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Hunger or indebtedness? Enforcing migrant destitution, racializing debt

‘You owe £1200 for school lunches. Your son cannot go to prom before your debt is settled.’ This excerpt from a school letter marks a new chapter in the entanglement of mobility and (neo-)colonialism. While some of the most destitute families in the UK are migrants subject to ‘no recourse to public funds’, children from such families are excluded from free school meal provision, an intervention purportedly intended to mitigate the impacts of poverty. In the context of a rapid marketization of education, including the rise of policy-setting neoliberal academies, children may also be barred from bringing packed lunches to school, required to either incur debt to eat or go hungry. An indebted subject is thus produced at the interface of an immigration policy of ‘enforced destitution’ – designed to deter the settlement of negatively racialized postcolonial subjects from Britain’s erstwhile Empire – and the global ubiquity of debt incurred to ensure sustenance in an era of neoliberal financialization. This chapter traces outward from this artefact of parent–school communication to examine its place within a web of survival debts and the historical and present-day circulation of bodies and capital between sub-Saharan Africa and the UK. It points to the ways that debt is racialized and implicated in the production of a ‘second’ British empire

Unless otherwise stated, the first-person testimonies in this chapter are the words of people we have met through collective activism with North East London Migrant Action (NELMA) and our research at University College London. These multiple voices and experiences weave together into a tapestry of the complex and oppressive conditions of indebted life with ‘no recourse to public funds’ in the UK. In this way, we hope to evade the ‘dangers of a single story’ which flatten and simplify. Academic writing often forces a formal distinction between ‘authorial voice’ and the voices of those with lived experience (e.g., here through the use of quotation marks and italics). However, the various voices in this chapter are entangled in ways that problematize such distinctions. Authorship does not mean lack of lived experience of ‘no recourse to public funds’, and the analysis here has been informed by those with lived experience and those acting in solidarity. In short, ‘voice’ and ‘authorship’ in this piece are more complex than they may seem.

Figure 8.1 Photograph of a brown envelope and the letter it contains, received by a parent with no recourse to public funds. The letter reads: ‘You owe £768.20 for school lunches … If the debt is not cleared further action will be taken to recover the debt.’

A brown envelope. When you see the brown envelope, you know what it means. Everybody knows what it is when they see the letter. They know you are owing. That's what the brown envelope means.’ The brown envelope becomes an object of shame, symbolizing something owing. A child's school lunches have produced a debt: £768.20. It cannot be paid. ‘They kept on putting debt on my mum like “oh you need to pay this”, they keep texting her – “oh you need to pay this money, you need to pay this money”.’

This letter, from a school, and many others like it, marks a new chapter in the entanglement of mobility and (neo)colonialism. The letter has been sent to a mother who, because of her immigration status, has no right to work and ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF). This is a condition linked to being ‘subject to immigration control’. While some of the most destitute families in the UK are migrants subject to NRPF, once children from such families reach Year 3 (age 7–8) they are excluded from accessing free school meals, despite the fact that such meals are purportedly intended to mitigate the impacts of poverty.

I went to the school. I said please, no more school lunches. If you can allow, I'll make packed lunches. They said no. No packed lunches. So there was nothing I could do.’ In the context of a rapid marketization of education, including the rise of policy-setting neoliberal academies, children can be barred from bringing packed lunches to school. The stark choice thus seems to be: incur debt to eat or go hungry. ‘How is my mum going to pay this money? We didn't have anything then, we were just living our lives If I kept on not eating food, it's gonna make my tummy – I'm not going to feel well ’ Meanwhile, school meals are increasingly provided by outsourced companies, including the five largest in the UK, whose chief executives made £81.2 million between 2010 and 2017. Outsourcing giants, including security firms like G4S, are also securing a 20–30% profit margin from the migration-industrial complex through provision of accommodation for asylum seekers – which has been termed ‘disgraceful and unsafe’ by parliamentary committees – and the management of immigration removal centres.

What does the experience of families who receive these brown envelopes tell us about the way contemporary migration policy in the UK produces indebtedness? How is Britain's ‘second empire’ generated at the intersection of the UK's ‘hostile’ migration regime, colonial legacies, sovereign indebtedness and contemporary extraction?

Caught in a web of survival debts

I felt like I was in debt with the whole country!’ says Isabella, a migrant mother with NRPF charged for maternity care (Feldman 2018). For families with NRPF, demands to repay the cost of school meals are only one small part of a web of debts incurred as they try to survive in the UK's ‘hostile’ migration regime. Those who are undocumented have no legal right to work and often end up trapped in exploitative under-the-table work in order to survive. Others are forced to rely on friends or strangers, often in exchange for domestic labour, transactional sex or long-term personal indebtedness. In some cases, parents take out credit cards to cover the cost of basic necessities such as food. Survival debts have no borders. Some people will be trying to repay those who helped them to enter the UK, while others struggle to send remittances to children and other family members whom they have left behind. ‘They are counting on us. “What are you doing? We expect you to send something to us, you know the situation, you know what was on ground before you left.” You owe it to them. You have to.

