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New Arrivals


People who are Destitute

This page is for new arrivals. If you are a housing adviser please click here for information more relevant to you.

Are you a destitute migrant?

If you are homeless, without enough money to buy basic food or shelter, you are destitute.

If you arrived in the UK to live, work, study, visit or join family but now find that you are homeless without enough money to buy basic food or shelter then you are a destitute migrant.

Most destitute migrants have a right to live in the UK. Some do not. People with no legal right to stay in the UK (and who can be deported or removed from the UK) are undocumented migrants. They may also be called irregular migrants and sometimes get called 'illegal migrants' in the press, although human beings cannot be 'illegal'. No-one knows how many undocumented migrants are in the UK, but the majority of them are probably people who once claimed asylum.

How do migrants become destitute?

The UK has a system of welfare benefits and other services that are meant to ensure that no-one becomes destitute. So how do migrants become destitute?

  • They may not know about the benefits or services they are allowed to claim.
  • The people administering benefits and services may refuse them to migrants who are allowed to claim them, because they do not understand the rules or are administering them wrongly.
  • There may be delays in paying benefits or providing housing: this is a particular problem for people who have just got refugee status, for example.
  • Some people are in the UK with leave to remain on condition they can accommodate and support themselves with 'no recourse to public funds' and so cannot claim many benefits or apply for some council housing services.
  • Citizens of EEA countries may be told that they have 'no right to reside' in the UK or that the right to reside they have does not allow them to claim benefits or housing.
  • About half the people who apply for asylum in the UK are refused, and if they do not then leave the UK may be left with no access to asylum support.

There are undocumented migrants in the UK, and if they can no longer support themselves they may become destitute. Most people who become undocumented in the UK start as ordinary migrants but then their situation changes. For example they:

  • 'overstay' when their leave ends (for example having arrived as a visitor)
  • apply for asylum, are refused and then do not return home
  • get leave to remain but do not comply with the terms of the leave (for example, a student who is allowed to work but is working longer hours than allowed)
  • get leave to remain but are unable to comply with the terms of it (for example, a woman with leave to remain as a wife who has been thrown out of the home by her husband)
  • have no papers at all (maybe because they have been lost or accidentally destroyed, or an employer or husband has kept them).

Some people arrive in the UK by evading immigration control (for example in the back of a lorry) or by using false documents to enter and so become undocumented migrants.

How can you resolve your situation?

There are ways out of destitution, and most depend on your immigration status. Here are the available options.

EEA citizens and their families

EU rules on benefits and housing are complicated. This website explains your basic rights on the pages on EEA workers, Other EEA nationals and EEA family members. If you think you have been wrongly refused benefits or housing services, get advice and help from one of the organisations listed here.

People with leave to remain or a right to reside

Benefits and housing services may have been refused wrongly. Check this website to find out about the rights of different sorts of migrants. Generally if you have indefinite leave to remain or to enter, or if you have leave as the result of an asylum application, you are eligible for housing services and benefits, and you may also be eligible in certain other circumstances

People who have applied for asylum and have been refused

When your asylum claim is finally refused, asylum support ends, unless you have children in your household. If it is impossible for you to leave the UK, or you have evidence that would allow your asylum claim to be reopened, you can apply for a reduced type of asylum support called 'Section 4 support'. You can find information about that here (pdf).

If you are entitled to benefits and/or housing services and you are wrongly refused, or if there are delays in dealing with your application, you should:

  • get advice about making a new claim and/or appealing any refusal from one of these organisations
  • ask for emergency or interim help while your claim, application or appeal is being dealt with
  • ask for help from the local social services department if your household includes a child, a pregnant woman, or an elderly, sick or disabled person (more information here).

If your leave does not allow 'recourse to public funds' you should get immigration advice about:

  • whether applying to official bodies for help could affect your leave
  • whether you can change the terms of your leave because your circumstances have changed or because you should have been granted leave with recourse to public funds
  • whether you should make an application for a different type of leave.

Legal aid is no longer available for this type of advice unless it is about making an asylum application.

You may also be able to get help and advice from projects that help people who are destitute, listed here.

