Government in the dock: destitution and asylum in the UK

In a landmark legal case, Refugee Action is taking the British government to court next week to challenge policies which leave thousands of asylum seekers hungry and destitute.

Sonal Ghelani
3 February 2014

Imagine you are a single adult living in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales and you are given £36.62 per week. This is to feed yourself, buy clothes and cover phone credit - keeping in touch with family is the only thing stopping you from sliding into depression. With this money you must also pay for transport across the strange and bewildering city that you have now been forced to call home. This sum of money is your only financial means of survival: you brought very few belongings to your new country when you were forced to flee.

Concerned by the serious impact of poverty on asylum seekers, Refugee Action is taking legal action. This year, Home Secretary, Theresa May, refused to increase asylum support rates for the 2013-2014 financial year, even when other types of benefits were increased. We believe this is unlawful. Asylum support rates have not been increased since April 2011, meaning that they have fallen well out of sync with the cost of living.

Thousands of asylum seekers are living on just over £5 a day every day in the UK. ‘I am a poor person’, said Z, a torture survivor, ‘…for me when you are poor there is no life for you. It is a kind of prison. It is worse than prison.’ 

The UK Home Office offers financial support and accommodation to asylum seekers who are destitute whilst their claim for asylum remains under consideration. During this time, asylum seekers are not allowed to work, except in very limited circumstances and only if the Home Office gives permission. Support is offered until the asylum application has been ‘finally determined’. If the applicant is accepted as a refugee they will then have the ability to work and access to mainstream welfare benefits.

In 2012, over 30% of those claiming asylum were recognised to be refugees after their interview with the Home Office; of those who were refused at that stage but appealed and had their appeal decided, nearly 28% successfully overturned the initial refusal to grant asylum by the Home Office.

At around 51% of the amount paid in Income Support to a single adult, asylum support rates are a far cry from the lavish benefits that certain politicians and the tabloid media would like you to think asylum seekers claim from the state. These include stories in papers such as the Daily Mail about ‘”destitute” asylum seekers with luxury TVs and iPads…’

Their abject poverty exacerbates a fraught period in an asylum seeker’s life when they are unsure whether they may be sent back to the very country where they have fled conflict (e.g. in Syria) or persecution, for example, for being gay in Uganda.

The meagre allowance paid in asylum support does not just affect single adults; it also impacts on families with children. A woman who gave evidence to the Children’s Society supported Parliamentary inquiry in 2013 said ‘My son does not have a writing desk and has to do his homework on the floor…’

This unacceptably low level of support means that individuals and whole families lack vital nutrients from fresh fruit and vegetables. Asylum seekers surveyed by the charity Refugee Action say they often go hungry. Those asylum seekers who were interviewed by Refugee Action admitted having to choose between transport costs or food. Most said they often forego meals because they simply can’t afford food on their allowance.

This picture of poverty is supported by evidence provided by organisations such as Freedom from Torture.

Giving evidence to the Parliamentary inquiry, Dr Elaine Chase, from the University of Oxford, commented: ‘There is increasing evidence of the impact on children’s physical health, their mental health…from not having enough food to eat….not having a warm coat to wear in the winter….ha[s] a long term effect on children and young people’s wellbeing.’

Those who have often fled unspeakable persecution and conflict are prevented from rebuilding their lives by financially supporting themselves and their families as well as rebuilding their self-esteem – and are forced instead to exist on a sum of money which is so low that they regularly go hungry. ‘It gives self-worth as a man to work’, said another man who fled torture before coming to the UK, ‘not to have to beg or depend on others…’

The proliferation of food banks being used by an estimated half a million British citizens has been the cause of popular concern. Sadly, the same concern is rarely shared for the thousands of asylum seekers living from hand to mouth.

Refugee Action is not the only organisation talking about destitution among asylum seekers. It is a huge problem, long acknowledged by British civil society. Still Human, Still Here a coalition of more than 60 charitable organisations working with people who have sought asylum believes that the current policy is inhumane and ineffective. It is urging the government, amongst other things, to provide asylum seekers with sufficient support so that they can meet their essential living needs whilst their claims for asylum are in the process of being decided. They also argue that asylum seekers should be allowed to work if their case has not been resolved within six months.

Refugee Action says that it has brought the case as a last resort because the Home Office has refused to properly engage with its concerns and those of other charities. Its legal case is based on the premise that the Home Office is unable to properly explain its reasoning for setting the rate of support at the present level, and not increasing it. Dave Garratt, the Chief Executive Officer at Refugee Action said: ‘The level at which Section 95 [asylum]] support is provided is too low to enable asylum seekers to meet their essential living needs and live with dignity. The Home Office has chosen not to listen to the concerns expressed by reputable charities with a vast amount of experience in this area. Therefore, there is no choice but to challenge the Home Office position through legal action.’

The claim is to be heard in the High Court next week, from 11-13 February.

 It is surely unacceptable that in the 21st century, people seeking refuge in one of the richest countries in the world are going hungry because of government policy.  One would think that all reasonable minded citizens would be, at the least, concerned that people are going hungry in their name. So why is it that there is no chorus of outrage or relentless lobbying of parliamentarians? Perhaps, it is a reflection of the political climate that the government can ignore the concerns of reputable charities, confident in the knowledge that there is no wider political appetite for standing up for the rights of the marginalised. So it is that Refugee Action has turned to the courts to seek justice on behalf of asylum seekers.

The British government may argue that judges, who are unelected, should be cautious about intervening in what are seen as social policy decisions made by a government with the mandate to make such decisions on our behalf.  However, it is troubling that decisions are made by politician not only with little public scrutiny but also with no reasonable explanation for them. This is particularly troubling when there is strong evidence to show that the consequence of the decision in respect of asylum support is that refugees are going hungry.

Read more articles on 50.50's migration platform People on the Move: Beyond Borders


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