The "Hostile Environment" in the UK: A Barrier to Achieving the SDGs

Imogen Richmond-Bishop*, Dr Sara Bailey**
Just Fair

There are a number of policies tied to migration control that are having a significant impact upon the UK’s ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) as well as meet their obligations under international human rights law.1

Many of these measures were introduced in 2012 as part of the “Hostile Environment” when a series of new barriers were erected and controls were introduced that have reduced migrants' access to housing, the job market, healthcare, social welfare, and more broadly to full participation in society.2

There is significant recent data that shows that COVID-19 has raised serious challenges that have disproportionately affected migrant communities - notably drops in income; limited access to welfare support;3 barriers for homeless migrants to access accommodation;4 and overcrowded and substandard housing.5

A clear of how “Hostile Environment” policies negatively impact upon people's lives is the “No Recourse to Public Funds” (NRPF) condition.6 A person with NRPF cannot access most welfare benefits or social housing but they can access publicly funded services that are not listed as ‘public funds’ for immigration purposes.7 Without the safety net of social security, many families with NRPF end up living in destitution and are at high risk of exploitation and abuse.8.

Poverty and food insecurity

Overall, 32% of foreign born households live in poverty compared to a rate of 19% for white British born people.

Some people who are subject to immigration controls are able to work, many cannot. Asylum seekers for example, apart from in extremely limited cases, are not allowed to work until their asylum claim has been pending for twelve months.9 Even after the twelve months has passed they are only allowed to apply to work in a limited number of professions. This restrictive ban on working, in place since 2002, is not in line with international standards on the human right to work and it is also impeding people’s ability to be financially stable. Asylum seekers have to survive on £37.75 per week.10 Having to live on just over £5 a day for all essentials including toiletries, food, and travel means many asylum seekers have to rely on charity in order to meet their needs, indeed 3% of food bank users are asylum seekers yet only 0.1% of households in the UK apply to seek asylum.11

Human beings should not be reduced to their potential financial contribution to society, but not allowing people to work and therefore contribute to the state is clearly a loss. The Lift the Ban campaign estimates that allowing asylum seekers to work would result in a £42.4 million gain for society by totalling the revenue gained through National Insurance contributions and taxable income.12

The welfare support that a person is able to access is tied to their immigration status. By denying basic social welfare to individuals who are not legally allowed to work or who are unable to secure employment, the ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ policy is forcing entire families – including those with very young children – into a state of destitution where they can no longer access the bare essentials of life including food.13 A recent high court ruling has found that in the case of an eight year old British boy, the fact that his primary carer was denied access to benefits was in violation of the child’s rights under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits torture and inhuman and degrading treatment.14

A recent study on household food insecurity in low-income families found that welfare and immigration policies were ‘creating hunger among children and families’.15  There is no clearer example of this than the refusal to provide free school meals to children whose families have NRPF.16 Children speaking to Project 17 - an organisation working to end destitution among migrant children - talked about how being denied access to school meals “left them feeling hungry and socially isolated” with many parents getting into debt in order to cover the costs of the meals. Jade aged 12 told them that: ‘I don’t get free school meals. […] Sometimes my belly will just hurt.’17

In response to COVID-19 the Department for Education has allowed for a temporary extension of free school meal entitlement to some children whose parents or carers have NRPF. However a number of factors are still preventing children from accessing food including the maximum income threshold, the limited entitlement criteria, the temporary nature of the extension, and the concerns that a lack of understanding of the immigration system may mean that some schools or parents do not know who is newly eligible.18

Household food insecurity can be further compounded by the fact that many of the families who are food insecure live in unsuitable accommodation, such as B&Bs, without access to adequate cooking facilities and storage.19

Barriers in accessing health and wellbeing

In order to have good health people need to have access to healthcare. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic Doctors of the World supported by human rights and migrant rights groups including Just Fair have written to the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care asking them to suspend the National Health Service (Charges to Overseas Visitors) Regulations 2015 and 2017 and all associated immigration checks and data sharing.20 It is clear that any restriction in access to healthcare will undermine efforts to control the COVID-19 pandemic.There have already been reports of individuals passing away because they were concerned about accessing healthcare services either due to the possibility of being charged or because of data sharing with the Home Office.21

