Seeking asylum, ending destitution

If "destitutes" across the UK can stand up and act together we can make a difference: we are ready to meet the authorities at the negotiating table, says Nancy Bonongwe.

It has been seven and a half years since I came to the UK seeking sanctuary from Zimbabwe. As a child born of a Malawian father and a Zimbabwean mother I am not recognised as a Zimbabwean citizen. For me, returning home is not an option.

Since the day I arrived and sought asylum I have been denied the right to work in Britain and have no access to mainstream benefits. Like an estimated 400 to 500 people in the city of Nottingham, I live in a state of destitution.

Faced with this hardship, it is the relationships that I have built with local people and my involvement with civil society that has kept me going and given me hope that things can change, for example volunteering with the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum where I offer support and advice to fellow asylum seekers and refugees.

I prefer to use the word ‘sanctuary’ when I talk about myself and those we help at the Forum because many people in Britain still attach a stigma to the word ‘asylum seeker’.

Citizens for Sanctuary is a national civil society movement founded in 2006 with the aim of challenging this stigma and improving the lives of all those who seek protection from persecution in Britain. In November 2011, I attended one of their meetings here in Nottingham for the first time. It was a workshop looking at the destitution which people like me face in our city. The hall was full of men and women, many of whom had children in tow. Here we all were trying to forge a life for ourselves and our families in the city without food, shelter and protection; here we all were sharing our stories with one another, sure that someone was really listening.

Four months after this meeting, I was nominated a commissioner of a citizen-led inquiry into destitution. We launched our commission in front of 120 people, declaring our ambition to "conduct the deepest and most comprehensive investigation of the accommodation needs of people seeking sanctuary in Nottingham to date; develop a full map of destitution and accommodation needs among the groups we work with, of the specific nature of people’s diverse destitution needs, and of the current statutory and non-statutory support mechanisms available in Nottingham."

Life as a “destitute” in the UK

In recent months, the high levels of destitution experienced by asylum seekers in the UK has received significant national attention, especially the plight of children. Both national charity The Children’s Society and the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) at the University of Oxford have published influential reports on the topic and the Government’s Education Select Committee has held a hearing on destitution amongst migrant and asylum-seeking children. Through our city-wide commission here in Nottingham we have sought to draw attention to the local realities of this scandalous trend.

During a series of participatory workshops which we held as part of our research we lost track of the number of times people introduced themselves as "a destitute": "My name is Cynthia and I'm a destitute"; "My name is Mohammed and I'm a destitute"; "My name is Ansha and I'm a destitute". Not a person. Not a human being born equal and free: "a destitute".

The dictionary tells me that “destitute” means “without means of subsistence; lacking food, clothing, and shelter” and I know first-hand that destitute people are often deeply hurt, damaged and beaten by this terrible situation. The most tragic thing is that this situation is not inevitable; it is a deliberate consequence of government policy.

Almost all individuals who have come to the UK seeking protection and who have made an application for asylum are prohibited from working to support themselves. While seeking asylum they are forced to survive on state hand-outs of less than £40 a week. For most this means living in a state of poverty, without enough to meet their basic needs. Those who have had their application for asylum refused but are unable to return to their country have even this minimal support withdrawn -  they have “no recourse to public funds" and no right to work. Many in this situation live on the streets in a state of total destitution. One young man we interviewed for our report was living in a local graveyard.

At the launch of our report Homelessness and Hope in July this year, several members of the audience broke down in tears when Angela from Malawi described her life in Nottingham as a “destitute”: "at that time the conditions we were living in were terrible. I was surviving with my two children on £5 per week. We could only afford bread, sugar and tea. I could manage on one slice of bread per day, my oldest son on two. For my youngest son I used to boil the bread in water to make porridge so that it would last longer.”

The hardship endured by children like Angela’s who are living without documents in ‘limbo’ in the UK is well documented  and illegal. Under the terms of The Children Act 1989 (2004) no child should be left in need, regardless of their immigration status. Single people with no immigration status have no access to benefits yet under the law children, and hence families, must not be allowed to live in conditions that violate the terms of a children in need assessment. Despite this, of the 26 children we found currently living destitute in Nottingham during the course of our research only four were receiving support from Children's Services.

Much more must be done to reach out to the families of these 22 children, and to the hundreds of others, to ensure that they feel comfortable coming forward to claim the support to which they are entitled. The need is huge. A recent study estimates that there are up to 120,000 undocumented migrant children currently live in the UK. According to Nando Sigona, Research Associate at COMPAS, that is around 0.9 per cent of the UK’s overall population under the age of 18.

Civil society against destitution

Through my involvement with the commission here in Nottingham I’ve seen first-hand that state policies which hurt people seeking sanctuary are in conflict with the supportive response of local people. Through our commission, destitute people together with supportive local residents proved themselves able to tackle and challenge unjust state policies. At the launch of our findings, Framework Housing Association agreed to make some of their accommodation available to support single destitute people, increasing the amount of specialist housing available to people with no recourse to public funds in Nottingham by 40%. In a packed hall of over 250 local residents and local media we also successfully pressured private landlords G4S to commit to a training and monitoring pilot project so that their new housing staff gain a personal understanding of the lives of people like me, and so that they are more likely to provide a quality service and be accountable for the tax payers money which pays them to provide it.

The leader of Nottingham City Council, John Collins, also pledged to take action to end destitution in our city. He has committed to introducing a No Recourse to Public Funds protocol to guide social workers' decision making in regard to families like mine and Angela's. We are currently in negotiations over the content of the protocol and expect to see it published shortly. It will see Nottingham City Council taking a lead across the entire East Midlands in dealing with destitution.

Over the past six months I've learned that as civil society we can organise ourselves and engage the authorities to come to a negotiating table to make change. I’ve also learnt that as an asylum seeker I am part of this civil society. People like me and Angela have a voice.

The work is not finished, not in our city and not in our country where 100,000 children continue to suffer. But if lessons can be learned, if "destitutes" across the UK can stand up and act together we can make a difference.  As the saying goes, ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’. This is our first step from homelessness towards hope.

About the author

Nancy Bonongwe is a trustee of the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum  and a volunteer with Citizens for Sanctuary. She was a commissioner for the Homelessness and Hope report on destitution among asylum seekers in Nottingham. Before fleeing to the UK to seek asylum she worked in administration. She is a mother of three.