People with no leave or undocumented migrants

If you have no leave to remain in the UK or have overstayed or broken the terms of your leave, it is likely that if you apply to official bodies for help this will be reported to the Home Office who may then move to deport or remove you. So before approaching official bodies you need to get advice about whether you can make any application for leave to remain, as this may also affect what help you can get.

Generally, undocumented migrants find it very difficult to get any sort of leave in the UK, but a few can apply for leave to remain. Check whether you might qualify for leave:

  • By making an asylum application because it is unsafe to return home (this includes some victims of trafficking): you may then be able to access the asylum support system run by the Home Office until your application is resolved.
  • As a family member of someone living in the UK with leave, or who is a UK citizen or an EEA national.
  • As a victim of domestic violence (physical or other abuse from a partner) if they had leave as a husband, wife, civil partner or cohabitee.
  • As someone who has lived in the UK a long time or the parent of a child who has. Rules on this are very complex, and you will need advice and help in making the application. Some people given leave on this basis are still subject to a 'no recourse to public funds' restriction.

If you:

  • have applied for leave to remain and are not eligible for asylum support
  • have in your household a child, pregnant woman, or person who is elderly, seriously or long-term sick or disabled who needs care and attention

you may then be able to ask the local council social work department for accommodation and support. Get more information about this here. Social services have a duty to help children and vulnerable adults in their area, but the law on what they can do is complicated. In many cases they will want to contact the Home Office about your status if they offer help.

If you cannot get support anywhere else, in some circumstances it may be possible to claim a form of support from the Home Office, to avoid a breach of human rights while you wait for a decision. You can find out more about this from the Asylum Support Appeals Project who publish a leaflet on it.

If you cannot apply for leave to remain in the UK then your effective options are either:

  • voluntary return
  • getting help from friends and community.

There is more information on these below.

Voluntary return

The Home Office funds several assisted 'voluntary return' programmes for migrants in the UK. Until the end of 2015, they are run by Refugee Action as the Choices programme and you can find information about all of them here. Choices offers free, confidential advice and will only pass on your details to the Home Office if you give permission.

Your embassy, high commission or consulate in the UK may also be able to help with a loan to get you home.

Help from family and community

Many migrants, undocumented or not, stay with family or friends and may get help from others in the community. If you are not already doing this, you need to be aware that:

  • these arrangements are rarely long-term because supporting and accommodating other people may be difficult and costly
  • you may find it difficult to manage: over time the lack of privacy and control, the overcrowding and dependency can be very hard.
  • you may cause difficulties for the person you stay with: for example, people in asylum support accommodation are not allowed to have others staying there without permission.

There may be charitable or faith-based projects or other help available in your communities, such as food banks and night shelters, that help anyone in need of food or shelter. Some of these projects may not realise that immigration status can cause problems and lead to destitution. They may not understand your situation and needs, so you may have to explain them.

Risks of living as an undocumented migrant

Undocumented migrants are vulnerable to exploitation by landlords, employers and also others. You may find it difficult to resist pressures from those housing and supporting you, and they may ask you to do things that are illegal, dangerous, offensive or degrading.

If you are being forced to do things that are illegal, dangerous, offensive or degrading and you feel you need to escape from the situation you are in, tell someone from a charitable or community organisation that you trust.

If you are a victim of trafficking (you have been moved from one place to another by people who want to exploit you) you can contact the Salvation Army 24-hour confidential helpline on 0300 3038151

If you are confident about your immigration status, work in food or agriculture and got your work via an agency or gangmaster, you may be able to get help from the Gangmasters Licensing Authority: phone 0845 602 5020.

Help from destitution projects

There are a small number of charitable or community organisations who offer accommodation and support to destitute migrants (although the majority only help people who have once applied for asylum). You can find a map of them here. They have very limited capacity and each has its own policies about whom they will and will not help. Some require you to be referred by another agency, almost all want you to get advice and help while staying with them. None will offer help indefinitely. Most have policies to keep information that you share with them confidential, but if this worries you do check what they will do with your information before telling them anything you do not want passed on.

Background Topics

Research for these pages was funded by

JRF - Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Chartered Institute of Housing