The conflict in Ukraine has led to unprecedented levels of demand for our services. In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion this manifested in a high volume of enquiries from Ukrainians who required support to access immigration support, notably with applying to the visa schemes introduced by the UK government. As time went on however, their needs became more complex.
A significant number of Ukrainians needed our team’s support to find a job, and many others had questions about their benefits. In the most serious cases, Ukrainian families needed urgent support with housing, as hosting arrangements broke down. We covered this, and much more, in our report (see our Research Reports page).
It is also important to note that the immigration enquiries we received ranged widely in complexity. While most Ukrainians required support to access the Ukraine three visa schemes, the schemes were not accessible to everyone fleeing the war. By design, they excluded Ukrainians who were in the UK without permission. Given that 11% of Ukrainians who required our support were undocumented, this may explain the relatively high proportion of asylum enquiries we received. A less frequent but significant problem was the issue of Biometric Residence Permit delays, which prevented Ukrainians from proving their rights in the UK. We explored their issues and the government’s own limitations in responding to the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, in depth in our Ukraine report, Six Months On. In 2023 we will continue to refine our data schema, to ensure that we remain able to document our service users' evolving and intersecting needs.
As the post-Brexit reality of everyday immigration checks comes into shape, EU citizens and their family members continue to face issues in accessing their immigration status and enforcing their rights in the UK. The most common issue clients seem to be facing is rejected applications. We have heard countless reports of Home Office caseworkers becoming more stringent with how they assess evidence as part of EUSS applications, leading to more rejections. The complicated rules around absences are also proving a hindrance for clients, whose applications may already be complex and require discretionary consideration.
Perhaps the most worrying signal is that, nearly 4 years after the EUSS was launched, 1 in 10 clients still face issues in simply logging into their online portals. Digitisation was brought in to simplify the task of documenting EU citizens in the UK, but it continues to instead pose challenges for many migrant communities.
In a similar vein, though most clients were aware of the need to update the Home Office if their personal details changed, nearly a third of clients did not know this, suggesting further education and outreach needs to take place.
Similarly, for those clients who knew that they needed to update their details with the Home Office, only a third could do this on their own, while the majority of 40% required the assistance of another individual. Our work and that of other organisations in the third sector therefore remains incredibly important in this context, to ensure clients remain in compliance with the current immigration regime and are not penalised in the alternative.
A continuing and worrying trend in 2022 revolves around the inability of EUSS holders to produce the ‘share code’ required by employers, landlords, and others to verify their status online. As many as 43% of our clients were simply not able to issue this code. This risks costing them jobs, accommodation, and education, as employers and other actors with a duty to conduct immigration checks may simply turn them away.
As the UK continues to digitalise its immigration system as a whole, it is clear that further provision needs to be made for less digitally literate populations who may struggle to enforce their rights in the UK as a result.
Finally, nearly a third (29%) of our EUSS clients were unaware that they needed to re-apply for settled status after their pre-settled status expires. This is deeply worrying. Currently, the Home Office’s interpretation of the Withdrawal Agreement is that those who fail to apply will effectively lose their rights. While this interpretation is currently being challenged in the courts, the Home Office urgently needs to run a comprehensive outreach programme, to ensure that the 2.6 million people with pre-settled status are not excluded from rights that should be within their grasp.
In 2022, a significant proportion of our clients were engaged in work arrangements with a low degree of formality. Over two thirds of them did not have written confirmation of payment, which comes in the form of a payslip for those employed, or an invoice for the self-employed. A similar rate of informality characterised their access to written terms of agreement and the mode of payment.
It is important to note that while this does not constitute an illegality, and the law makes it clear that the absence of written terms does not preclude the right to employment protections, informal work arrangements can make it harder to build a case. This is particularly salient in disputes over non-payment, where clients’ abilities to claim unpaid wages and fees depend upon their abilities to demonstrate entitlement.
The majority of our clients had changed jobs at least once in the 12 months since they saw our advisers, particularly in the case of the self-employed, who rarely worked on a single contract for a year. Job changes may be an active choice for those who take up positions which are better paid, closer to home, or more convenient. However, frequent job changes can also constitute a source of insecurity, particularly when coupled with low incomes.
A significant proportion of our clients worked over the 48h a week stipulated by the Working Time Regulations. While this does not constitute an illegality as long as workers’ consent is obtained, and some workers actively choose this schedule, working overtime can have a negative effect upon workers’ physical and mental health, family life, as well as the ability to socialise, relax, or learn new skills. As the government looks to roll back protections afforded to workers as part of the Retained EU Law Bill, this is an area of potential exploitation that looks set to increase in the near future.
The average gross monthly pay was approximately £1.79k for men, and £1.36k for women. While the figures for women have increased in 2022 by around £250, this is a significant gender discrepancy, amplified by the fact that women not only earned less than men, but also lower than the current £1.52k National Living Wage (NLW).
A new trend for 2022 was in the composition of clients by employment status. Most of our clients this year were employed, followed by those who were self-employed. It is also notable that for a section of our clients the status was unclear, or kept under the radar of the fiscal authority by unscrupulous employers who sought to cut their own National Insurance liabilities by under-declaring their staff – this is what we refer to as black market work. Given the intrinsic connection between employment status and employment rights, the absence of a clear status can constitute an important source of insecurity.
Though the majority of our clients lived in accommodation where they had a tenancy agreement, nearly half of them were in informal housing arrangements where they sublet a room with no contract, lived with friends, or slept rough. This remains a consistent and important finding. Renting without the protections of a tenancy agreement can make it difficult to access financial services, such as a personal loan or mortgage. For migrant families, informal housing arrangements can hinder the ability to access benefits (or parts of benefits, such as the housing component of Universal Credit).
While it is encouraging that 84% of clients possessed a document demonstrating their current residence, the 16% who did not are in a very precarious situation. Furthermore, even though bank statements can satisfy some authorities' evidential requirements for proof of address, the absence of a tenancy agreement can expose families to short notice evictions, as well as the more mundane frictions over the right to use communal areas or utilities.
A significant proportion of our clients also shared their room. Experienced long term, this lack of privacy can have a negative effect upon individuals’ mental health, as well as their abilities to start and sustain a family life. It can also stifle the ability of children to develop at a time when education is of paramount importance.
A majority of our clients did not know how to write a CV at all, and a significant proportion among them did not know how to write a CV in English.
Similarly, only about 1 in 5 clients knew how to write a cover letter in English. This constitutes an important barrier to professional mobility, which we seek to address in person at our clinics, as well as through our CV-building tool.
By contrast, levels of IT literacy were generally good. A majority of clients could use a computer and also owned one. However, a significant minority among them could not use a computer at all. This is an important impediment before clients can navigate the increasingly digital nature of employment opportunities and the means to employment justice.
As with levels of education, our clients’ levels of English were polarised. While under a third among them reported being able to speak, understand, and write in English, nearly half spoke very basic or no English at all.