It is complicated to establish whether a person is liable to be charged for access to healthcare as no single document can confirm or deny whether an individual is entitled to free care. More importantly, unless the verification is done systematically for every individual entering into a public hospital, it is hard to imagine how a nationality test could be carried out without incurring some sort of profiling.22

Checks and barriers to accessing services extend beyond healthcare and into housing. The ‘right to rent’ checks that require landlords to check the immigration status of their prospective tenants, have been found to be discriminatory towards BAME and migrant communities in the UK Courts and represent a serious barrier for migrants to access housing.23 The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants found that foreigners and British citizens without passports, particularly those from ethnic minorities, are being discriminated against in the private rental housing market. A shocking 51% of landlords surveyed said that the right to rent scheme would make them less likely to consider letting to foreign nationals.24

Migrant communities are more likely to live in private rented accommodation or in overcrowded accommodation. Households that have at least one adult member that was foreign born were more likely to be in overcrowded conditions. In London, 4% of British born people lived in overcrowded housing compared to 13% of EU born, and 16% of non-EU born.  Both EU and non-EU migrants had significantly lower home ownership rates (37% and 48%, respectively) compared to the UK born (70%).25 EU migrants were the group most likely to be in private rental accommodation (48%). This is significant because on average across England, privately rented homes are 28% smaller than owner-occupied homes, and they also fail to meet the decent homes standard more often than owner-occupied homes.

Inequalities and immigration law

In the UK’s 2019 Voluntary National Review, the Government outlines some of the ways it believes that they are protecting migrants rights including work that the devolved nations are doing to increase community cohesion.

However as we have shown above migrants, in particular those who are not from EEA countries and therefore are subject to immigration control, are particularly impacted by poverty, poor housing, and household food insecurity. As we have also shown these inequalities are a direct result of discriminatory laws, policies and practices.

Goal 10.7 states that Governments should “Facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people.” However as recently as April, the Home Secretary refused to accept into the UK unaccompanied children and vulnerable adult refugees who were in Greece but who had been legally accepted for transfer to join family in the UK.26

You don’t need to look much further than the deportation of hundreds of Commonwealth citizens, many of them part of the Windrush Generation that came to the UK between 1948 and 1973, to understand what impact the deeply flawed and discriminatory immigration system is having on people’s lives. These black Britons were deported to countries they had not lived in for decades if at all as they were unable to prove that they had resided in the UK. As many of those deported had arrived as children travelling on their parents passports, and the Home Office had destroyed thousands of records including landing cards, people were unable to fulfil the burden of proof placed upon them and oftentimes were detained and deported. 27


The conversation around immigration in the UK broadly centres around who should have access to their rights and who shouldn't. However migration law and policy must be in line with human rights as proclaimed in international human rights law. This means that migrants, including those who are undocumented, are entitled to economic and social rights.

Without reducing the high levels of poverty, discrimination, and inequality that migrant communities face in the UK, it will be impossible for the UK to achieve the SDGs.

Whilst many of the policies we have discussed are fairly recent, it must not be forgotten that restrictive immigration policies have deep roots in colonialism and Empire.28  As policies have been developed to exclude people, it is possible to develop policies to include people. Here is a non exhaustive list of changes that would help prevent migrant communities from experiencing poverty and would help lift those already in poverty out of it:

  1. Remove the NRPF condition
  2. Ensure access to healthcare
  3. Ensure that migrants are provided with clear information in a language and a format that they are able to understand. This will include making provisions for disabled migrants.
  4. The right to rent policy must end as this heightens discrimination against BAME and migrant communities.
  5. The Government should develop a framework to incorporate socio-economic rights

Clarifiying note

We must not conflate migrant and a person who is Black, Asian, or Minority ethnic.

However despite being British born and/or citizens many people who are BAME will experience certain aspects of the Hostile Environment including children whose parents are unable to access the welfare system or adults who face discrimination in the housing market due to right to rent checks.

BAME people are also over represented in certain immigration conditions that are heavily subject to control. In 2019, 29% of asylum applicants were nationals of Asian countries, 27% were nationals of Middle Eastern countries, and 24% were nationals of African countries.29

There is no overall data source for those who are affected by the No Recourse to Public Funds condition. However by using the data from who has applied for a Change of Conditions (CoC) application to lift this restriction it is clear that BAME groups are more affected by the policy than non BAME.30 Home Office data from 2015 shows that of those who applied for a CoC, 41% were from Africa, 37% from Asia, and 12% from the Americas and 73% of those applying were women.31 Whilst the Home Office does not gather data on race, data from grassroots initiatives providing legal support to people with NRPF who were applying for CoC found that 90% of those applying were Black African or Black Carribean.32


* Imogen Richmond-Bishop, is the right to food coordinator at Sustain: the Alliance for Better Food and Farming, as well as the Advocacy, Research, and Communications manager for Just Fair @imogen_rb.


