Aspen cards and surveillance of people in the asylum system

Reports coming in from around the country about serious delays in the changeover of ‘Aspen’ card provider on 21 May 2021, leaving people destitute; see the Home Office ‘fix’ as an attachment below … but people are still without money for food two weeks later.

Updated 14 June 2021: Faith is still waiting … see the post below of 7 June 2021.


11 June 2021: Independent: Fifty Charities Urge Home Office to Act on ‘Crisis’ in Asylum Support Payments

(With thanks to No Deportations for the following) The Home Office has been urged to act as hundreds of asylum seekers have been unable to afford food and basic provisions after their financial support was cut off due to a botched contract transfer. A letter to home secretary Priti Patel signed by 50 refugee and asylum organisations describes the situation as “one of the worst asylum crises we have experienced” and accuses a senior Home Office official of misleading MPs this week by claiming the matter was resolved.

Thousands of asylum seekers stopped receiving their weekly subsistence payments on 24 May after their Aspen cards – a form of debit card issued to asylum seekers so they can buy basic supplies – stopped working. Single mothers with babies and young children have told The Independent they are going hungry as a result, or have had to rely on charities for basic food provision. The letter, whose signatories include the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and the Scottish Refugee Council, warns that “whole families are being left without money for food” and that charities have been “plunged into a full scale crisis trying to keep up with one emergency after another”.

Read more: May Bulman, Indpendent, https://is.gd/GjD3Hm


We hear that some people who have been granted permission to stay last year are receiving Aspen cards! What a mess … The latest Q&A about these cards is here:


Updated 7 June 2021: Migrant Help is No Help

This is the experience of one of our Reference Group members as told today:

I was issued with a new card on the week of 17th and a Pin. The card was valid from 24th May.  On 24th May I used the card once and when I tried to use it the second time on the same day it was blocked.

I have been calling Migrant Help since the 24th May for more than an hour at a time but nobody answers the phone.  I called on the following dates:

  • 26th May on the phone for 1hour 1minute
  • 26th May on the phone for 43 minutes
  • 27th May on the phone fo 14 min 36 sec
  • 27th May on the phone for 51 min 41 sec
  • 1 June on the phone 1 hour 21 seconds.
  • A lady answered the phone on the 1st June at 09h44 and told me that they will post a new card.

I am still waiting. Today is the 7th June 2021 .
We are a family of 6 (I care for my 3 sons and 2 granddaughters)
Faith 


Updated 2 June 2021: From StatusNow4All signatory Positive Action in Housing: The Aspen Card Scandal and the bureaucratic slow violence against refugees.

The Home Office has privately admitted that thousands of asylum seekers continue to be left without working payment cards for more than ten days after their financial support was cut off during a Home Office contract changeover.

The Home Office switched off asylum seekers’ debit cards on May 21. Families were told to expect to have their cards from Monday 24 May. But more than a week later, thousands are in a state of near destitution.

Those left vulnerable by the state include babies and children, pregnant women, the elderly and sick, forced into a state of destitution after their Aspen cards (a form of debit card issued to asylum seekers so they can buy basic supplies) stopped working.

Since Monday, Positive Action in Housing has received more than 250 desperate calls and messages from asylum seekers in Glasgow, and more than 100 from asylum seekers in other parts of the U.K., asking for help with money for food.

Last week the Home Office sought to minimise the scale of the problem and suffering caused. Some of it’s statements even appeared to suggest that asylum seekers were to blame for the issues caused rather than the system.

The problems have arisen after a Home Office decision to end its Aspen card contract with facilities management company Sodexo and begin a new contract with financial technology firm Prepaid Financial Services, which is currently mired in controversy to do with money laundering concerns.

It remains to be seen whether the new cards work properly. We have had multiple reports that cards either have no money on them, or they work once and then stop working a few days later.

Glasgow is familiar with the bureaucratic slow violence that the Home Office regularly inflicts on our refugee population.

