Foreign offenders ‘sitting in limbo’

Work with Offenders investigates the plight of foreign national women offenders

New research by Sophia Benedict for the Griffins Society examines the barriers to community resettlement for foreign national women. The study explores the barriers to resettlement for foreign national women living in the community in the UK, and sheds light on the complex ways in which non-citizen immigration status shapes the lived reality of resettlement for this group.

Anyone who watched this week’s BBC TV drama “Sitting in Limbo” on the horrific experiences of Anthony Bryan, a member of the so-called Windrush generation, who was detained twice in immigration centres despite having lived in this country for 50 years, will be able to imagine the plight of this group of vulnerable women. Mr Bryan (whose mother worked for the NHS for 30 years) was forbidden to work and ended up being evicted from his home because he couldn’t pay the rent.

Increased focus on deportation 

In recent years, there has been an increased focus by the UK government on the deportation of ‘foreign national criminals’ on completion of their sentence, an emphasis that has geared foreign national women’s pathways through the criminal justice system strongly towards the possibility of deportation, over rehabilitation and resettlement.

However, many foreign national women are released into the community post sentence – indeed, this was the case for 260 women in 2017, in addition to women serving community sentences. By interviewing women in open, semi-structured conversations, Ms Benedict set out to identify and gain much needed insight into the challenges they face, giving space for women to voice the struggles – often painfully sustained and unyielding – that shape their daily lives in the community and render rehabilitative goals impossible.

She also interviewed practitioners to identify the barriers they come up against in providing support and to ask how these could be addressed.

Research findings 

The findings of this research reveal the complex web of obstacles to resettlement currently experienced by foreign national women. They highlight both the urgency and the scale of change needed within current policy to ensure that this group of women experience safety, dignity and hope when resettling into the community. The study identified a number of key themes:

The No Recourse to Public Funds condition (NRPF), a lack of access to housing, and the ban placed on work, study, and in many cases volunteering for those awaiting the outcome of applications for leave or asylum has overwhelmingly detrimental implications for every area of women’s lives and resettlement. The impact of this legislation which effectively leaves people “sitting in limbo” was vividly depicted in the BBC drama. For women and practitioners alike, the lack of access to housing was identified as the single biggest obstacle to resettlement.

All participants identified a significant lack of support options for this group of women; where women had been supported in the community by charities and other support services or faith groups, this support was described as critical for women’s survival. Probation officers emphasised the limitations of probation to adequately support the needs of this cohort; the support and resources provided by probation emerged as patchy and inconsistent across boroughs and officers.

The mental health impacts of prolonged waiting for an outcome on immigration cases were highlighted to be overwhelming; one participant described attempting suicide twice in the year since leaving prison, whilst others said they had thought about it. Practitioners strongly emphasised the inadequacy of current mental health provision, and the multiple barriers preventing women from accessing appropriate support.

Women and practitioners described the impact of frequent visits to sign on at Home Office reporting centres: women are forced to travel long distances without access to travel money. A central part of the Windrush drama was its depiction of Anthony Bryan’s repeated ordeal of having to attend meetings with the Home Office at which he never received any clear information about what he was expected to do or what was likely to happen next. There was a notable perception amongst practitioners that the number of deportation orders given to women has been increasing.

Practitioners articulated a sense of powerlessness, and high levels of emotional investment in the cases of foreign national women. Supporting this cohort was felt to be far more challenging than working with UK national women.


Communication with the Home Office was described by all practitioners as extremely poor, and in many cases non-existent. This was felt to be one of the main barriers to effectively supporting women. The study recommended that every person in this situation should have a named caseworker who kept the individual and their probation officer regularly informed about their status and the next stages in this complex and arcane process.