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'It's ok to live in poverty, it's ok to be hungry'

This quiet, shocking film reveals the penury and despair the UK government is forcing upon asylum seekers. (Video, 8 mins)

This week's news that the UK government is presiding over a backlog of 29,000 asylum cases would be bad enough–but this statistic does not begin to describe the true extent of the human suffering that the UK asylum system is creating.

Section 95 film from theo hessing on Vimeo.

According to Still Human Still Here, a coalition of over 60 organisations including Oxfam, Amnesty International and the Red Cross, the government is actively forcing more than 25,000 asylum seekers in the UK into poverty. It is doing so by freezing asylum support–the financial support offered to asylum seekers while they await the outcome of their claim–at what campaigners say is a degrading and unsustainably low level, while simultaneously prohibiting them from working.

The result is that a single adult asylum seeker must survive on as little as £5.23 per day. The London Living Wage–calculated as the minimum pay rate required for a worker to live with dignity in the capital–is £8.80 per hour. And this week’s Public Accounts Committee report revealed that 11,000 asylum seekers in the UK have been waiting at least seven years for an initial response to their asylum claim. 

'We don't want to encourage spurious claims'

 Vianney Jaminah, who fled with his wife and three children from post-conflict Sierra Leone to the UK in order to protect his children from genital mutilation at the hands of the country’s powerful secret societies, has been pursuing an asylum claim in the UK for two years. During this time Vianney says he and his family have managed to subsist on asylum support only by developing survival strategies: for instance, by resorting to illicitly obtaining food from food banks where their entitlement has expired.

“It is very stressful when you have a family and you are used to taking care of them and providing for them and no longer can. It has been horrible. If we need to go to any appointment we are forced to walk. We can’t buy toys, we can’t do activities–we find it difficult to even cover the children’s food,” he said.

According to the charity Refugee Action, nearly 40% of asylum seekers on asylum support do not have enough money to feed themselves properly and 88% do not have enough money to buy warm clothes. 60% feel that the low level of asylum support inhibits their ability to proactively pursue their asylum claim.

Based on its research, Refugee Action took the Home Secretary to court in early 2014, arguing that the freeze on asylum support payments is unlawful. In April 2014 it won its case. The High Court found that Theresa May had acted "unlawfully" and "irrationally" when setting asylum support rates, and ordered her to review them. However, Refugee Action’s victory was short-lived. In August 2014 the Home Office responded to the High Court’s ruling not with an adjustment to asylum support rates but with a maintenance of the freeze.

The Home Office said: “we must…be mindful of costs to the taxpayer and…that increasing support could encourage spurious asylum claims, which clog up the system and make it harder for those with a genuine fear of persecution from accessing the vital support they need.”

The wording of this response is not dissimilar to the government’s rationale for refusing to support search and rescue missions to save refugees in the Mediterranean, which it justifies by arguing that these missions simply encourage more migration.

However, there is little evidence that asylum seekers are burdensome to the public purse. On the contrary, according to UN figures asylum applications in the UK have been steadily declining from a peak of 84,130 in 2002 to 23,507 in 2013, of which only around a third were approved. At the end of 2013, the population of refugees, pending asylum cases and stateless persons made up just 0.23% of the population of the UK.

In a political climate where populist anti-immigration sentiment seems to be ubiquitous, the government’s quiet announcement to indefinitely maintain its cap on asylum support has generated virtually no press, and yet when understood in the context of a gargantuan asylum backlog, its implications are enormous.

“The government is effectively saying that it’s ok for people in UK society to live in poverty, it’s ok for people to be hungry,” said Amanda Shah, Refugee Action’s Policy Manager. “And it’s important to remember who we’re talking about here. These are people who have fled some of the world’s worst situations, people fleeing human rights violations in Syria and Iraq who come to the UK to seek sanctuary, and what they’re faced with is having to live a hand-to-mouth existence because asylum support levels are too low”.

Research conducted by the charity Freedom from Torture has shown that financial insecurity contributes to a serious deterioration in the mental health of victims of torture, who make up 5-30% of all asylum seekers in the UK. Systemic delays within the asylum process, in combination with the freeze on asylum support rates, not only leave asylum seekers in indefinite limbo, but make an already highly vulnerable demographic even more vulnerable.

Today, Vianney continues to do his best for his family using the weekly asylum support payment he receives from the state, while awaiting a response from the Home Office on his family’s pending asylum claim. However, to date he has received no information from the government indicating the status of his application or how long his wait may last.

About the author

Theo Hessing is a freelance journalist and filmmaker from London. His latest documentary, A Sacrifice, is an award-winning film about self-immolation in Tibet.


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