Jasn/Flickr. Creative Commons.The 2015 Immigration Bill, which is currently making its way through parliament, could have grave implications for asylum-seeking families if passed without amendment. One of the central proposals is to remove all means of welfare support from families refused asylum. Destitution will therefore be used as a means of immigration control in an attempt to “rebalance the support system so that it does not incentivise failed asylum seekers and other illegal migrants to remain in the UK where they have no lawful basis for doing so”. Only those who have a “genuine obstacle” preventing their return to countries of origin will be entitled to access benefits, although even they will receive welfare at a level much lower than that available to citizens.
Estimates suggest that the proposals will impact around 2,900 families and a further 4,900 persons whose family status is unknown. On paper, the policy will save the government an estimated £73 million per year, with savings to the taxpayer being used as the main justification for forcing destitution upon refused asylum-seeking families.
However, passage of the bill could both cost more and increase instances of exploitation and human rights violations, as it may transfer the costs of provision from the Home Office to local authorities on grounds of child protection. Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide accommodation for children ‘in need’. In practice, any child lacking accommodation falls within this category, meaning that destitute refused asylum-seeking children will be covered as well.
This duty, however, does not extend to adult members of the family—there is no general requirement to care for the homeless—raising questions as to whether the government intends to accept the separation of refused asylum-seeking children from their parents as a consequence of the new legislation. Unless specific policy guidance is issued by the government, decisions of this nature will remain at the discretion of the local authority. In choosing whether to accommodate children alone or the family as a whole, these local agencies will necessarily take their finite resources into account. It is pertinent, then, to point out that since 2010 local authorities have had their budgets cut by 40 percent and face further cuts for 2016. There are, furthermore, precedents for this in the pre-austerity era: in 2001, Lambeth Borough council declared that it would only accommodate the children of “intentionally homeless” families, but would not include provision for parents on the grounds that such accommodation would divert funds and resources away from other priority services.
The irony is that providing accommodation and support for entire families in bed and breakfasts, for example, is often cheaper than taking the children into local authority care. However, Lambeth authorities feared that granting provision to families as a whole might have a knock-on effect, as like cases must be treated alike. The council claimed that, by threatening destitute families with separation, the majority of parents found other sources of accommodation and the need for local authority provision was avoided.
The provision lottery
What does this mean for refused asylum-seeking families subject to the proposed changes? Children could either be removed from their parents, or families could be accommodated as a whole. The second option effectively transfers the burden of costs from central government to local authorities. Such decisions are likely to be made on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the resources of the local authority in question. These decisions could only really be challenged on human rights grounds, specifically that the child’s rights under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to private and family life) would be breached by the local authorities’ actions. Aside from the legal aid costs incurred from seeking this type of redress, such claims would also make local authorities vulnerable to costly forms of litigation.
A further alternative is that families will be forcibly taken into immigration detention as a precursor to removing them from the country entirely. However, families with children can only be detained for a maximum period of 72 hours. Given the complexity of such cases quick and effective removals are highly unlikely, thereby creating a length of time wherein the family cannot be detained yet also cannot access housing or support. The final alternative, and perhaps the most likely scenario, is that local authorities will not need to accommodate refused asylum-seeking children because families will seek other forms of help and accommodation from friends and acquaintances. This also comes with risks. In such a scenario, both children and parents become highly vulnerable to exploitation if they choose to go underground to prevent deportation or the removal of their children. Such a policy sits uneasily with the current government’s commitment to abolish modern slavery.
What is startlingly clear is that threatening refused asylum-seeking families with destitution and the removal of their children is unlikely to increase voluntary return. Existing evidence already reveals instances of destitution amongst asylum-seeking families who would rather remain destitute than return to their countries of origin. For example, the 2013 Teather inquiry revealed that in some areas children made up between 13-20% of the destitute asylum population.
While the Home Office has been made aware of this evidence, their response merely restates that local authorities have no duty to provide services for ‘illegal immigrants’, and that the government will work closely with local authorities to resolve these issues. In practice, any situation in which children are removed from their families or are subjected to the risk of destitution or exploitation raises serious human rights concerns. Unfortunately, all signs suggest that the bill will be steamrolled through parliament by the government’s majority, suggesting that Emily Fletcher of the University of Sussex was right when she said “policy in this area is not the result of reasoned debate based on empirical data, but the outcome of expounding ideologies, rhetoric and persuasion”. Child protection and human rights concerns thus hold little sway in a system centred on immigration control and the concerns of the electorate.