July 8, 2024

A slow violence: How immigration control forces people in Greater Manchester into destitution

By Will Wheeler, Policy Officer at Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit (GMIAU)

A new report from the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit (GMIAU) and The Boaz Trust shows how people in Greater Manchester are spending years, even decades, living in destitution solely because of their immigration status.

The report, based on five in-depth case-studies and interviews with voluntary-sector workers, details how destitution is used as a weapon of immigration control, enacting a slow violence that punishes people simply for being here. Without access to any safety net, people are pushed into homelessness, whether visible street homelessness or hidden homelessness, staying with friends, relatives or acquaintances.

As the report shows, the complexity and opacity of immigration law generates multiple pathways to destitution, as people whose right to remain is not recognised by the Home Office are banned from working and accessing welfare. This includes people who have been refused asylum; people who had been living in the UK lawfully but were unable to renew their visa, for example because of exorbitant fees; and EEA nationals unable to regularize their status after Brexit. Many others are granted leave to remain but are denied access to public funds. If they are unable to work, for example because of ill-health or caring responsibilities, they are at risk of destitution. The report details the multiple barriers to escaping destitution, which are exacerbated by the severe shortage of immigration advisors.

Experiences of destitution

Two of those interviewed had become street homeless. One of these, a torture survivor, was retraumatised by the several months sleeping rough.

“But when you’re just walking around, without targets, without what need to do, it’s complicated, and a lot of things like, exactly about yourself, come in. It’s ok if for one week, ok for two weeks. But when it’s going longer than a month, you’re thinking changes, and you start thinking that all problem, it’s because of you… I don’t know how it’s similar in English, but in my language we say ‘you start eating yourself.'” – Daniil

Another interviewee narrowly avoided street homelessness after discharge from hospital, when workers from a homeless day-centre advocated for him to access emergency accommodation from the local authority.

While political attention focuses on the visibility of street homelessness, the report also shines a light on hidden homelessness, which encompasses arrangements of varying degrees of stability and of (in)dignity. Two interviewees spent years living with relatives or friends and acquaintances. One found herself repeatedly outstaying her welcome with various hosts, and was pushed into an abusive relationship as a result.

While the experiences of the five interviewees varied widely, for all of them, being destitute – struggling to meet their most basic needs and being forced into dependence on others – had profound impacts on physical and mental wellbeing.

“And there were days, really you feel like giving up, you feel like, to be honest, you know… but I just had to say, know what, hang in there, hang in there, if you’ll pass through this, like other, so, I just had to give myself hope, that’s it.” – Tamara

The report cites figures from the GM Migrant Destitution Fund which suggest that such experiences are all too common: 60% of the fund’s destitute beneficiaries over 2021-23 reported mental health problems, while more than a third reported both physical and mental health problems.

Local initiatives to mitigate the hostile environment

The report locates the source of this slow violence in successive pieces of legislation that build layers of hostility into the policy environment. But the report also highlights recent positive developments in responses to destitution at the city-region level. As the case-studies show, destitution does not have to be a fixed state: with expert advice, many can regularise their status and escape destitution.

The case studies highlight the importance of stable accommodation for engaging in the arduous legal process of escaping destitution, whether provided through charities or through the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s A Bed Every Night scheme. In addition to the obvious benefits to wellbeing, interviewees reported that the stable accommodation offer gave them the headspace and security to gather the necessary paperwork to submit their immigration applications.

What can be done

Some of the report’s recommendations are aimed at national government, arguing that destitution must stop being used as a weapon of immigration control. However, the report recognises that these asks are not going to be achieved overnight. “If enforced destitution is a form of slow violence,” the report argues, “we are all – statutory and voluntary sector bodies, as well as wider society – going to continue to be entangled in these webs of violence for the foreseeable future, whether we like it or not. And yet we have a choice as to what we do about it.” Further recommendations are therefore aimed at local government and voluntary sector agencies to build on existing good practice and, as far as possible, to design destitution out of Greater Manchester. These include improving access to accommodation for people who are destitute and investment from local authorities in immigration advice to ensure that people can find pathways out of destitution wherever possible.

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This article is featured in our 10 July newsletter.

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