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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 and/or their family members who have EU pre-settled status 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.
  • Citizens of EEA countries and/ or their family members who arrived in the UK before 1 January 2021 may have failed to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme by the 30 June 2021 deadline so that their EU rights to reside have ended.
  • About half the people who claim 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)
  • claim 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)
  • have no papers because they did not need them before. The difficulties faced by many people in this situation have been highlighted by the government in April 2018 because of publicity about the ‘Windrush generation’ and their children: people who arrived from Commonwealth countries in the 1940s-1980s and lived legally in the UK but did not get any papers confirming that (or lost 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 who entered the UK before 1 January 2021

EEA nationals who entered the UK before 1 January 2021 (and family members who accompanied them) can continue to use their EEA rights until their application to the EU Settlement Scheme is decided or after then if they are granted pre-settled status. If they failed to apply by 30 June 2021 deadline their EEA rights ended on 1 July 2021, and they became an overstayer. However, if their late application to the EU Settlement Scheme is accepted their EEA rights are restored. The Home Office will normally accept a late application if it considers that person had reasonable grounds for being late.

The rules on benefits and housing for people who continue to use their EEA rights alongside their pre-settled status are complicated. Those rights are explained 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. If you are threatened with removal from the UK, this leaflet (pdf) may help you.

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' (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 an independent advice agency
  • 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.

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 one of the specialist projects that help people who are destitute.

People who came to the UK before 1989 who have no documentation

People from the Commonwealth who arrived before 1973 generally have indefinite leave to remain or may be British citizens. Some who arrived after that date, especially the children of those who arrived before, may also have rights to live in the UK but no documents to prove it. As a result of publicity and political concern about their situation, the government made several special arrangements for them in April 2018.

These include arrangements for some to claim citizenship or naturalise free of charge and compensation for those who have suffered losses.

A freephone Home Office helpline can assist people who have been in the UK since at least 1988: phone 0800 678 1925 (Monday to Friday: 9am to 5pm), otherwise email and ask for assistance. There is also advice on the government website, which relates to the 'Windrush generation' but applies more widely. People who believe they may be covered by these new arrangements are strongly advised to get legal advice before sharing any details with the Home Office.

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: a UK citizen, someone living in the UK with leave, or an EEA national who arrived in the UK before 1 January 2021 but in this case only if your application to the EU settlement scheme has been accepted.
  • 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 is 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 public funds' condition.

If you have applied for leave to remain but have not made an application for asylum you may be able to get help with accommodation and support:

  • from your local social services department if a member of your household is a child, a pregnant woman, or a person who is elderly, seriously or long-term sick or disabled who needs care and attention. But the law on what they do is complicated, and the council is likely to contact the Home Office about your status if they offer help.
  • from the Home Office if you: were released from detention on bail or there is a practical or legal reason preventing your departure from the UK (such as serious illness, you are applying for leave on human rights grounds, you are stateless or other reasons). This is called immigration bail support (pdf) (but you don’t have to have been released from detention to get it).

Getting either is likely to be difficult so it is important to get help and advice first. You can suggest that any organisation helping you contacts the ASAP advice line, but ASAP do not offer advice to individuals.

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 living in the UK who want to return to their home country. However, if you apply directly to the programme your details are passed to the Home Office, so if you are still undecided or you are unsure of what your rights are you should get advice from an independent local advice agency who can advise you about how voluntary return works and whether it is best for you. You can suggest that any advice agency helping you contact the ASAP helpline – a project with specialist knowledge of migrants' rights (but who don’t give advice directly to individuals).

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's free 24-hour confidential helpline on 0800 808 3733.

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 and Labour Abuse Authority: phone 0800 432 0804.

Help from the council and from destitution projects

In England (since April 2018) and Wales, councils must ensure that advice and information is available in their areas free of charge to help anyone threatened with homelessness or needing accommodation because they are homeless. So even if you are unsure about your status or right to reside, or know that you are not eligible for council housing or benefits, you can get this advice. And you do not have to tell the council anything about your status to get it. So if you just want to know if there are places you could stay, or whether your landlord can evict you legally, you may want to ask the council for help. But you may want to get advice about your status and what you can do about it first.

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.