Lives of destitution

Destitution and homelessness are all too often the first greeting for refugees entitled to housing support. Keith Cooper investigates why the UK’s newest citizens are being forced to survive on handouts and why many families are a short step away from tragedy

Official investigations into child deaths commonly spur governments to fix any identified flaws in their welfare regimes. In the case of ‘child EG’, a one-year old refugee who died of starvation in 2010 in temporary housing in Westminster, the opposite seems true.

This Inside Housing investigation reveals that a hole in the safety net for new refugees, pinpointed by a serious case review into the child’s death, seems to have gaped wider rather than been sealed. Child EG and his mother died in destitution because of ‘significant problems’ transferring the family from asylum to mainstream support, according to the review by Westminster’s safeguarding children board which was only released last year (Inside Housing, 5 October 2012).

We have found that such hold-ups are not only unresolved, they are now commonplace and increasing – despite a direct plea to Whitehall by child safety professionals connected to the EG case that the problem be tackled with urgency.

‘Joined-up government should be able to manage the transition from one form of public support to another,’ states a letter dispatched to the Home Office and the Department for Work and Pensions in March 2011 by Terry Bamford, then chair of Westminster’s safeguarding children board. ‘I would be grateful if your agency could…remedy this situation.’


Red Cross volunteer Stella Makanango bags up food for service user Alphonsine Ebole at St Brides Destitution Project

Rather than responding by strengthening support structures, the government wiped out funding for its national Refugee Integration and Employment Service six months after that plea was issued. This respected service had since 2008 successfully supplied new refugees with intensive advice to find their feet. It also helped them find housing and work, and navigate the complex welfare system in the first crucial and disorienting months of their new lives.

Inside Housing was unable to obtain a national value for RIES but Refugee Action received £2.3 million in 2009/10 to provide RIES support in the north west, south west and south central regions.

Since RIES’s demise, advice agencies have been able to offer only piecemeal rather than the ongoing support necessary to navigate complex and often hostile British bureaucracy.

Bureaucratic barriers

Despite full entitlement to state help, thousands of new British citizens begin their lives in this country in a destitute state, putting the health and safety of themselves and their children at risk. A third of the 10,000 refugees and asylum seekers helped by the British Red Cross in the UK each year suffer month upon month of destitution because of administrative delays; 20 per cent of them have children. Such cases are common enough that it sets up services such as its St Bride’s destitution project in Manchester to help.

A quarter of English charity Refugee Action’s 2,098 caseload last year involved destitution. Welsh charity Displaced People in Action handled 73 cases of refugee destitution in the last half of 2012. And in Scotland, 128 families were awarded emergency ‘destitution grants’ by charity Refugee Survival Trust between 2009 and March 2012. Three-quarters of these families included children under five; half of all applicants should have been supported by the state.

Our investigation identifies a string of bureaucratic hold-ups, many of which appear wholly avoidable.

Government officials are failing to fast-track refugees’ paperwork as they should. They issue incorrect advice and adopt obstructive and hostile attitudes, charities claim.

Despite the 2011 warning, families seem to suffer most. Child-related support is delayed by up to six months because a ‘fast-track’ system is not routinely employed.

Hugo Tristram, a development officer at the British Red Cross, states simply that its ‘beneficiaries face prolonged periods of destitution during which we are having to provide basic emergency support – toiletries, food parcels and emergency cash or payment vouchers.’ In some cases, people are forced to sleep rough, he adds.

The plight is well illustrated by the tragic case of child EG. The official investigation into his death found that he, his mother and older sister were destitute when he died, because of ‘significant problems’ in their transition from asylum to mainstream support. Forced for months to survive on ‘ad hoc’ cash handouts to cover day-to-day living costs, their destitution ‘added to [his mother’s] anxiety and…her difficulty in managing her children and their collectAlthough child EG’s death is directly linked to his mother falling ill from a brain infection from which she later died, the family’s destitute state was found to be a significant child protection issue by the review which the government was urged to address.

