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Cost of living crisis forcing asylum seekers to ration food as prices soar

Exclusive: Banned from working, asylum seekers say their £40 a week is not stretching as far amid rising food costs

Isabella Cipirska
Isabella Cipirska
11 November 2022, 3.42pm

Asylum seekers in the UK face long waits for their applications to be processed


Gerard Ferry / Alamy Stock Photo

“People think we live in heaven, that they are giving us everything – but this is not true. Believe me, it’s hard,” William*, who is afraid to share his real name or location, tells openDemocracy over the phone.

William is one of the approximately 120,000 asylum seekers in the UK awaiting a decision on their claim for refugee status. All are banned from working while their applications are processed and those housed in self-catered accommodation, like William, receive just £40.85 a week to live on – less than £6 a day.

This money is supposed to cover essentials such as food, clothing and toiletries, as well as travel, non-prescription medicine, communication and anything else they might need. But amid the soaring cost of living, which has seen food inflation reach its highest annual rate on record, many are struggling.

William tells openDemocracy he’s noticed prices in the supermarket spiralling, saying meat and even vegetables are now “double the price”. “The money is not enough,” he says. “It’s tough.”

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A few months ago, the 40-year-old was spending between £25 and £30 per week on food, leaving him £10 or so to cover everything else. But now, he says: “I spend the whole amount just on food, and I don’t even buy 75% of what I used to.”

Although he is as thrifty as possible, sticking to “stores that sell everything cheap”, William says it’s “impossible” for him to afford much of what he needs now, such as warm clothes for the coming winter.

You just stay in the room trying to think about something else, trying not to think about food… you feel like you’re in jail

William’s situation became even worse when he recently broke his leg. Unable to walk, he is housebound, stuck in his room at the accommodation he shares with five others, eating just one meal a day. At £20, a taxi journey to the hospital and back wipes out half his weekly budget.

With no TV, no computer and no internet – and no chance of being able to afford them – there’s little to distract him.

“You just stay in the room trying to think about something else, trying not to think about food… it’s a horrible situation,” he said. “Sometimes you feel like you’re in jail.”

To make matters worse, William has experienced abuse from some members of the public, who threw rocks at his window and shouted at him while he was queuing in a shop, saying: “‘Get out of here, this is not for you people’... ‘we don’t want you people over here’.”

William says their language echoed that used in the media and by some politicians, such as home secretary Suella Braverman, who earlier this month claimed asylum seekers were staging an “invasion of our southern coast”.

William wishes those spreading hate could spend some time in his shoes. “I would like to see how many of them could survive even one week like this,” he says.

Leila*, another asylum seeker, who comes from Iraq and lives in the north of England with her four teenage children, is also struggling to get by.

“We are very, very glad for the support we have from the Home Office,” the 43-year-old stressed. “However, when you ask me if it’s enough to support your family, I definitely say no… especially with the increased prices around the UK, it’s really hard for us.”

My children can’t understand… they always ask me, why don’t we have money, why are we poor?

There are many things they can’t afford, such as fresh fruit, and many unavoidable expenses, like school uniforms. “The children grow so fast I need to change their clothes twice a year,” she said.

The situation is difficult for her children. “They can’t understand…they always ask me, why don’t we have money, why are we poor?” said Leila, who has been waiting for four years for a Home Office decision on her asylum claim.

She worries about Christmas approaching. “If I don’t have enough money to support them day-to-day, how can I get the money to get them a present or make a Christmas tree?” she said. “I don’t want them to feel they are lower [than their peers].”

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‘How long do I have to survive like this?’

Charities say rising costs are forcing people seeking asylum into difficult decisions.

“People are having to choose between eating or putting nappies on their children, between eating or getting a bus somewhere,” said Imogen McIntosh, founder and director of Aidbox Community in Bristol.

The charity’s ‘free shop’ service, where people seeking asylum can choose items donated by the public, is “increasingly in demand” and described as “a lifeline” by users, she says. “We’ve had queues, literally queues, down the street every morning.”

Ahead of the Home Office’s next review of the asylum support rate, the Scottish Refugee Council has petitioned for the weekly allowance to be raised to £84.12 in light of the rising cost of living (the 2021 review saw the rate upped from £39.63 to £40.85 – an increase of just £1.22).

Sabir Zazai, chief executive of the organisation, said: “People existing on this support have no choice but to opt for the most affordable foods and toiletries. The cost of these basic goods is now rising massively.

“Anyone would struggle to fully integrate into a community, to eat nutritious meals and to feel in control of our lives with such low funds.”

It is inhumane that people are left in limbo, unable to work, and unable to afford essentials for such long periods of time

Despite the Home Office saying asylum applicants should receive a decision within six months, 23,000 people have been waiting more than 18 months, figures show. These huge backlogs mean some people are having to survive on this meagre amount for years on end.

“It is inhumane that people are left living in limbo, unable to work, and increasingly unable to afford the essentials for such long periods of time,” Zazai said.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute are provided with support whilst we consider their claim for international protection. This includes free, furnished accommodation and utilities as well as a weekly allowance for food, clothing, transport and goods.”

But William says not being able to work and provide for himself is “frustrating”. “I’ve always looked after myself,” he explains. “I’m not used to asking for things, I feel like I’m begging and I don’t like that.”

He has already been waiting more than two years for a decision on his asylum claim, with no idea as to when he will get an answer.

“I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel right now,” he says. “How long do I have to survive like this?”

Names have been changed

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