However you manage to get by, you will be owing. By denying migrant families very basic essentials such as food, NRPF represents a denial of humanity. At the same time, it produces deepening webs of debt and pressures to repay or service debts. Here, one debt pays back another, all leading to growing debt. The UK's complex and draconian migration regime imposes limited or no rights to work, with NRPF excluding families from social support and programmes, even for those rendered ‘legitimate’ residents. This leaves credit card loans, state-negotiated repayment schedules, private loan companies and personal obligations as a, or even the, means to ensure sustenance and survival. NRPF produces and enforces destitution and therefore debt.

In the absence of formal access to welfare provision, destitute families with NRPF may be supported with accommodation and low-level financial support by local authorities under section 17 of the Children Act 1989. An estimated 5,900 children from families with NRPF across England and Wales received this support in 2012–13 (Price and Spencer 2015). However, the number of destitute families with NRPF is likely much higher. High numbers of families who try to access section 17 support are erroneously turned away. Some are told by social workers to ‘max out’ their credit cards on hotels before accommodation will be provided. Others are subject to invasive and discriminatory treatment, their Facebook pages and bank statements trolled for income generation that has not been reported. Anything from handmade bracelets sold for £3 each to a dormant bank account becomes a reason for exclusion from support. Determinations of ‘deservingness’ required by the legislation are often characterized by suspicion and racialized conceptions of who deserves support (Shilliam 2018).

I was saving that for a long five years. I didn't touch it. Everywhere I go, I take that box with me. Everywhere I go, I didn't touch it. I kept it. Even if I'm starving, I didn't touch that money. Even if I was in desperate need, I didn't touch that money. Because I was really desperate. This is the money that is going to save me out of this condition.’ While destitute families are often forced into hyper-exploitative working conditions, yet still have to borrow and go into debt to make payments, the Home Office charges migrants far more than it costs to process their applications. In 2018, the department made a £500 million surplus on immigration and citizenship fees.

We have to cough up £10,000 to pay the Home Office this year. For NHS alone you have to pay £1,000 per person. If you can't, you lose your leave and then you have to start all over again. You know how long it took you before, what you went through. All the years. We have to do it or else we lose it. We just have to look for the money. You don't want to start all over again.’ An application for ‘limited leave to remain’ costs £1,033 per person and must be accompanied by the fee for the immigration health surcharge. This needs to be paid every two and a half years for ten years before someone can even apply to settle indefinitely in the UK. The immigration health surcharge, which exempts the applicant from healthcare charging, has been increased over the years. As of January 2022, it was £624 per year per person. For an application for ‘limited leave to remain’ (thirty months), the surcharge is £1,560 on top of the £1,033 visa fee. Before the most recent increase it was £1,000 per application. In the chapter by Medien (Chapter 7), the entanglements between healthcare provision in the NHS, the enforcement of the hostile environment for racialized migrants and new forms of indebtedness and debt collection are explored in further detail.

The UK immigration rules make it almost impossible for those who cannot meet the requirements for financial self-sufficiency or who have spent periods undocumented to achieve formal settlement. While migrants may not be considered ‘desirable’ by the state for long-term residence in the UK, they may nonetheless be viewed as ‘desirable’ as high fee-paying students, short-term labourers with limited legal rights and so forth. But with no legal pathways to reside beyond the short term, staying in the UK in the long term often means becoming undocumented and subject to destitution and debt. The entanglements of racialized border control and subjection to new instruments of indebtedness are taken up in relation to the US by Rossipal (Chapter 9).

Punitive debts and the production of illegality

But if the debt cannot be paid, how will the creditor respond? The letter from the school reads: ‘Please be aware that if the debt is not cleared further action will be taken to recover the debt.’

They said he couldn't go to prom It was a threat, yes. They said he couldn't go to prom because of the money being owed. It was a once in a lifetime thing, why would you want to deny a child that opportunity, to miss that experience with his friends?’ Such responses do not just single people out, marking their destitution as a misdemeanour and their bodies as criminal or ‘irresponsible’. They are also a form of punishment. Children, made the carriers of the brown envelope of debt to their mothers, are shamed publicly, which is a punitive and emotive form of debt collection (Federici 2014). Children have been threatened with missing important school activities, and some have been subject to discriminatory abuse and taunting from other children as a result of their public display of debt. Others are sent to detention for failing to wear the proper uniform, school kit that remains unaffordable in the context of NRPF. Children become collateral, used to exert pressure on their mothers to service and repay debt. It is not at all uncommon, as shown by Nir (Chapter 16) in relation to Israel/Palestine and Stork (Chapter 17) in relation to Black access to education in the US, for childhood to become entangled with the creation of racialized, indebted subjects.

