MRN's Route to Your Rights project sought to document the challenges that migrants face in settling in the UK. The stories collected through interviews with both migrants and support workers show how difficulties linked to immigration administration, housing and employment often reinforce each other, compounded by gendered vulnerabilities. Many migrants thus face an extended and gruelling period of arrival, during which support networks and charities – themselves overstretched – are often the only thing that separates them from destitution, homelessness and health deterioration.
Recently, the UK government has been clamouring for more "integrated communities." Few would dispute that, in order for migrants to feel included into their new communities, they must first get settled. Yet for the newly arrived, difficulties often pile on early. The Route to Your Rights (RTYR) project, funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, retraces different migrants' stories of arrival and settlement. Its final report identifies some key hurdles that migrants face on their path to a settled life in the UK, as well as the support that might help clear these hurdles.
The danger of vicious cycles
The first lesson we can draw from the RTYR research is that, for many newly arrived migrants, problems are often entangled, and hinge upon the immigration process. For instance, a delayed or convoluted immigration process can make it difficult, even impossible, to find work. The absence of work makes it difficult to afford decent housing (even if you have the right to rent). Living in cold and damp accommodation leads to deteriorating health, making work even harder to come by. Access to health care is also far from straightforward for migrants without regularised status, and in the cases where they acquire debt with the NHS, this can then negatively affect the decision on their immigration status.
The point here is not that there is a "typical" path of hardship for migrants, but that several different things can go wrong, and complications in immigration administration make it easier for these things to go wrong all at once. "Vicious cycles" can occur where it is no longer clear which of multiple problems should be most urgently addressed – housing, work, health – and where none can really be tackled until a clear decision has been taken on immigration status. As one solicitor interviewed for the RTYR report put it: "If you can't sort out immigration, you really can't sort anything out."
"Now I've been here for 17 years. Much of my adult life has been in this country, and I haven't actually achieved – I haven't actually moved on or developed as an individual." An irregular migrant in Coventry
An administratively created situation
One of the key points of the RTYR report is to show that this precariousness is not just avoidable, but is being actively created by the immigration system itself. Administrative practices and "hostile environment" policies push migrants into a more vulnerable state. To well-documented Home Office delays and errors, we can add, for example, the 28-day notice for people who are granted refugee status to vacate their government-funded accommodation: this policy often does not give refugees enough time to apply for new housing and financial support, leaving them precariously housed for extended periods afterwards.
In addition, gatekeeping by local authorities – especially in London – often means that vulnerable migrants are pushed away from last-ditch support services. Migrant support organisations tell stories of local authorities doing the "bare minimum" to assist refugees and asylum seekers, of shelters for destitute women automatically presuming that migrants do not have the right to public support (and therefore turning them away), or of lack of adapted communication (for example, councils texting illiterate refugees about housing options).
This situation can itself be linked to the drastic cuts in funding that local authorities and support services have been asked to bear in recent years. Cuts to legal aid have led to migrants having to navigate the highly complex field of immigration law on their own, as affordable solicitors are overworked.
The consequences of vulnerability – and how to mitigate them
"You can have a client who comes in and later they become homeless, and they come back and the change in person is enormous. If people are really sleeping rough […] their mental and physical health goes very quickly." Immigration Lawyer
The results of policies and procedures that leave migrants with little public support can be disastrous. Health, overall, is a major issue. The impacts of isolation, poverty and administrative limbo on newly arrived migrants' health are undeniable, including anxiety, depression, and chronic illnesses such as asthma or diabetes. Homelessness is a particularly impactful experience.
Migrant women are hardest hit by difficulties in settlement. Women who enter the UK on "dependent" visas have nowhere to go if they experience domestic abuse, as leaving their partnership could lead to an irregular situation. Migrant mothers are more quickly forced into exploitative work so that they can feed their children, exposing themselves to sexual abuse or assault. Single mothers struggle to find the time and resources to improve their language and support networks in between their work and childcare efforts.
To mitigate the harmful consequences of such prolonged arrival, or deferred settlement, what can migrant support and advocacy organisations do? When problems are entangled, it is more important than ever to find ways to deliver holistic support – "doing a lot of things at once," as one support worker put it, including sometimes health monitoring and even banking (as when migrants need help saving for a tenancy deposit). This would also require increased collaboration between migrants' organisations and mainstream service providers, especially where health, legal counsel, housing and employment are concerned. As we continue to strive for such partnerships, we must continue to monitor the detrimental effects of gatekeeping and "hostile environment" policies, all the while building migrants' own capacities for self-advocacy.
Download the report here: Route to your Rights- March 2018