attempts to lift the condition at least throughout the duration of the pandemic has fallen on deaf ears. Indeed, although the Prime Minister who only heard of the policy in May pledged to review the policy, Home Secretary Priti Patel confirmed “the answer is no” in Parliament the following week when asked to overhaul the condition until COVID-19 has run its course.

However, although NRPF affects most migrant families in the UK, the condition disproportionately harms vulnerable migrant women and their children with one report going as far to criticise NRPF as “indirect sex-based discrimination” on the grounds of its detrimental impact on pregnant women, abuse survivors, single parents, low-income earners and those in insecure work (who are more likely to be women) and children. The benefits ban includes child tax credits, carers allowance, Universal Credit and all means of welfare support such as social housing and free school meals for children.

Even in the best of times, NRPF ensnares migrant single mothers in a vicious cycle of poverty and insecurity while pregnant women have been unable to take sufficient maternity leave both before and after giving birth. Data shows that when a relationship between parents break down, women disproportionately become the sole caregivers of their children, leaving them with little choice but to engage in insecure work or zero hours contracts to cater to their childrearing responsibilities. As for pregnant migrant women, they may receive Statutory Maternity Pay by their employer, but the amount usually given still bitterly falls short at covering the basics – let alone a newborn baby.

However, throw Coronavirus into the mix and migrant women emerge again having pulled the shortest straw. Even though women were more likely to have been temporarily furloughed as a whole to look after their children during COVID-19 than men, British women were at least supported by Government packages. Migrant, black and other ethnic minority women have been left to endure the severe economic hit with little-to-no support extended to them.

Even domestic abuse shelters that specialise in offering support to migrant and black women have been struggling throughout the pandemic. Despite an alarming uproar in cases in which on average five women have tragically been killed every week throughout lockdown, domestic abuse services have been struggling to make ends meet. Yet even before the pandemic, shelters reported a staggering restriction of space for migrant, black and ethnic minority women with Women’s Aid finding only 418 spaces across England for such women last year. The result more often than not sees vulnerable women without British Citizenship turned away from a safe space to sleep.

This is made all the more concerning by the fact migrant women are at “an increased risk of domestic violence, sexual violence, suicide, sexual and economic exploitation, domestic abuse-related homicide and harmful cultural practices”, according to research by Southall Black Sisters and Women’s Aid. The Unity Project further corroborated this evidence by finding that 23% of destitute women with NPRF experience domestic abuse compared to 7.5% of British women. However, the proposed Domestic Abuse Bill sheds little light on tackling this prevailing problem. Instead, migrant women’s insecure immigration status and prohibition on public funding leaves them to tackle and endure violence in the dark and on their own.

The only possible escape route for survivors of domestic and honour-based abuse – and access to financial aid – is through the Destitute Domestic Violence Concession (DDVC). However, this is fraught with its own issues: migrant women must jump through hoops to detail the abuse they have suffered, and the concession is limited to women with a Partner or Spouse Visa. In addition to the fact many other migrant women in the UK under Work Permits or Student Visas are barred from support, an Amnesty International report finds that the financial aid on offer is “unlikely to be in place at the point of crisis”.

The story is tragically similar to that of trafficking survivors. Although migrant trafficking survivors can access temporary funding through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), this alternative is similarly littered with errors in which survivors can be denied NRM support and even refused any form of legal status in the country.  Critics have long accused the system of leaving survivors at the mercy of the ‘postcode lottery’, and during COVID-19, specialist counselling and therapy sessions have come to a halt leading to an increased deterioration in survivors’ recovery.

It therefore comes as no surprise that the majority of those applying to have an exemption from NRPF is women.

One recent landmark case is exemplary of how NRPF plunges women and children into destitution. The High Court heard how an eight-year-old boy and his mother, a carer, had endured destitution and homelessness as a result of the mother’s immigration status and NRPF. And although the outcome of the case prompted the Home Office to tweak its guidance, the new clause only allows migrants with a Family Visa to seek support – and only when they are at risk of ‘imminent destitution’. There are now fresh fears that vulnerable families will once again fall victim to the ‘postcode lottery’, particularly as local councils are already obliged to issue support to struggling families in their jurisdiction but fail to do so: 6 out of 10 families who apply for Section 17 aid are refused – and many are even threatened to have their children taken from them.

What this ultimately tells us is that whenever resources are stretched thin and responsibilities are devolved into the hands of local authorities, migrant women are left high and dry while NRPF restricts their access from fleeing abuse or feeding their families. Instead of tweaking clauses and expecting councils to extend a helping hand, NRPF ought to be scrapped and migrant families should be able to seek welfare support in the same way Britons can. Until then, women will endure the brunt of violence, abuse and financial instability on their own.

This article has been written by Olivia Bridge who is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service.