An indebted subject is thus produced at the interface of an immigration policy of state-enforced destitution and the global ubiquity of debt in financialized capitalism. Designed to deter migration and settlement, NRPF simultaneously entangles working-class migrant families in a web of bureaucratic and financial structures in the UK tied to the servicing of debts. The debt produced by the UK's migration regime is also used to sustain ‘illegality’ and thwart the efforts of undocumented individuals to ‘regularize’ their status at the point of immigration decision making. Charging some migrants for NHS healthcare, introduced by regulations in the UK in 1982 and ramped up under Theresa May's ‘hostile environment’, produces yet another source of debt for undocumented families and is often accompanied by aggressive debt collection outsourced to private companies. Under the immigration rules, applications for ‘leave to remain’ can be refused on grounds of suitability if an individual has an outstanding NHS debt of £500 or more and is not paying it back.

Colonial legacies and neocolonial debt

Many families with NRPF who experience destitution come from countries colonized as part of Britain's erstwhile empire. As with others who may move between being undocumented and having regularized status, it is impossible to precisely determine the number of destitute families with NRPF. However, Jamaican and Nigerian nationals with NRPF make up 51% of those who have sought local authority support, with a significant number of others coming from Ghana and Pakistan (Price and Spencer 2015). Thus, NRPF is highly racialized in effect, enforcing destitution and debt on working-class Black and Brown people from postcolonial states.

There's no benefit system in Nigeria. There's nothing like that. Most of the state schools, the teachers are not being paid so they're not teaching the children well. You have graduates who at the end of school have to do transportation business. Driving tricycles. They've studied and they're doing that kind of job You want to find a way out of the system. You want to give your children a better life so they don't think it's all poverty, poverty around them. Everyone wants a better life. Who doesn't want a better life?’ As part of the ‘breadbasket’ of the British empire, Nigeria's incorporation into the global capitalist economy was simultaneously marked by the colonial production of dependence on imported manufactured goods. British economic interests in the country continue to shape Nigeria's national borders, governance and social systems, despite the country's formal independence in 1960 (Uche 2008). In the postcolonial era, underdevelopment continues as Nigeria's rich petroleum resources provide a source of capital extraction for European and North American-based multinationals and the local wealthy elite through infrastructures set in place by these colonial legacies and neocolonial relations (Ovadia 2013).

Chocolate is another lucrative neocolonial industry, with extractive infrastructures established in the period of empire and, more recently, through trade liberalization (Fold and Neilson 2016). Cocoa is grown on smallholder farms in Nigeria, one of the world's leading producers; profits accrue to shareholders who bet on cocoa's future fortunes on speculative financial markets and to the multinational corporations headquartered in Europe and North America who manufacture it into chocolate and sell it at prices out of reach of most growers. As Nadine El-Enany (2020: 2) argues, Britain's migration regime is an ‘attempt to control access to the spoils of empire […] immigration law is the tool that ensures that dispossessed peoples have no claim to what was stolen from them’.

Much of the profit is extracted from the country through joint ownership arrangements with foreign companies like BP and Shell who pay limited royalties and benefit from opaque operations and tax shelters exposed by the Panama Papers. 1 This has left Nigeria with staggering sovereign debt: US$87 billion at September 2021, according to the Debt Management Office (DMO). High interest on these loans has meant that two-thirds of the federal government's reserves are directed towards external debt servicing. Combined with imposition of privatization and other forms of structural adjustment as conditionalities for International Monetary Fund assistance – conditionalities which appear to be returning in exchange for post-COVID support – little is left for healthcare, education and other social infrastructure. It is not surprising, then, that Oxfam's 2018 report on inequality ranks Nigeria at the bottom of 157 countries for the second year in a row, citing low social spending, ineffective taxation (a legacy of the Britain's colonial withdrawal arrangements), and increasing labour rights violations. Migration represents hope and survival.

If other migrants have been ‘successful’, or present as such, then the only explanation for destitution seems to be one of personal failing. ‘Nobody knows how you are living. Nobody knows that you are living in one room. How many people are you going to tell? You don't tell. You just keep it to yourself. People will feel, “oh, she's doing well over there. She's doing well over there.” That's the impression they have. That's what people see on Facebook. You see them on Facebook, they post a lot. Giving people the impression back home that they are doing good. You pretend that everything is going well for you, smooth, rosy. Because you know, Facebook, it's whatever they see. You don't want to tell people this is what you are going through. People are looking at you high-up there.’ As Villarreal (2014: S32) points out, the need to appear to have ‘made it’ in the ‘big migration enterprise’ means that stories of struggle and hardship often cannot be told.

