Poverty: a human rights abuse in the UK

Internationally poverty has been recognised as a violation of human dignity and, when a consequence of government policy, a violation of human rights. What does this mean for women seeking asylum who are forced into poverty in the UK, asks Amanda Gray.

Amanda Gray
19 August 2013

Arrival in the UK should signal safety for women fleeing severe human rights abuses and situations of gender-based persecution in countries of conflict. Yet while providing sanctuary from certain harms such as rape, domestic violence, trafficking, female genital mutilation, forced marriage and gender-based discrimination, the new place of refuge too often creates a new harm: poverty.

Asylum seekers have no right to work in the UK and, with dropping levels of welfare support since 1999, they are one of the most impoverished groups in the UK. During the 1990s asylum support rates had been set at 90% of Income Support. The difference in rates was only to reflect the fact that housing was provided separately for asylum seekers. Today rates are not measured against any standard but, according to campaign coalition Still Human Still Here, they are estimated to sit at around 50-55% of current Income Support rates. This is below the UK poverty measure as adopted by main poverty campaigners and researchers.

In spite of advocacy on the issue and growing concern from mainstream poverty groups, last month, the Minister for Immigration, Mr Mark Harper MP, announced his decision to maintain at the current low rate the amount of support provided to asylum seekers and asylum seekers who have exhausted their appeal rights but are unable to return home. Support for asylum seekers has dropped further in real terms, making it increasingly difficult to survive. Add to this the impact of austerity measures on the voluntary sector more broadly, which has been shouldering for many years the inadequacies of current support rates. The humanitarian consequences have been noted by several agencies, including the British Red Cross.

Women asylum-seekers experience particular gendered forms of poverty, as has been reported on openDemocracy 50.50 by authors including Nancy Bonongwe, Anna Dixie, Anna Musgrave and Jenny Phillimore. As women, they have a different starting position and different experiences, all of which can exacerbate the experience of poverty.

Pregnancy is one such example. Currently, pregnant asylum seeking women survive on the current Section 4 and Section 95 rates per week, with minimum adjustments to reflect pregnancy or subsequent childcare responsibilities. They receive an additional £3 a week for the duration of their pregnancy, a maternity payment of £300 and a minimal pregnancy payment of £3 or £5 per week after the birth of their baby. Recent research by NGOs Maternity Action and Refugee Council have found the current amounts to be wholly inadequate to enable the women to cover essential costs or buy essential items. Administrative failures and delays can also lead to women being left with no money at all or with less than their entitlement.

Many other asylum-seekers live in extreme poverty due to the use of “Azure” cards, a form of cashless support which restricts the items they can purchase.  

Human rights are relevant to the policy debate around the adequacy of asylum support in the UK because they provide  normative standards that states, including the UK, have signed up to at an international level. They also provide principles for how to go about ensuring that these rights are implemented, and assert the need for a rights-based approach to be adopted by policy-makers.

The right to non-discrimination

At the heart of the international human rights framework is the fundamental principle of non-discrimination. Non-discrimination and equality are essential to the exercise and enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. Article 2, paragraph 2, of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights obliges each State party “to guarantee that the rights enunciated in the present Covenant will be exercised without discrimination of any kind as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”. Any differential treatment of groups, including on the basis of nationality and/or immigration status, must be proportionate, meet a legitimate aim and be justifiable. Even then, any different treatment must not conflict with the state’s obligations to uphold fundamental human rights or undermine the Convention; and a lack of available resources is not an objective and reasonable justification unless every effort has been made to use all resources that are at the State party’s disposition.

Perhaps more striking (and historically less talked about) is the notion of poverty as a violation of human rights when caused by policies that enforce poverty, in addition to the impact of a life lived in poverty. Although the English courts have given some acknowledgement to economic and social rights through the common law - or when violations are severe enough to constitute a violation of the civil rights protected by the European Convention of Human Rights - implementation of economic and social rights have always been difficult in the UK context. This is due to a lack of direct enforcement in the UK courts of International Human Rights Conventions and a traditionally cautious judiciary, reluctant to touch on issues of government resources. Economic and social rights have also been left behind since the development of human rights law internationally in comparison to civil and political rights.