Prepaid Financial Services, has not commented thus far. The Company, a subsidiary of EML Payments, came under fire earlier this month from Ireland’s central bank because of significant money-laundering risks.

Instead of paying contractors to accommodate asylum seekers, should we not harness the immense skills and qualifications and allow people to do paid work and save money and build up resilience? Not only would this reduce the burden on the taxpayer it would allow people to contribute to their community while spending years waiting for the Home Office to make robust decisions on asylum cases.

Asylum seekers receive a weekly allowance on the payment card of £39.63 if they are in a house and £8 a week if they are in a full-board hotel.

The situation is acute because asylum seekers are not allowed to work or hold bank accounts, and therefore have little food stocked up or family to turn to.

Home Office officials have estimated that around two thirds of people on asylum support have the new card and have activated it. However they have not taken into account those whose cards have activated and then failed. The Agency says it is trying to identify the ‘missing third’ who either don’t have a card due to change of address or who haven’t activated it, possibly because there is a problem with the cards themselves, not the people trying to activate them. The Home Office has also posted out 6,000 replacement cards which are supposed to arrive by Tuesday June 1st 2021 – 11 days after cards were first switched off.

Robina Qureshi

Call to Action!

Write to your MP in your own words (using any of the text above) and also to the Home Secretary, and express your concerns.

What piloting or testing of the New Aspen Card did the Home Office undertake before it was rolled out on 24 May 2021?

In light of the recent concerns highlighted in the press about Prepaid Financial Services, what due diligence checks did the Home Office do?

Was the award of the contract to Prepaid Financial Services conducted after a free and fair competition? Was there any connection whatsoever between this company and any member of the Conservative and Unionist party who lobbied for the contract. (This question is pertinent in view of the revelations emerging in the High Court over the award of contracts for the supply of PPE).

Remember to to copy your correspondence to home@positiveactionh.org. (Our detailed statement and full contact details for the Home Secretary can be found here).

Donate to this emergency via CAFJustGiving or PayPal Giving. Alternatively, post a cheque to: Positive Action in Housing, 98 West George St Glasgow G2 1PJ. For other ways to give, visit our donate page. Companies can ask us to invoice them by emailing us.

Finally, watch out for updates on our blog or follow us on FacebookTwitter or Instagram. And please use hashtag #AspenCardScandal and tag @positiveactionh if you want use social media to highlight this scandal.


Updated 27 May 2021: From StatusNow4All signatory Positive Action in Housing: The Aspen Card Scandal – further statement

Thousands of asylum seeking families and individuals are believed to have been forced into a state of destitution because of a botched transfer of asylum debit card contracts.

Since Monday, Positive Action in Housing has received more than 250 desperate calls and messages from asylum seekers in Glasgow, and more than 100 from asylum seekers in other parts of the U.K., asking for help with money for food.

Complaints have flooded in since Monday when the Home Office ended its Aspen Card contract with Sodexo and switched to a new contract with Prepaid Financial Services. (The Aspen Card is a type of debit card given to asylum seekers).

Thousands of asylum seekers across the U.K. are potentially affected and have been left without money to buy food or essential purchases since Friday 21 May 2021 because of a shambolic switchover of asylum seekers’ debit cards from Sodexho to PrePayment Financial Services, which is allegedly mired in its own controversy.

The people affected include elderly people, families with babies and young children, single men and women, amongst them people with mental health trauma, as well as physical health problems. Language and problems with access to digital technology are compounding the difficulties for people.

Asylum seekers are reporting waiting for hours to speak to someone at Migrant Help only for lines to go dead. Complaints include people’s cards being activated and when they go to shops to buy food the card is declined. People have gone to ATMs and found there is a limit on cash withdrawals or that there is nothing on the card. The situation is at crisis level.

The situation is even more worrying because we are heading into the bank holiday which means most services will be closed or reduced. Children will be at home from school.