Presented with Inside Housing’s fresh evidence of refugee destitution, Mr Bamford, admits the problems laid out in his letter are unresolved. ‘We did not get a substantive reply to the issues raised in correspondence,’ he says. ‘Children are suffering as a result of inflexible policies designed to discourage asylum seekers.’

Child protection

Mr Bamford is convinced destitution constitutes a significant child protection issue. ‘It is prejudicial to the well-being of children in the household in terms of nutrition, in terms of warmth and in terms of the psychological stress created within households by the absence of the necessities of everyday living,’ he says.

The prolonged destitution suffered by child EG’s family is commonplace in England, Scotland and Wales. Advice agencies from national charities to drop-in centres operating from church halls cite specific cases in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Oxford and London.

So why aren’t refugees able to access the support to which they are entitled?

There are two common causes: largely avoidable administrative delays by the UK Border Agency, Jobcentre Plus and HM Revenue & Customs, and a major reduction in support for new refugees since the demise of RIES.
This service provided intensive support to refugees immediately after they received refugee status. This ‘transition period’ is identified by the government’s own research as crucial. ‘Support for refugees…needs to be most intensive during the early months following the asylum decision,’ a 2010 Home Office report states.

The demise of RIES has, however, left Britain without this necessary service. ‘Refugee charities and Citizen Advice Bureaux are now struggling to deal with refugees who cannot navigate their way through the transition period,’ says Judith Dennis, policy officer at the Refugee Council.

Figures from the Refugee Survival Trust reveal a spike in the number of new refugees applying for emergency grants after RIES funding was axed in September 2011. Destitute refugees accounted for 25 per cent of grant applications in that October compared with fewer than 5 per cent in the same month the previous year.

Worsening problem

The Red Cross’s Mr Tristram says the loss of the service has had a significant impact. ‘We have noticed a definite increase in the amount of case work since the cuts to RIES,’ he states.

Refugee Action, which closed several offices after losing the funding, has stopped providing the service. New refugees in Wales are now often unable to get appointments at advice centres until after their asylum support is cut off, admits Siân Summers-Rees, chief officer at Welsh charity Displaced People in Action.

Refugees are at greatest risk of destitution as soon as the transition period begins because the UKBA routinely cuts asylum support before properly processing their paperwork. Once a status decision is made, refugees have just 28 days to organise life on the outside, after which time they are evicted from their asylum accommodation.

During these 28 days, the UKBA – which has access to special fast-track procedures – is supposed to organise refugees’ national insurance numbers and issue ‘NASS35’ forms alongside their status papers. All three are essential when seeking housing, jobs and state support, charities claim. The routine failure to carry out these administrative tasks is forcing thousands of new refugees to suffer months of prolonged destitution.

An internal study by Refugee Action, shown to Inside Housing, reveals that more than half the 83 new refugees it helped through RIES in just one month in 2010 were awarded refugee status, but without being issued a national insurance number; 57 per cent had not received an NASS35. A third did not possess official status papers. Such hold-ups remain a significant problem today, Refugee Action confirms. ‘Delays in issuing NASS35s, national insurance numbers, and status letter are a major contributor to…destitution,’ a spokesperson says.

Similar hold-ups were mentioned by every advice agency we spoke to. ‘Destitution often arises because of errors and delays,’ a study by Morag Gillespie, a research fellow at the Scottish Poverty Information Unit, found last year.

Avoidable delays

The delay in getting a national insurance number is the most common cause of destitution, according to the British Red Cross. The failure of the UKBA to properly organise this vital number is avoidable – UKBA caseworkers have access to a fast-track system that takes on average just 2.2 days, according to official figures obtained from the Department for Work and Pensions.

Ms Summers-Rees thinks UKBA caseworkers do not apply for the number. Ms Dennis believes they rarely use the fast-track system when they do. ‘[Caseworkers] rely instead on the individual making an application themselves by calling DWP and then arranging an appointment.’

This lack of paperwork is not just an annoying inconvenience – delays in receiving these documents mean refugees start their new lives destitute, homeless, and even – for those who do not qualify for social housing – rough sleeping. Forty per cent of 160 homelessness organisations surveyed by umbrella organisation Homeless Link in 2010 had helped refugees; 84 per cent of these were waiting for state support to which they were entitled.

