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Home Office tells destitute Windrush woman to seek charity help to feed her child

The Independent logo The Independent 10/08/2018 May Bulman
a person posing for the camera © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited

A former NHS nurse who is facing deportation has been told to seek charity help in order to feed her child while she waits for the Windrush taskforce to look into her case.

Sharon Vitalis, 46, has not been able to work or claim benefits while awaiting the decision, which has overrun the two-week deadline by more than six weeks, and called the department to tell them she was struggling financially.

Politicians and lawyers said the advice from the Home Office to “effectively beg for food” was “disgraceful” and contradicted laws requiring the state to act in the best interests of children and provide financial support to children facing destitution.

It will fuel concerns that Windrush victims are still being hit by the Tories’ hostile environment policy months after the scandal emerged, and raise questions about whether adequate support is being offered to those affected.

Ms Vitalis, whose Windrush generation father served in the Royal Air Force, was born in Germany while her father was deployed to the country during his service. Her family moved back to the UK a month after her birth.

She was recently threatened with deportation, which would separate her from her two British-born children – one of whom is just 12 years old, and whose father lives in the US – despite having a British birth certificate and living in the country for most of her life.

The 46-year-old is one of scores of people referred to the taskforce who have been forced to wait months for their cases to be resolved despite a government pledge to process them in two weeks, as revealed by The Independent on Thursday.

In a recording of her phone call with a Home Office caseworker passed on to The Independent, Ms Vitalis says: “Is there any way I can apply to work while they’re waiting for their appeal? I am not allowed to work, I have no benefits. I have a 12-year-old child.”

The caseworker responds: “Well I’m afraid these are the immigration rules, so you’ll have to get some advice from somebody, but obviously the Home Office point of view if you don’t have a legal status in the UK you’re not entitled to work or study.”

a man and a woman: sharon.jpg © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited sharon.jpg

Ms Vitalis then asks: “But what about children? You cannot have children going destitute. Fair enough I’m not supposed to work that does not mean my child has to starve,” to which she receives the response: “We’re not saying that. Do you have no one else who can help you? 

“Because that’s how we deal unfortunately … You can’t work that’s for sure. And you won’t have access to public funds either if that’s the case … You’ll have to look on the internet to seek advice from any charitable institutions who may be able to provide some support.”

A week after the phone call, Ms Vitalis phoned the Windrush taskforce to inform them that her electricity had cut out, at which point they agreed to refer her to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). She now has a meeting with the DWP scheduled.

Satbir Singh, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), told The Independent the advice given to Ms Vitalis by the Home Office “wasn’t just callous, it was also completely wrong”.

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“Parents with children facing destitution may well be able to get financial assistance from their local authority under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989. We do not leave children to starve in this country just because their parent does not have status,” he added.

“If one of our solicitors or an independent adviser had given such bad advice they’d be facing questions from their regulator about their competence.

“It’s appalling that the Home Office effectively told Sharon to go and beg for food, when there are laws requiring the state to act in the best interests of children, and provide financial support to children facing destitution.”

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott told The Independent: “This is a disgraceful case, even by this government’s standards.

“The only reason why this poor woman does not have automatic British citizenship, unlike all her siblings, is because she was born in Germany while her father was serving there with the RAF.

“Sharon has herself worked in the NHS for many years. This is a slap in the face to migrants and public servants, and shows how the scandalous treatment of Windrush generation echoes down the generations.”

She added: “The home secretary needs to right this injustice immediately. Sajid Javid has said he will deal with all these injustices, but in fact new cases are arising all the time. They will continue to do so until the government ends its ‘hostile environment’ policy.”

The Home Office said it did not comment on individual cases.

Video: Windrush 70th anniversary celebrated at Westminster Abbey (PA)

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Transcript of phone call

Ms Vitalis: Is there any way someone can apply to work while they’re waiting for their appeal? My appeal is in October, I am not allowed to work, I have no benefits. I have a 12-year-old child.

Caseworker: You don’t have indefinite leave to remain in the UK, do you?

Ms Vitalis: No, nothing, I’m facing a deportation order.

Caseworker: If you don’t have indefinite leave to remain then obviously you won’t be able to work, unfortunately.

Ms Vitalis: So what do you do when you have a child to feed?

Caseworker: Well I’m afraid these are the immigration rules, so you’ll have to get some advice from somebody. But obviously, the Home Office point of view, as you are aware, if you don’t have a legal status in the UK you’re not entitled to work or study.

Ms Vitalis: But what about children? […] You cannot have children going destitute, children are different to adults. Fair enough I’m not supposed to work; that does not mean my child has to starve.

Caseworker: No, we’re not saying that. Do you have no one else who can help you? Because that’s how we deal, unfortunately… You can’t work, that is definite. And you won’t have access to public funds either if that’s the case… Let me seek some advice.

[Pause while caseworker speaks with a colleague]

You’ll have to look on the internet to seek advice from any charitable institutions who may be able to provide some support.

Ms Vitalis: Okay … You don’t provide any help with getting from Kent to Croydon either so how am I supposed to do that every two weeks.

Caseworker: Well, speak to the reporting centre and see if they can provide you with a travel warrant or something.

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