This is a vulnerable community already impoverished by asylum rules forbidding them to do paid work or to save money. This state of impoverishment can go on for months or years. Asylum seekers in accommodation are meant to receive just over £5 a day. Hotel based asylum seekers are meant to get £8 a week. Since Friday 21 May, thousands of asylum seekers across the U.K. have been left without money to buy food because their cards were stopped.

Positive Action in Housing is running a skeleton service throughout the bank holiday period to ensure people in Glasgow have access to food and essentials.

The Migrant Help phone lines are reported as waiting for hours or not answering. We are writing to the Home Office on behalf of individual clients to make urgent requests for working Aspen Cards with money on them.

To address the crisis, Positive Action in Housing has begun an initial emergency distribution of £11,000 emergency grants to 145 households, raised with funds donated by members of the public.

We are also distributing emergency food vouchers, and emergency food packs.

We have mobilised our 200 strong volunteer network in Glasgow to assist with donations and food deliveries to families.

We have also launched an appeal to raise more funds, all of which will go to people in need.

Robina Qureshi, Director of Positive Action in Housing, a refugee and migrant homelessness charity based in Glasgow, said:

“It is Thursday now, and the emergency has only begun as people head into a long weekend, many people are struggling – without food to eat.

“Asylum seekers were told to stock up on food because their old cards would be switched off, from Friday 21 May until Monday 24 May. What a sick joke. When you are already living in a state of near destitution, on as little as £5.39 a day. When you are forbidden to do paid work, or to save money – then it is simply not possible to “stockpile” food.

“We would like to know what piloting of the New Aspen Card the Home Office and PrePaid Financial Services undertook in order to prevent the impoverishment of thousands of people who are already living in a state of near destitution. What testing of the Aspen card switch was carried out?

“Sadly the hostile environment’ is now impacting on the most vulnerable including children and babies. The reverberations of this will be felt for months to come, on top of the many other hardships asylum seekers are going through – not least the uncertainty of their status.

“What must it feel like? To know that your well-being is dependent on a government agency that wants you to ‘go back to where you came from’. To see your situation misrepresented as being a ‘drain on society’ as you are forced into dependency against your will. To know that its subcontracted corporate giants care only for their own profits, not giving a damn that you will be left without food or money to buy food for a week or more.

“The only way this tyranny of impoverishment by the Home Office will stop is when asylum seekers are allowed to work and save money, and to gain their own agency and voice. Right now they live under the shadow of incompetent, negligent corporate giants and they can’t speak out because they are frightened of their home office case being affected, of being detained and deported. The company responsible for the mess – hired by the Home Office – ‘Prepayment Financial Services’ seems strangely quiet, but is itself mired in controversy, according to news reports.”


“Once the Home Secretary’s “new plan for immigration” gets underway, there is no doubt more people will be hidden away in asylum reception centres, more will self harm or attempt suicide, more people will be left destitute because of the route they were forced to take to reach the U.K. and because there are fewer safe and legal routes to sanctuary , and many more people will drown on our shores. This will be Priti Patel’s legacy as Home Secretary, the further embedding of a racist, hostile environment into British society.”

Positive Action in Housing has asked its supporters to write to their MPs in their own words and to the Home Secretary and to copy correspondence to home@positiveactionh.org. Details can be found here.

CALL TO ACTION

Write to your MP And the Home Secretary

You can help during this emergency by writing to the Home Secretary (details below) and to your own MP to express your concerns.

Donate

Donate via CAFJustGiving or PayPal Giving. Alternatively, post a cheque to: Destitution Appeal, Positive Action in Housing, 98 West George St Glasgow G2 1PJ. For other ways to give, visit our donate page

Priti Patel contact details below:

Parliamentary

House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA, Tel: 020 7219 3528, Email: withammp@parliament.uk

Departmental

Home Office, 2 Marsham Street, London, SW1P 4DF, Email: public.enquiries@homeoffice.gov.uk

Web & Social media

Website: www.priti4witham.com 

Twitter: @patel4witham @ukhomeoffice


This is the Home Office’s response – they need to put it right, and we need to raise the roof about putting vulnerable people through this:


Guardian: Cash card delays are leaving asylum seekers penniless, say charities

Charities and human rights campaigners have warned that thousands of asylum seekers are at risk of going hungry for 10 days or more after multiple reports of problems with cash cards provided by the Home Office.

