Image of homeless sign for help

How does the Hostile Environment make migrants more vulnerable to homelessness and impact experiences of and pathways out of homelessness? And how does homelessness impact the ability to resolve immigration status?

6 min read

In our previous post we outlined a number of ways that Hostile Environment policies have sought to block migrants from accessing state support.

Whilst the Hostile Environment has impacted migrants from the EEA (that is, EU member states with the addition of Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) in different ways to those from outside the EEA, the general trajectory of government policy has been the same: decreasing pathways to support and increasing eligibility conditions where support is available.

For non-EEA migrants, this has been shaped by a broadening of the ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ condition to subsume greater numbers of individuals, and for EEA migrants by the inclusion of the Habitual Residence Test, as well as the shift to Universal Credit.

Renting whilst migrant in hostile times 

Clearly, the inability to access state support makes migrants particularly vulnerable to homelessness, leaving individuals and families without a safety net in times of hardship. However, there are other elements to the Hostile Environment that have also exposed migrant populations to greater risks of homelessness. 

This has included new measures of secondary immigration control – that is, immigration control which charges public bodies and private citizens with ensuring that the individuals they encounter in their everyday lives are in the UK legally. One example of this is the ‘Right to Rent’ scheme, which requires landlords to carry out identity checks on prospective tenants and which leaves landlords personally liable if a tenant is discovered to be in the UK illegally. If a landlord is found to be housing an ‘illegal immigrant’, punishment includes unlimited fines and a prison sentence. 

The Hostile Environment and/as the racialisation of precarity

Whilst the ‘Right to Rent’ scheme supposedly targets only those whom the state defines as ‘illegal immigrants’, research from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants has shown that 42% of landlords surveyed were now ‘less likely to rent to people who do not have a British passport’ out of a fear of being criminally charged if they accidentally house someone they weren’t supposed to.

This government intervention has, as such, made renting whilst migrant increasingly difficult, so much so that in 2019 the UK High Court ruled the ‘Right to Rent’ scheme to be ‘causing discrimination incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The UK government responded to this ruling by disputing the High Court’s findings and emphasising its intention to continue implementing the scheme. The Court of Appeal later overturned the High Court decision, but campaigns continue. 

The Hostile Environment and pathways out of homelessness

As landlords are already hesitant about accepting homeless individuals as tenants, homeless migrants face a double disadvantage when working to overcome their homelessness. This leaves migrants experiencing homelessness far more reliant on public pathways to housing. 

Here, all migrants face challenges, but these challenges differ depending on how an individual is classified by the state; for example as a ‘Non-EEA migrant’, an ‘EEA migrant’, or an ‘asylum-seeker’. Importantly, whilst an asylum-seeker can be an EEA or non-EEA migrant, EEA asylum claims are more rare, and the state rarely considers such claims admissible

Non-EEA migrants

As aforementioned, for non-EEA migrants living under the No Recourse to Public Funds condition, accessing any form of statutory support (including housing benefit and homelessness assistance) is reliant on resolving one’s immigration status. As research by Crisis has shown, lengthy and arduous Home Office decision-making processes (which can take months or years) leave individuals trapped in homelessness and destitution. Migrants experiencing homelessness are also more likely to be without identification documents, as the conditions of precarious living make guarding personal effects incredibly difficult. Furthermore, the Hostile Environment has also brought in colossal cuts to legal aid, particularly in the area of immigration law. 

Individuals seeking asylum

For asylum-seekers (that is, individuals who are seeking refugee leave to remain or humanitarian protection), homelessness is effectively written into the conditions of residency in the UK. Individuals seeking asylum (which, once again, can take years) are unable to work or apply for benefits, and as such are housed in temporary and often inadequate accommodation by the Home Office. Indeed, in the last year 29 asylum-seekers have died in Home Office accommodation, five times more than lost their lives crossing the channel

As Home Office accommodation is tied to being ‘in progress’ within the state’s immigration apparatus, asylum-seekers can also be moved from city to city at whim, and if their asylum request is refused they can face 21 day’s notice to leave at best, and sudden eviction at worst. Furthermore, even if an asylum claim is successful, the individual then has only 28 days notice to secure further accommodation, even as that individual has been officially recognised to be a refugee in need of humanitarian protection. 

EEA migrants

For EEA migrants, Hostile Environment policies have also impacted the capacity to overcome homelessness. Alongside the discriminatory ‘Right to Rent’ scheme, the government has also put in a number of measures which look to block EEA migrants from accessing the welfare state. In 2013, this included an increasingly rigid ‘Habitual Residence Test’ which requires individuals to provide documents to evidence, for example, a permanent address and tax contributions. Migrants experiencing homelessness are more likely to be coerced into exploitative and uncontracted work which is not officially registered with HMRC, and of course, are not able to evidence a fixed address. Once again, they are also more likely to have important documents become lost or stolen.

 In effect, Hostile Environment policies mean that when homelessness charities are supporting EEA migrants they are forced into a ‘reverse pathway’ of prioritising employment rather than resolving homelessness itself, as a record of work becomes the only practical route to accessing the welfare resources necessary for EEA migrants to secure welfare and housing support and avoid destitution.

Hostile Futures: things can only get worse? 

The effects of the Hostile Environment on British politics and society has also undoubtedly fuelled the anti-immigration sentiment foundational to ‘Brexit’. This latest shift in immigration policy demands that EU nationals currently residing in the UK without Indefinite Leave to Remain must apply to the EU settlement scheme by the 30th June 2021 or face deportation. 

Once again, the EU settlement scheme requires forms of identification and documentation which rub up against experiences of homelessness. Furthermore, a government announcement made in October 2020 suggests that after the Brexit transition period has ended (in January 2021) rough sleeping may become grounds for deportation for some migrants

Clearly, not only is the era of the Hostile Environment far from over, but the scope of the suffering caused by its policies may yet widen and deepen. When Crisis surveyed homelessness support organisations across the country in 2019, 62% stated that the potential for Brexit to push EEA nationals in Britain into homelessness was their biggest concern for the future

Concerns for the welfare of asylum-seekers will also continue to grow, as in October 2020 the Home Office announced their intention to (re)consider housing asylum-seekers in offshore locations, including disused ferries moored off of the coast and British overseas territories (in some cases thousands of miles away). Finally, Crisis notes that non-EEA migrants are increasingly granted ‘discretionary leave to remain with a condition of no recourse to public funds’, a condition that remains indefinitely, blocking access to welfare for life. 

All this considered, there is a real fear that the UK will become even more inhospitable for migrants into the future. If the era of hostility endures, then so too will the production and reproduction of the racialised politics of precarity which makes migrants so vulnerable to homelessness.

This post is part of a series titled Homeless Migrants and COVID-19: Mapping the layers of crisis

This post reflects the views of the University of Portsmouth research team only, and not those of our project collaborators the homelessness charity St Mungo's.

Author: Dr Charlotte Sanders.