‘It isn’t the paperwork, it is the stress’, is how Stella*, a 40-year-old refugee who was awarded her status last year, puts it. ‘When they finally gave it [refugee status] to me I wasn’t very happy. It was hard. I didn’t really know where to start or where to go.’

Stella was forced to leave her asylum accommodation without a national insurance number last September, after securing an extension to her support. It was two months before she received her first welfare payment. Until that point she was dependent on ad hoc DWP emergency crisis loans and money sent through the post by The Forum.

Obstructive attitudes

The DWP insists new refugees can start claiming benefits as soon as they are granted refugee status. However, this official line appears not to be reflected in practice in Jobcentre Plus offices. Without a national insurance number and NASS35, refugees struggle to convince welfare agencies that they qualify for state help. Research by Refugee Action found Jobcentre Plus staff ‘frequently don’t respond appropriately to refugee customers’.

Jobcentre Plus staff have wrongly refused to process welfare support applications until national insurance numbers and NASS35 forms were received and denied emergency crisis loans because they – again wrongly – demanded a national insurance number, the study discovered.

‘On a number of occasions, [Jobcentre Plus staff] informed our clients that refugees are not entitled to mainstream benefits,’ a spokesperson for Refugee Action says. Such advice contradicts official DWP policy. Temporary national insurance numbers should be issued to refugees who need crisis loans, a DWP spokesperson says.

Mr Tristram says DWP employees appear to have adopted an attitude of ‘obstructiveness’ towards refugees. ‘We have been told by staff at the DWP that they have been instructed that “if in doubt, refuse”,’ he adds. ‘[This] has led to a generally hostile climate.’

Such an attitude is also described by Dorothy Ismail, a volunteer at a refugee drop-in centre in Sunderland. ‘Many of our clients say they felt intimidated and disapproved of at the benefits agency.’

Perhaps our most worrying finding, given the case of child EG, is the major delay in accessing child-related support. Ms Summers-Rees describes this as the ‘real big issue’ for refugee families in Wales.

‘HM [Revenue & Customs] can take up to 26 weeks and sometimes longer to process the claim despite there being a so-called fast-track system for refugees,’ she adds.

Refugee Action’s research revealed DWP staff failed to consistently use the fast-track system.

System failure

The British Red Cross’ Manchester office says child benefit claims take three months as standard. ‘We have seen numerous cases of families of four living on single person jobseeker’s allowance of £71 per week for a number of months,’ says Nizam Zanganah, the charity’s destitution project coordinator in the region.

This same problem with child support was raised by the refugee councils in Scotland and England. HMRC says there are ‘no general delays’ in processing child tax credits and child benefits for new refugees. ‘HMRC are working hard to make further improvements,’ a spokesperson adds.

Most refugee charities consider these administrative snarl-ups so intractable that they feel the government should extend asylum support for several months or until DWP assistance kicks in. This latter option is welcomed by Mr Bamford, who thinks ‘meeting the needs of the household and family’ rather than ‘the system’ should be the priority.

Refugees without national insurance numbers should contact their caseworkers, says a spokesperson for the UKBA, and the agency funds charitable organisations to run a ‘one-stop-service’ so new refugees can receive advice and support. The UKBA does not recognise allegations of widespread problems, the spokesperson adds.

For the sake of the many individuals, families and children encountered by charities, there needs to be recognition that there are indeed problems – and that they are potentially serious enough to cost lives.

*not her real name

Providing a lifeline

St Bride’s destitution project in Manchester is one of scores of centres which have been set up across the UK to help destitute asylum seekers and refugees.

Operating since 2005, the project is run jointly by this Old Trafford church, the British Red Cross and The Boaz Trust.

Every week for seven years the project has supplied basic day-to-day essentials such as toiletries, clothing and food packages containing staples like rice, pasta and sugar, fresh fruit and vegetables.

The project aids not just new refugees whose asylum support is cut off, but also asylum seekers who are challenging the UK Border Agency’s refusal to grant them leave to remain