Read more: https://amp.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/27/cash-card-delays-are-leaving-asylum-seekers-penniless-say-charities


Updated 25 May 2021 with the following concerns raised by StatusNow signatory Positive Action in Housing which is based in Scotland, in relations to difficulties that people are experiencing right now:

More impoverishment for Glasgow Asylum Seekers as Aspen card switch leaves families Without Food or Money

Positive Action in Housing, a refugee and migrants homelessness charity, is receiving a high volume of reports of impoverishment from asylum seekers in Glasgow since Monday 24 May 2021.

The Home Office recently ended its Aspen Card contract with Sodexo and began a new contract with Prepaid Financial Services. Asylum seekers in accommodation are meant to receive just over £5 a day. Hotel asylum seekers are meant to get £8 a week. But many are now left penniless.

Asylum seekers affected by this change should already have received a new orange card from Prepaid Financial Services (PFS) with instructions on how to activate it. The charity also informed hundreds of its asylum seeking clients to be ready for the change. Caseworkers were concerned there might be problems. Unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened, with little regard for such a vulnerable community that is reduced to depending on the state for accommodation and money because they are forbidden to work and pay taxes. The problems being reported are numerous, below are just dome of the messages we received:

“I have an activating issue with the Aspen card”
“I don’t receive my new Aspen card”
“I haven’t got my new aspen card and my old aspen card does not work any more so I do not have money to buy food please help”
“I am not receiving my new Aspen card for now and have no money for food”
“I didn’t have new card and have no money”
“Im still not receiving my orange card and my green card has stopped”
“I have not receive my ASPEN card yet. I have been calling migrant help for past three days they keep asking me to wait”
“Please I’m not able to get any money from the new card, it’s not even showing account balance and I haven’t got any money”
“For those who have a 2000 birthday year . How can they activate their date of birth?”

This latest emergency is on top of the existing money crisis taking place for hotel asylum seekers across Glasgow, and across the U.K.

The Home Office (HO) is leaving many hotel based asylum seekers without any money at all for months despite a High Court ruling in Oct 2020 that the Home Office must give £8 a week plus backdated money.

Last month, 75 people in hotels reported to us that they were not receiving £8 a week hotel subsistence. Our Homelessness Team took up each case with Migrant Help who then were supposed to take it to the Home Office. A few people got £8 a week . But many continue to go ignored.

The Home Office has still not given asylum seekers the backdated money they are owed going back many months , in some cases over a year since March 2020. the Home Office has advised MigrantHelp that it will “assess eligibility” once people have been moved to flats.

But because of the pandemic, asylum seekers are not being moved out of hotels, in fact the numbers have built up. Across the U.K. there are now around 12,500 people in hotels, whereas at the start of the Lockdown there were around 2,500.

Positive Action in Housing has alerted its Volunteers for additional support. The charity is also distributing emergency food vouchers, giving out food supplies from its Emergency Food Cupboard, and distributing crisis grants.

Robina Qureshi, Director of refugee and migrant homelessness charity, Positive Action in Housing, said:

“As one of the few charities working on the ground throughout this pandemic, this is yet another emergency situation on top of the existing hotels crisis. Our refugee network across Glasgow is being flooded with requests for help. People in flats already are trying to make it through on little over £5 a day and are now being left without money. In the space of just one hour, over 50 people have told us their new Aspen cards are not working or they have not received cards at all, or can’t register their dates of birth if it was in the year 2000. We believe there are thousands across the U.K. who have gone from £8 to £39 a week absolutely zero per week because of this switch. People have been calling Migrant Help time and again and are being told to wait. Wait for what? Everyone was told their cards would be working. Families with no reserves have children to feed, there are elderly people with no money, men and women without money for essential travel. The situation is a disgrace.

