Down and out in London
LONDON, 7 February 2011 (IRIN) – Oxfam has added its voice to a growing chorus of concern about Britain’s system for deciding on asylum claims, and the suffering it causes, in a report on destitute asylum seekers, who are forbidden to work but cannot claim state benefits.
These men and women, who told their stories anonymously in Coping with Destitution: Survival strategies of asylum seekers in the UK [download here], live in the shadows, penniless and dependent on the charity of others.
“They treat you with no respect, they take advantage of you, you become ‘food for work’, cleaning the house and doing laundry… Living with friends is a hard thing. They get fed-up looking after you if you have no income,” one asylum seeker told the Oxfam researcher during an interview.
“You might use a bus pass, shuffling around all night on the bus. It’s very risky as you go to places you don’t know, spend time at the bus stop during nights, and might be caught… You might have a place to go, but you feel that your friend needs privacy, or you don’t feel comfortable staying there,” said another, outlining the difficulties of daily life.
“I knew a man who worked for three months, and was promised £35 (US$56) every day, and after three months he asked for the wage, but the manager said he would give him just £50 ($80) for three months. ‘But I need £3,000 ($4,800)!’ he said. But the manager threatened to report him to immigration, so what could he do?” the report quoted an asylum seeker as saying.
Some, whose cases have not yet been decided, have administrative problems and find themselves forbidden to work, and also to claim any kind of public support.
Falling into the gap
Most of those who are destitute have had their applications for asylum refused, yet would rather live penniless in the UK than return to their home countries. In 2005 the British government’s National Audit Office estimated that there were between 155,000 and 283,500 people in this position, with no legal source of income.
The assistance available to people seeking asylum in Britain has been steadily reduced over the past 10 years. At one time they could claim normal welfare benefits, and apply for permission to work if they had to wait more than six months for a decision on their application.
Now, the only benefits they can claim are accommodation and a reduced living allowance of £35 (about $55) a week, provided by the National Asylum Support System (NASS).
Once a claim and any appeal have been refused, the support stops and a claimant is supposed to leave the country within three weeks. At this point many asylum seekers try to stay on, without any means of support.
Even in cases where it is difficult or impossible for them to leave because they don’t have the necessary papers, or their home country is considered too dangerous, many choose to disappear rather than stay on in NASS accommodation, where they could easily be found and deported.
Oxfam said cutting off benefits to get failed asylum seekers to return home is “demonstrably failing to achieve its aims. Destitute asylum seekers, who are considered by the authorities to be at the end of the asylum process, are simply not returning to their countries of origin, regardless of how awful things are in the UK.”
Organizations working with asylum seekers say poor decision-making on asylum claims is at the root of many of the problems, since decisions that are seen as arbitrary and unfair encourage claimants to stay on and try their luck with appeals or further applications.
”We never need to force anyone to make a choice between destitution and persecution. So many people who have turned to us for sanctuary have not been given a fair hearing”
Debora Singer, of Asylum Aid, which offers legal help to asylum seekers, told IRIN that half the women she has been working with, whose asylum claims were initially rejected, had the decision overturned on appeal.
“What that indicates is that something is going very wrong at the initial stage. Border Agency officials, who make the first decision, approach claimants with a culture of disbelief; appeals are heard by immigration judges who have a different standard of proof, and a different attitude to credibility,” she alleged.
No way out
Women asylum seekers were especially vulnerable. “I have been in meetings where the whole room was full of destitute women,” Singer said. She knew a homeless pregnant woman who spent three months sleeping in one of London’s railway stations.
Oxfam’s researchers found women who had turned to prostitution to support themselves; others who had entered into relationships with men purely to get food and a roof over their heads.
The misery can sometimes be overwhelming. The International Federation of Iraqi refugees told IRIN that one of its members in Britain recently killed himself in despair at his situation.
In 2010 Osman Rasoul, an Iraqi Kurd, jumped to his death from the seventh floor of a Nottingham apartment block. His claim for asylum had been refused and his benefits stopped, so he was sleeping on the streets and living on food parcels and donations from a local charity while preparing a fresh case.
The UK Border Agency defends its speed and rigor, saying the percentage of its decisions overturned on appeal is comparable to elsewhere in Europe.
Hugh Ind, the agency’s regional director, said in a statement: “We do provide financial support while claims are being dealt with, and no asylum seeker need be destitute while they have a valid reason to be here. But we strongly believe that funding those who have found not to be in need of protection would act as an incentive to frustrate the system and stay in the UK.”
Within the UK, support for asylum seekers is a politically tricky subject. Britain’s right-wing populist press demonizes asylum seekers, and advocating state benefits for those whose claims have been refused is likely to be controversial.
IRIN asked Helen Longworth, Oxfam’s UK Poverty Policy Manager, whether an organization like Oxfam should be calling for failed asylum seekers to receive public money, when they shouldn’t even still be in the country?
“We never need to force anyone to make a choice between destitution and persecution. So many people who have turned to us for sanctuary have not been given a fair hearing,” she said.
“If they are refused asylum here, they have to resort to living on their friends’ sofas, surviving on handouts from charities, entering into overtly transactional relationships and sometimes illegal work, including sex work,” Longworth told IRIN.
“In short, they are forced to live in destitution by government policy itself. There is never any reason that our government should do that to any person, no matter what their ‘status’, especially someone who has asked us for help.”
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]