Thousands of people living lawfully in the UK are encountering delays in the visa renewal process, which then cause them problems with hostile environment policies, according to research published this week by a migrant rights charity.
People seeking to extend or formalise their immigration status are given the little-understood status of “3C leave” while they wait for the Home Office to process their application. During this period, their right to work, rent property and access healthcare is in theory protected, but because they have no documentary evidence proving their status, many face difficulties with landlords and employers.
Research by the Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London (Ramfel), which offers support with immigration casework, said more than 30% of its clients had experienced difficulties while they were on 3C leave. Employers and landlords are often unfamiliar with the concept, and because they are anxious to avoid being fined for employing or renting to an illegal immigrant, they often view lack of documentation as synonymous with unlawful status, the charity states.
Many placed on 3C leave are in the process of trying naturalise as British, under the 10-year route, which requires applicants to make four 30-month further leave-to-remain applications to stay in the UK during the qualifying period at a cost of about £2,600 each time. Home Office processing delays mean that many find themselves in immigration limbo for extended periods.
A package of hostile environment policies introduced from 2012 increased the penalties faced by employers and landlords who fail to conduct immigration status checks, and made it hard for anyone without documentary proof of their valid immigration status to access healthcare, benefits, driving licences, bank accounts or mobile phone contracts. This caused problems for people from the Windrush generation, who were unable to prove they were in the UK legally, but a new group people are now facing similar difficulties because of the poor understanding of 3C status.
Shantel Williams, 29, who has lived in the UK since arriving here legally from Jamaica as a nine-year-old with her mother, is trying to obtain British citizenship through the 10-year-route. She applied for work at a bookmakers earlier this summer, while she was on 3C leave while waiting for a Home Office decision on her latest leave-to-remain application, but she was unable to persuade her prospective employers that she was here legally. When she explained that they could go online to do an employee check on the government website, they were unfamiliar with the system and refused to do one.
“The system feels very harsh and brutal. The slowness of the Home Office decision-making process makes things very hard. It has had an enormous impact on my life, in terms of being stable and feeling like I belong here,” she said.
“The average waiting time for a decision is currently 11 months, meaning applicants spend almost a year on 3C leave with no physical visa document. This has been compounded further by government delays in processing employment verification checks, which are meant to act as a safeguard for those on 3C leave,” the Ramfel report states.
Between January 2020 and May 2022, Ramfel helped 329 people make further leave-to-remain applications, and in at least 109 instances (31%) clients faced some kind of detriment while on 3C leave; 21 people were either wrongly suspended from work or prevented from taking up employment.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Our guidance clearly stipulates that employers should provide individuals with every opportunity to demonstrate their right to work and must not discriminate against those with an outstanding application. We are clear that those who discriminate are breaking the law. We have set out a long-term vision to ultimately move away from providing physical documents that evidence immigration status to help make it easier for people to accurately reflect their immigration status.”
Nick Beales, of Ramfel, said: “The government’s hostile environment was shown by the Windrush scandal to trap and victimise British nationals simply because they did not hold physical visa documents. For those on the 10-year route to settlement, lawfully resident in the UK but spending significant periods on 3C leave without physical proof of their immigration status, it should come as no surprise that they are frequently suffering discrimination with employment and when attempting to access even basic services.”
Colin Yeo, an immigration lawyer, said the lack of documentation was causing problems: “If you’ve made a valid application it is invisibly extended by law, but no employer, landlord, college or hospital will be able to see that on the passport and the fines they face will make them reluctant to trust you.”