But things are changing. In the UK context, NGOs Just Fair and Practice to Participation demonstrate how a rights-based framework can be brought to this debate. Internationally poverty has been recognised as a violation of human dignity and, when a consequence of government policy, it is recognised that it can be a violation of human rights. At a time of growing poverty and increasing apathy towards welfare in the UK, we need to ask more than ever what these international standards mean for asylum seeking women as rights holders in the UK.

The right to heath, housing and social security

Economic and social rights include the right to health, housing and social security. Claiming and naming these necessities for what they are - rights - is increasingly urgent as economic and social rights are at a grave risk of violation for asylum-seekers. Recognised by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as indispensable for a life of dignity, violations of these rights for asylum seekers through either discriminatory or misguided and badly administered policy or legislation, serves to drive and deepen their poverty.

In the case of pregnant women, inadequate levels of social security during their pregnancy for a group who face existing vulnerabilities due to high rates of pre-existing health needs may encroach on the state’s obligations to ensure the right to the highest standards of health. The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of violence against Women places specific obligations on the state in regard to the health of pregnant asylum seeking women. Low welfare rates that result in an inability to purchase adequate and nutritional food is a rights issue and directly engages the state's specific obligations towards women in pregnancy.

Social security is a fundamental human right protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Right and recognised in various international treaties. The Committee on ESCR who interpret the International Convention that includes these economic and social rights has emphasised the non-discrimination aspect of social security. According to a rights based approach to social security, it is intended to ensure adequate protection from social risks and contingencies and to “cover the loss of lack of earnings due to the inability to obtain or maintain suitable employment”. It is therefore a legal right that is highly relevant to the debate on welfare for asylum seekers here in the UK. The Committee has particularly stated that refugees, stateless persons and asylum-seekers should enjoy equal treatment in access to non-contributory social security schemes, including reasonable access to health care and family support, consistent with international standards.

States are required to respect, protect and fulfill all of the rights set out in the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. And to respect a particular right, the State is required to refrain from interfering in a manner that negatively affects the realisation of that right. The fulfillment of these rights requires States not only to take appropriate legislation measures but also administrative and budgetary measures to ensure the full realistion of the right. Therefore, international human rights law, in particular economic and social rights, is applicable to policies and policy-making, and states must review their policies to ensure that they are compatible with these rights on a regular basis. Furthermore, the Committee has established that states hold a “minimum core obligation to ensure the satisfaction of, at the very least, minimum essential levels” of each of the rights in the Covenant. These are to be met regardless of the availability of resources. This means that even in times of austerity, failing to meet these core minimum standards is not justified.

Such rights are to be “progressively realised” within their maximum available resources - in other words, according to the Committee, states must take appropriate steps towards enhancing the realisation of rights. Again, even during times of austerity, states must not regress or fail to meet core minimum standards.

In spite of the conditions outlined above, in current debates around asylum support the language of the international framework is not always adopted, nor is there an expectation that states should be transparent with budgets (demonstrating that they have not regressed or failed to progressively realise the right in question).

The right to participation

Participation is a principle of human rights, meaning that governments and policy makers in particular must engage the people affected by policy developments in their negotiations and support their participation in decisions about how their human rights are ensured. Recognising the lack of opportunity for asylum seekers to give their voice in the political process this is all the more key. Indeed the voice of asylum-seekers around the policy table is something quite absent at present in current asylum support debates. Asylum-seekers as rights holders must be around the policy table, visible, heard and aware they are rights holders and not grateful beneficiaries of a state grandiose.

A rights-based approach to poverty reduction amongst asylum seekers would empower and no longer victimise asylum seekers. Adopting a human rights approach here would fit squarely in line with the UK Department for International Development’s approach to addressing poverty in the ‘developing context’. Surely the same language can be adopted by advocates of asylum seekers when engaging with policy makers in the UK government with regard to those within its own population?

Human rights standards are universal. They are enshrined and given deeper content and weight in international law and by international mechanisms that monitor a state’s compliance with human rights law and policies. Human rights standards could offer something more powerful that overrides temperamental party politics, negative public mood or a desire to control immigration at the cost of human dignity.

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