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Lunar House in Croydon, UK Visas and Immigration. Photo by James Hopkirk

I started working with the South London Refugee Association – based in Streatham Hill – just before Christmas.

I met with Celia Sands, SLRA’s Director, to find out more about the work they do in Lambeth (although they cover a much broader area), and she invited me along to the Christmas lunch they were holding for their clients as an introduction – and to be the official Santa’s Grotto photographer.

It was an inspiring day. Dozens of children from around the world got their first ever photo with Father Christmas, with presents donated by the congregation at St Mary’s in Balham. Around 100 people came for lunch.

Since 1991 SLRA has supported refugees, asylum seekers and recent migrants in South London. Run by a small team but helping a large – and growing – community, they hold weekly drop in sessions where people come to get help with housing issues, immigration, education, health, benefits, family welfare and debt. There are English classes, free lunches and family outings over the summer, and a youth programme that includes maths and English tuition, immigration casework and half term and holiday activities.

Recently, I got the chance to sit down with a mother they’ve been helping for a few months now. She asked not to be identified, but gave me an insight into her situation and what it means if the state decides that your immigration status is “irregular”.

After a few months she was evicted and is now living with five children and a friend in a one-room bedsit 

“M” moved here around 20 years ago from Nigeria with her uncle – who has since passed away. She met her husband here and together they had three children. Their eldest will soon start secondary school. Due to some difficult circumstances back in Nigeria, she now also looks after two of her sister’s children.

She and her husband separated last year and he moved out of their flat in Clapham – at which point she could no longer afford to pay the rent. After a few months she was evicted and is now living with the five children and a friend in a one-room bedsit in Vauxhall.

Until recently Kids’ Company had been helping her with clothes for the children and Tesco vouchers for food. When it shut down, this support disappeared.

Her immigration status has been deemed “irregular” and she has no recourse to public funds – so she can’t claim benefits, housing or use some NHS services without paying for them. She is currently being chased for a £7,000 bill for the birth of her youngest child and an operation her older son underwent.

With five children to look after – ferrying four of them back and forth to schools in Clapham every day – no friends or family to take them and no chance of being able to afford a nursery place for the baby, getting to a job interview, let alone actually holding down a job, is a pipe dream for the moment. Her husband gives her what he can, but he only works part time and the income is nothing like enough to cover the cost of renting a larger flat.

In August, she had one piece of good news: after a year-long appeal she was granted leave to remain in the UK until 2018. However, this still does not give her access to benefits, housing or free school meals for her children. Her NHS bill still looms large.

She has the right to work, and wants to work – but can’t

Currently, SLRA is helping her to challenge the decision not to allow her access to public funds. Her application was submitted in November – but it may take several months before she can expect an initial response, let alone a decision. There is no access to legal aid for this kind of application so it’s only thanks to organisations like SLRA that she has any hope of challenging her situation. SLRA doesn’t have its own lawyers, but it finds solicitors and barristers on a case-by-case basis who are prepared to do pro bono work.

For the moment, she’s stuck. She has the right to work, and wants to work – but can’t.

If her appeal is successful, then her first priority is to find housing, and to ensure her children get school meals and are able to attend school trips. Longer term, she wants to go to college part-time to train and work the rest of the week so that she can afford to put her youngest in nursery. In the meantime, she survives on any money her husband can provide, help from SLRA and foodbank vouchers.

It’s ironic, she believes, that if she were unable to look after her children, the state would immediately be obliged to step in and care for them – at great expense. It’s not something she would ever consider, however. All she needs, she says, is a short period of support to be able to get back on her feet and start working again.

Celia tells me that it’s increasingly common for no recourse to public funding conditions to be handed out – and the cuts to Legal Aid have made it very difficult for people in this position to challenge such decisions.

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