More deeply and insidiously, then, NRPF can be understood as a policy set on deterring migration by making life in the UK ‘hostile’ for negatively racialized postcolonial subjects. It works alongside the deportability regime in efforts to remake Britain in its nativist image. At the same time, NRPF entangles postcolonial, working-class migrants in a cycle of debt, debt servicing and more debt tied to both public and private institutions and individuals in the UK and beyond. Such forms of differential inclusion produce racialized forms of debt and destitution and are little more than a neocolonial ‘re-drawing of the global colour line’ (De Genova 2017: 1766).

What we are suggesting is that Britain's second empire resides not only in its overseas free ports and tax havens but within its local borders. Working-class migrant families with NRPF are rendered super-exploitable labour, revenue for a profit-making migration regime (from applications and legal fees to agents and smugglers), and sources of surplus generated through steady repayments of debt interest in their determination to regularize their status. Yet they are also rendered easily expendable by the second British empire. Profits in the migration regime are produced through the hardship and hard labour of these same dispossessed people and other workers.

The brown envelopes with which we began this chapter mark the debt owed by migrant families with NRPF. But we end by asking, once histories of colonial extraction and contemporary profit making in the migration-industrial complex are taken into account: who is in debt to whom?

Further resources

Chalabi, N. (2020) ‘Children with No Recourse to Public Funds: The need for free school meals’. London: Hackney Migrant Centre. https://hackneymigrantcentre.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Children-with-NRPF-The-need-for-FSM.pdf (accessed 1 February 2020).

Dickson, E. (2019) ‘Not seen, not heard: Children's experiences of the hostile environment’. London: Project 17. www.project17.org.uk/media/70571/Not-seen-not-heard-1-.pdf (accessed 1 February 2020).

Dickson, E. and Rosen, R. (2020) ‘Postponing migrant destitution? Why we need to call for more than a suspension of no recourse to public funds’. https://archive.discoversociety.org/2020/08/19/postponing-migrant-destitution-why-we-need-to-call-for-more-than-a-suspension-of-no-right-to-public-funds/ (accessed 15 September 2022).

Dickson E and Rosen R (2021) ‘“Punishing those who do the wrong thing”: Enforcing destitution and debt through the UK's family migration rules’. Critical Social Policy 41: 545–565. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0261018320980634 (accessed 10 January 2021).

North East London Migrant Action (NELMA). https://nelmacampaigns.wordpress.com/ (accessed 1 February 2020).

Works cited

De Genova, N. (2017) ‘The “migrant crisis” as racial crisis: Do Black Lives Matter in Europe?Ethnic and Racial Studies 41(10): 1765–82.

El-Enany, N. (2020) (B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Federici, S. (2014) ‘From commoning to debt: Financialization, microcredit, and the changing architecture of capital accumulation’. South Atlantic Quarterly 113(2): 231–244.

Feldman, R. (2018) ‘What price safe motherhood? Charging for NHS maternity care in England and its impact on migrant women’. London: Maternity Action. https://maternityaction.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/WhatPriceSafeMotherhoodFINAL.October.pdf (accessed 1 February 2020).

Fold, N. and Neilson, J. (2016) ‘Sustaining supplies in smallholder dominated value chains: Corporate governance of the global cocoa sector’. In M. P. Squicciarini and J. Swinnen (eds), Economics of Chocolate. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 195–212.

Ovadia, J. S. (2013) ‘The Nigerian “one percent” and the management of national oil wealth through Nigerian content’. Science & Society 77(3): 315–341.

Price, J. and Spencer, S. (2015) Safeguarding Children from Destitution: Local Authority Responses to Families with ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’. Oxford: Compas.

Shilliam, R. (2018) Race and the Undeserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit. Newcastle upon Tyne: Agenda Publishing.

Uche, C. (2008) ‘Oil, British interests and the Nigerian civil war’. The Journal of African History 49(1): 111–135.

Villarreal, M. (2014) ‘Regimes of value in Mexican household financial practices’. Current Anthropology 55(S9): S30–S39. DOI: 10.1086/676665


1 The Panama Papers were 11.5 million leaked files containing evidence of financial crime and political corruption enabled by the offshore financial system. Reports, which highlighted the global scale of the problem, first began to be released in April 2016 by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and its media partners. www.icij.org/investigations/panama-papers/five-years-later-panama-papers-still-having-a-big-impact/ (accessed 15 September 2022).
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The entangled legacies of empire

Race, finance and inequality


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