“We ask ourselves why is the Home Office wasting so much public money on the administration of £8 a week for asylum seekers. Would it not be better to lift the ban on working and finally allow people languishing in the asylum system for years to find a job , get a bank account, save some money and contribute to society by paying taxes, until the Home Office makes a decision?

“Instead, thousands of people in this city and across the country are reduced to a state of impoverishment , dumped in poor accommodation and fearful of the close relationship between their accommodation provider and the Home Office. Or they are hidden in detention centres away from society’s gaze to avoid the full extent of the human right abuses they are suffering being exposed .

“Once the new plan for immigration goes through, there is no doubt more people will be hidden away in asylum reception centres, more will self harm or attempt suicide, more people will be left destitute because of the route they were forced to take to reach the U.K. and because there are fewer safe and legal routes to sanctuary , and many more people will drown on our shores. This will be the legacy of the hostile environment and so called new plan.”

Donations can be made via CAFJustGiving or PayPal Giving. Alternatively, post a cheque to: Destitution Appeal, Positive Action in Housing, 98 West George St Glasgow G2 1PJ. For other ways to give, visit our donate page

The charity also needs non perishable foods for our emergency food cupboard, these can be dropped off at our office by first emailing home@positiveactionh.org for a time slot).


12 May 2021: Privacy International: The UK Home Office still has questions to answer about the Aspen Card

We wrote to the UK Home Office to ask them to stop spying on asylum seekers via the Aspen Card, their response left us with more questions.

KEY POINTS

  • The Home Office and contractors collect and store information about Aspen Card usage.
  • The Home Office state asylum seekers are ‘aware of and agree to’ this and the terms and conditions.
  • We want to know more about how this ‘consent’ operates in reality.
  • The Home Office monitor and investigate usage for ‘safeguarding’ and ‘breach of conditions’.
  • We want to know how they monitor usage of the Aspen Card and how they interrogate this data.

How Priti Patel needs to fix the Aspen Card

The UK government changes company outsourced to provide the Aspen Card – This is an opportunity to do things better.

KEY POINTS

  • The Aspen Card contract with Sodexo has ended. Prepaid Financial Services takes over.
  • This is an opportunity to end the unjustified surveillance of asylum seekers through the Aspen Card.
  • It is time for more transparency from the government on financial monitoring.
  • The terms and conditions of the card should be accessible to all.

The Aspen Card – the debit payment card given to asylum seekers that PI has previously exposed as a de facto surveillance tool – will be outsourced to a new company. The contract with Sodexo has come to an end and the company Prepaid Financial Services will be taking over.

Our campaign for transparency in relation to the Aspen Card and how it monitors asylum seekers continues. Not only do we demand clarity from the Home Office [read more here], we believe the new provider, Prepaid Financial Services has the opportunity to tackle the basics.

We will be writing to Prepaid Financial Services asking them to:

  • End the unjustified financial surveillance of asylum seekers.
  • Increase transparency around the Aspen Card and the conditions and systems in place which alert to breach of conditions or safeguarding concern.
  • Publish terms and conditions which are clear and accessible
  1. Ending the unjustified financial surveillance of asylum seekers

The personal testimonies from asylum seekers taken by Privacy International [read here] have exposed the detrimental impact of the close monitoring of the purchase habits of asylum seekers. This has real consequences for asylum seekers’ mental health.

Privacy and dignity should not be the price you pay for basic subsistence. Unjustified and routine monitoring and surveillance must stop.

Our research and the testimonies gathered demonstrate that the purchase habits of asylum seekers are monitored. Purchases that do not appear to fit within opaque Home Office expectations (or an equally opaque automated system) but which have a simple and justified reason, are flagged. Asylum seekers are investigated and their benefits suspended. For example if they save money to buy a coat or travel outside of a geographical area where they are registered.