** Dr Sara Bailey is an independent researcher and human rights project advisor on the University of Bath’s ‘Social Mobilisation for Social Policy in the MENA region’ project.


1 Imogen Richmond-Bishop and Dr Sara Bailey (2020) COVID-19 Briefing Note: No Recourse to Public Funds and the Right to Food


2 Free Movement (2018) Briefing: what is the hostile environment, where does it come from, who does it affect?

3 Just Fair (2020) Written Submission to Women and Equalities Select Committee Inquiry into unequal impact: Coronavirus (COVID-19) and the impact on people with protected characteristics

4 Letter to Local Authorities-Urgent action needed to support vulnerable migrants during the Covid-19 crisis (2020)

5 Just Fair and Migrant Rights Network (2020) Written Submission to Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. Impact of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) on homelessness and the private rented sector

6 Sustain, CAWR, and Project 17 (2019) “Sometimes my belly will hurt” No Recourse to Public Funds and the Right to Food.

7 UK Visas and Immigration (2014) Guidance: Public Funds

8 Sustain, CAWR, Project 17 “Sometimes my belly will just hurt”: No recourse to public funds and food poverty” 2019

9 Just Fair and Lift the Ban (2019) Lift the Ban: The Right to Work of People Seeking Asylum in the UK according to International Human Rights Law

10 Asylum Matters (2018) Asylum Support: Parliamentary Briefing

11 Jasber Singh And Eve Dickson (2020) How Can the Right to Food Address the Needs of Marginalised and Underrepresented Groups

12 Just Fair and Lift the Ban (2019) Lift the Ban: The Right to Work of People Seeking Asylum in the UK according to International Human Rights Law

13 Imogen Richmond-Bishop and Dr Sara Bailey (2020) COVID-19 Briefing Note: No Recourse to Public Funds and the Right to Food; Sustain (2020) COVID-19 Briefing Note: Asylum Seekers and the Right to Food.

14 DPG (2020) high court ruling over ‘no recourse to public funds’ delivers further blow to home office’s discredited hostile environment policy

15 O’Connell, R., Knight. A, and Brannen, J. (2019). Living Hand to Mouth: Children and Food in Low-Income Families. London: Child Poverty Action Group

16 Sustain and Project 17 (2020) Briefing Paper: Free School Meals and Immigration Policy; Hackney Migrant Centre (2020) Children with No Recourse to Public Funds: The need for free school meals

17 Dickson, E. (2019). Not Seen, Not Heard: Children’s Experiences of the Hostile Environment. London: Project 17

18 Imogen Richmond-Bishop and Dr Sara Bailey (2020) COVID-19 Briefing Note: No Recourse to Public Funds and the Right to Food; Sustain (2020) COVID-19 Briefing Note: Asylum Seekers and the Right to Food.

19 Dexter, Z. et al (2015); Threipland, C. (2015). A Place to Call Home: A report into the standard of housing provided to children in need in London. London: Hackney Community Law Centre

20 Imogen Richmond-Bishop (2020) COVID-19 does not discriminate so neither should access to healthcare

21 RAPAR (2020) Yesterday Elvis died.

22 Just Fair (2018) Welfare Safety Net Inquiry Written submission to the HC Work and Pensions Committee

23 Just Fair and Migrant Rights Network (2020) Written Submission to Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. Impact of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) on homelessness and the private rented sector

24 JCWI (2017) Passport Please: The Impact of Right to Rent Checks on Migrants and Ethnic Minorities in England

25 Migration Observatory University of Oxford (2019) Migrants and Housing in the UK: Experiences and Impacts

26 The Guardian (2020) Patel refuses to take children from Greek camps threatened by Covid-19

27 Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (2020) Windrush Scandal Explained

28 Nadine El-Enany (2020) (B)Ordering Britain: Law, Race, and Empire. Manchester University Press

29 House of Commons Briefing (2020) Asylum Statistics