Blog post by Sheona York, Clinic Solicitor at Kent Law Clinic

People have been cautiously welcoming the economic measures just announced by Rishi Sunak to support businesses to keep people in work, and to support at least some individuals by paying statutory sick pay from the first day. Questions remain for those earning too little to be eligible for sick pay and those who are self-employed, and there is concern that people who should stay home and self-isolate will not do so for fear they will not be able to feed their families. Mortgage holidays and a stay on evictions have also been announced.

1. Waive the ‘no recourse to public funds’ condition

However, Boris Johnson has referred to helping ‘British citizens’, and nothing has so far been said about two significant groups in the population. Firstly, the hundreds of thousands of workers and families present in the UK on time-limited visas, permitted to work but with no recourse to public funds. Many of these are working in the NHS, in social care and in other essential public services such as child care, as well as in hospitality and food processing. However, if these people stop work in order to self-isolate, they will not be able to claim any benefits without making a complicated application to the Home Office which on current performance would take several months to resolve. If such people become ill, they may, depending on who they work for, be entitled to sick pay – but they may find it hard to obtain it because of their ‘no recourse to public funds’ status. Others will not be entitled at all, but will not be eligible for any social assistance. Just from a public health perspective, the Home Office should assure those workers and families that they, as part of our society and contributing to our collective well-being, must be protected and supported through the crisis. This could be done simply by announcing and instructing Jobcentres and housing benefit offices that for, say, the next 6 months that the ‘no recourse to public funds’ requirement is not to be applied.

2. Extend all immigration visas by at least 6 months

The Home Office deals with roughly 3 million immigration applications every year, or 25000 applications every month. Given the well-known complexity of immigration law, many people need legal advice before renewing their visas, but many legal practices and advice centres are closing to new clients. Also, applicants must visit specified Home Office appointment centres to apply for their biometric permits, and some of these centres have already announced their closure because of Covid-19. 

Students whose visas are about to expire are not finding that they cannot return home, but if they remain in the UK they face either making an expensive charged-for application including the NHS surcharge, or becoming ‘illegal’ overstayers.

The Home Office should be urged to announce and place on their website that all visas will be extended by at least 6 months, to avoid people missing deadlines, making incomplete applications or unable to afford to make an application, and so becoming ‘illegal’ because of the public health emergency.

3. Up to 1 million ‘illegal’ migrants in the UK need a suspension of enforcement activity and help so they do not become ill and spread the virus

Boris Johnson has argued without success for an amnesty for ‘illegal’ migrants, but now is the time when this should be taken seriously. As Rishi Sunak has just said about the economy, this is not a time for ideology, or for orthodoxy. NGOs have demanded a release of all immigration detainees – most of whom have committed no crime – who are at risk of becoming infected and not receiving adequate health care in detention. Further, noone can be expected to make a ‘voluntary departure’ from the UK, and few countries indeed are likely now to accept deportations, even if airlines could be persuaded to fly them. More numerous are the many individuals and families who may have an arguable case for regularisation even under the present immigration rules, but cannot now be reasonably expected to make any application, because unable to obtain legal advice or attend the requisite Home Office appointments. The Home Office should be urged to announce the suspension immigration enforcement activity, including requiring ‘illegal migrants’ to report to Lunar House and other Home Office centres[1], and, even if only for basic public health common sense, agree to provide support to those living and surviving precariously[2] and thus most likely to become sick and spread the virus to others. 

4. Further points

The current situation is also likely to impact (i) people waiting for applications to be processed, and (ii) of those, those who applied out of time, who are likely to get leave, but at the moment are subject to the hostile environment.

Further efforts are being made to highlight these issues, and to gain traction with decision-makers:

  • Public Interest Law Centre, Project 17 and Migrants’ Rights Network have coordinated an urgent joint letter from over 50 organisations calling on local authorities to protect and support vulnerable migrants, particularly those with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) and those experiencing or at risk of homelessness, during the pandemic.
  • ILPA (Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association) has published a list of Recommendations to the Home Office.
  • The paper on which this blog post is based has been noted by the Chair of the South East Regional Migration Partnership (a joint HO- local authority/NGO body), and Hammersmith MP Andy Slaughter has agreed to try to raise the question of migrants in the emergency coronavirus debate in Parliament (on 23/03/2020).

[1]I understand that some individuals are being texted to inform them that they don’t need to report, but there has been no public announcement yet, and thus many people are anxious about whether they should go or not

[2]For example, by widening the criteria for support for ‘failed asylum-seekers’ under s4 Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 – this could be done quickly by regulations.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.