  1. Increase transparency around the Aspen Card and the conditions and systems in place which alert to breach of conditions or safeguarding concern.

The Home Office have not provided sufficient detail on routine monitoring of asylum seekers. It is time for Aspen Card users to really know what happens to their data and how they may be used.

Prepaid Financial Services must clarify how, when and why purchase habits are monitored; investigations pursued and benefits suspended.

  1. Publish terms and conditions which are clear and accessible

Given that many asylum seekers speak little to no English and some do not know how to read and write the terms and conditions related to the Aspen Card should be publicly accessible and translated. Translations must be available for any required language and specific support should also be provided for those who cannot and write. The content of the text itself must be written in a language that is accessible and user-friendly.

Our interviews have revealed that some asylum seekers were receiving letters to inform them their benefits would be suspended but they were unable to read those letters, thus leaving them with no avenue for redress.

Stop Spying on Asylum Seekers!

How would you feel if your government knew exactly how you spend your money? What you buy, where you shop, even the exact time you make your purchases. And how would you feel if the government was literally able to cut off your access to your cash, because your buying habits were deemed suspicious?

That’s the reality for many UK based asylum seekers, spied on by the Home Office through their ‘Aspen Card’, the debit payment card they rely on for their basic subsistence and survival.

In order to bring this to light, we conducted interviews with three asylum seekers living in different parts of the country who were willing to share their personal experiences of their Aspen Card purchases being monitored by the Home Office. Those testimonies were collected before the current pandemic. These interviews, performed by actors, highlight the different struggles they faced and the different ways in which they tried to resist Home Office surveillance.

We need your supportPlease join our campaign and write to Priti Patel, the UK Home Secretary (we’ve written a template email!), and tell her that it’s unacceptable to spy on some of the most vulnerable members of our society!

This research is a result of a collaboration between Mishka, a campaigner and expert-by-experience with a focus on asylum and refugee rights and UK immigration detention, Grace Tillyard, doctoral researcher in the Media, Communications and Cultural Studies department at Goldsmiths University of London, and Privacy International.

We wish to extend warm thanks to all the caseworkers, asylum support organisations and interviewees who collaborated on this project. 

Some history: 21 January 2019: [SN4A Signatory] Right To Remain: Home Office tracking use of Aspen card by people seeking asylum

Back in 2017, the Unity Centre in Glasgow highlighted the risks faced by people receiving asylum (financial) support who had been issued with Aspen cards, which replaced the old system of using your Asylum Registration Card (ARC card) to collect cash from a Post Office.

Unity pointed out that the Home Office explicitly say that they will “analyse card usage data”.

Unity said:

This means that where you spend your money and how you spend your money could later be used against you.

The Home Office already deny or cut asylum seekers support if they deem their spending to be on “unnecessary” items.

It’s now clear that this is not just a possibility, but something that is happening in practice:


28 July 2020: Just Fair: UK Government’s ASPEN policy violates international human rights of asylum seekers

By Misha Nayak-Oliver

COVID-19 shows how those who are forced to rely on the financial security of ASPEN are put in a highly dangerous situation, at risk of serious health complications or death. 

Urgent attention must be afforded to the policy measures causing the destitution of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom (UK), especially the impact of the Asylum Support Enablement Card (ASPEN) provided by the UK Home Office to asylum seekers whose claims are ongoing or rejected

The UK Government is violating its international human rights obligations. 

ASPEN Cards

ASPEN was rolled-out in May 2017; prepaid Visa cards replaced previous methods of cash payments and Azure card payments, delivered independently of the income support payments made to unemployed UK (and, currently, EU) citizens. Eligibility requirements include asylum seeker status and destitution. This means, those on ASPEN often have additional needs which exceed state provision and poverty is “present among some of the most vulnerable parts of the asylum seeker population … pregnant women … newborn babies … children … LGBTI individuals … and torture survivors”.