Sixty thousand people a year in the UK are wrongfully being left in visa limbo and losing employment or being denied benefits, the New Statesman can reveal.
In another scandal for the beleaguered Home Office, visa renewal processing delays are costing Britain’s stretched labour market tens of thousands of people each year. This is intensifying the cost-of-living crisis for people who are legitimately in the UK awaiting their visa renewal, stuck for months under a condition called “3C Leave”.
Chichi, who lives in Essex with her three British-born children, and preferred to give her nickname only, came to the UK from Nigeria in 2009, and has been on a “further leave to remain” visa since 2019. In spring 2022 she applied to renew her visa but due to Home Office delays, she has still not received it. On 3C Leave, Chichi’s rights remain the same, but without any paperwork to prove them she has been unable to find work.
Chichi was offered a job at a supermarket but they didn’t believe her when she told them she had the right to work. She was also offered a job at a care home – a sector which is currently in dire need of staff – but was unable to submit herself for a DBS check without the paperwork required. She has taken training through the Job Centre to be a teaching assistant but is unable to get a job in which to use it.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is now threatening to sanction her Universal Credit if she doesn’t find work. And all the while, the cost of living just keeps rising. “I really need work, but after all this I’ve given up looking,” Chichi said. “I’m just so tired.”
A spokesperson for the DWP told the New Statesman that this issue was the remit of the Home Office. The Home Office had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.
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Migrants in the UK on the five- or ten-year route to settlement have to reapply for further leave to remain every two and a half years. This costs about £2,000 per family member and continues until the family has fulfilled the five or ten years required, at which point they can apply for indefinite leave to remain.
While their application is in processing, they are placed on 3C Leave, a status designed to protect their current rights, whether that’s work, benefits, NHS care or housing. During this time, however, they do not have documents that prove these rights – not even a confirmatory email from the Home Office. The current waiting time is 11 months, so migrants spend almost a year in limbo.
One in six applicants tracked in London and Essex have suffered “serious detriment” to their employment, benefits or housing while on 3C Leave, according to the Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London (Ramfel). From consultation with their charity partners, Ramfel is confident that this proportion is representative of the country as a whole.
In response to a freedom of information request from the New Statesman, the Home Office said it could not provide the number of people on 3C Leave in 2022. However, in response to a request by Ramfel in 2021, the Home Office said 372,015 people were placed on 3C Leave during 2019.
That means as many as 63,000 legal migrants could be facing serious detriment to their financial circumstances each year. Up to 24,000 people each year could be being refused employment or wrongfully suspended, while up to 18,000 could have their benefits wrongfully stopped or refused. If someone is on the ten-year route to settlement, they will have to reapply for further leave to remain four times, paying thousands of pounds and going through the ordeal of 3C Leave every time.
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The problems faced by those stuck on 3C Leave are similar to those revealed in the Windrush scandal, said Nick Beales, head of campaigning at Ramfel. “The hostile environment [policy in 2014] created far more de facto immigration officers, such as employers, landlords, medical professionals. So people without physical documents face far more problems.
“Employers are terrified of being found to be hiring someone who doesn't have permission to work, and that that is a direct result of the hostile environment imposing the far harsher penalties.”
These long delays are exacerbating difficult financial circumstances for many migrants in the UK. Data shared exclusively with the New Statesman by the migrant and refugee charity Praxis reveals that more than eight in ten of their clients are struggling to provide enough food for their children.
The entire visa renewal and route to settlement system creates instability as migrants try to build their lives in the UK, said Josephine Whitaker-Yilmaz, policy and public affairs manager at Praxis. “As you only ever have a visa valid for 30 months at any one time, it doesn't look great to an employer, or to a private landlord, if you’re trying to get a new job and only have a few months left on your leave to remain,” she added.
The waiting list is likely to grow longer because the ten-year route to settlement is now the norm for new migrants. Brexit means that many European migrants will now also be going through the further leave to remain system, as will a large proportion of refugees since the passage of the Nationality and Borders Act this year.
To stop those affected falling out of the workforce, the Home Office could remove from employers and landlords the burden to check visa status, send a confirmatory email after an application is submitted that could be used as proof of status, lengthen the 30-month renewal time, or move people from the ten- to the five-year route.
The uncertainty suffered by people like Chichi has an emotional as well as material impact. There is a loss of freedom. Her mother died this summer, in Nigeria, and Chichi, trapped in the UK without a valid visa, was unable to travel to see her. “There are so many of us out there, living like this, but they don’t share their story because they’re so afraid of being deported,” she said. “I’m terrified too.”
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