Beyond the Headlines: Why Rising Migrant Destitution in the UK Needs an Urgent Policy Response

Published 7 June 2024 / By Lucy Leon

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In the run-up to the 2024 General Election, both the Conservative Party and Labour Party are releasing key statements around immigration policy. Whilst most of the narrative focuses on asylum and net migration, neither party has commented on the impact of the UK’s current immigration policies on the rapidly rising rates of destitution and homelessness.

 A recent cross-parliamentary report highlighted that the UK’s current immigration policies are creating destitution by design, pushing both newer arrivals and long-term residents into poverty, and pushing costs onto local government and the voluntary sector who step in to support people at risk of destitution. Migrant destitution in the UK has increased by 136% since 2019 and the risk of destitution for migrants is now 35% higher than the average across the UK population rate in the UK (Fitzpatrick et al., 2023). 

The UK government recently acknowledged during a Westminster Hall debate that some migrants may be at greater risk of poverty and destitution. Tom Pursglove, the Minister for Legal Migration and the Border noted that the UKrightly [has] safeguards in place[...] to protect vulnerable migrants, and appropriate safeguards flow from that responsibility and our recognition that people can find themselves in the most challenging circumstances”. The Minister acknowledged that local authorities may also provide a basic safety net of support, regardless of immigration status, if it is established either that there is a risk to the wellbeing of a child or a genuine care need that does not arise solely from destitution.” 

However a recently  launched COMPAS study found that this ‘basic safety net’ government speaks of is highly dysfunctional. Whilst there are some important pockets of good practice (Greater Manchester’s more inclusive approach to homelessness) and new approaches (Scotland’s ‘Ending Destitution Together’ national strategy) to learn from, the national system is patchy and does not meet the growing scale of need. The provision of local authority support is inconsistent and frequently inadequate, with no clear guidance on minimum standard subsistence rates, and operates without any dedicated funding from central government.  

Local authorities: care, concern and a lack of information crisis 

Research with local authority staff and local stakeholders found significant gaps in access to this ‘parallel safety net’ provided by local authorities. This included, but was not limited to: 

  • destitute people assessed as not meeting the high social care threshold and being refused support 
  • people unaware that they can access social care support 
  • people too worried about the potential ramifications on their immigration status to present at social care
  • people finding that the process to get the support they are legally entitled to is humiliating, distressing and intrusive. Examples brought to the research team included adults with terminal illnesses or dementia, elderly adults who had lived in the UK for decades and families with young children who are facing destitution

Many people facing destitution are subject to the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) restriction, a visa condition limiting people’s access to the mainstream welfare safety net that includes  Universal Credit, Housing Benefit and Child Benefit. The Minister's recent comments highlighted how destitute people subject to the NRPF condition may be able to apply to the Home Office to have the condition lifted and  access social security to avoid homelessness and destitution. However, our research highlights that only certain visa holders can apply to have the condition lifted and that only a small percentage of people holding visas where NRPF can be lifted successfully do so  

GEM findings evidence a concerning lack of accessible information on how to get help when in crisisPeople hadn’t been aware of the possibility of applying to have their NRPF condition lifted; speaking with 60 people impacted by NRPF across the UK, many people wished that more information was available to help prevent falling further into destitution and taking on debt. Local authority advice and information was often limited, with some receiving conflicting advice  depending on who they spoke to. They wished information was consistent, covered people’s options and was also accessible and readily available, including for people who don’t have access to online materials. 

Fear was also a recurrent thread. Many people are terrified of applying for support in case it jeopardises their current or future immigration status or risked  social services intervening in the care of their children.

Demands for social care support are unlikely to reduce. The significant rise in the numbers of people impacted by NRPF has serious implications for future migrant destitution and local government-delivered safety nets. Rising need is only leading to rising demand and costs for local authorities, without adequate resourcing or support to deliver a “parallel welfare system” (Price & Spencer, 2015). Local authority staff find themselves caught between both social services and immigration legislation, which sit in tension – sometimes focusing on exclusion and sometimes inclusion – resulting in a complex and often inadequately operated system. Migrant destitution fails to make the headlines in the different political parties’ commitments, yet our findings show that it is not a niche migration issue but instead impacts on wider national and local policy priorities such as ending rough sleeping, ending child poverty and addressing public health inequalities. 

Looking forward

Despite repeated calls from the third sector, local government and cross-party parliamentarians to review the NRPF policy for children and vulnerable people , there is an expectation that none of the parties will commit to reforming the policy in their election manifestos. We have addressed some of the wider structural changes that need to happen to tackle rising migrant destitution in a recent blog. In the meantime, social services support provides an important function as a ‘basic safety net,’ to avoid destitution for children and the most vulnerable. Our research finds increasing need, a lack of resource and most local government social services’ departments unable to adequately fulfil this vital function. Properly resourcing this safety net is the first step to developing the local leadership necessary to tackle destitution and prevent its impacts. to developing the local leadership necessary to tackle destitution and prevent its impacts.