No asylum, precious little support:

The migrants left destitute by the Home Office

by Fred Searle

More than 9,000 asylum seekers in Britain were left destitute last year and in July 2016 the latest Immigration Act cut support for asylum seekers even further. Migrant organisations warn this could force thousands more onto the streets.

You could be forgiven for thinking that after escaping torture, losing his family and completing the long dangerous journey from Ethiopia to Britain, the worst was over for Yonas. But things have not got much better for the Ethiopian since he climbed out of a lorry in Dover aged 15.

Yonas claimed asylum back in 2005, and has seen six appeals rejected. Last year he had hard-won financial support removed by the Home Office and now he survives on £5 ‘destitution grants’ from human rights and migrant organisations. The depression he suffers he attributes not only to his difficult past, but also his precarious present. After more than 10 years seeking asylum, he has developed a skill for living on next to nothing.

“My life in the UK has been very bad,” he says. “In some ways it is worse here than in my own country. But I would never go back. I would not be safe.”

“We’re going to have thousands on the streets”

Yonas’ experience is an increasingly typical one for asylum seekers in the UK. More than 9,000 used the British Red Cross’ destitution services in 2015 – a 15 per cent increase on the previous year – and the total number of destitute asylum seekers nationwide is likely to be much higher. The figures use the Home Office definition of destitution: having no access to ‘adequate accommodation’ or no way of meeting one’s ‘essential living needs’ now or within the next 14 days.

The charity’s accompanying report was published to coincide with the Immigration Bill, which came into force in July 2016, severely restricting support for asylum seekers whose claim has been rejected by the Home Office.

The Act, according to Hazel Williams, director of the Asylum Support Appeals Project, will result in even more destitution and homelessness. “We’re going to have thousands and thousands of people on the streets,” she said. “I’ve worked in the sector for 15 years and this Act is the most shocking thing I’ve seen the Home Office do yet.”

Yonas, for four years, was homeless himself – first in Swindon and then in London. “It was very hard,” he says. “I saw a lot of bad things. I managed to study for a bit at Swindon College, but when I became homeless how could I study? I couldn’t shower, I had no food.”

Changing the rules on asylum support

Under the new rules, some things have not changed. Destitute asylum seekers will continue to receive financial and housing benefits, known as section 95 support, while their asylum claim is being considered. They can access assistance, in the form of accommodation and/or cash (£35.95 per person a week), if they can prove themselves destitute.

But the Home Office has now made key alterations to its immigration policy, cutting off support from those whose asylum claim is rejected in a bid to drive them out of the UK. Under the previous Immigration Act refused asylum seekers were transferred from section 95 support to section 4 support

(housing and/or £35.39 per week on a payment card) if they met a narrow set of criteria, which included taking “all reasonable steps to leave the UK” or being unable to leave due to a “physical impediment to travel”.

Now, this safety net has been removed altogether and, in the words of the Home Office, “support will only be available to failed asylum seekers and any dependant children if there is a genuine obstacle that prevents them from leaving the UK.” Families with children, who previously received preferential treatment and could continue to claim section 95 support once their asylum claim had been refused, are now also cut off from assistance. In effect, they are no longer considered asylum seekers.

The wide-reaching Act has also marginalised undocumented migrants further by making it a criminal offence to hire or knowingly rent premises to an irregular migrant, as well as introducing a so-called ‘deport first, appeal later’ scheme. This allows migrants who have made a human rights or asylum claim to be deported to their country of origin before a decision has been reached on an appeal against their removal.

Fortunately, there are a number of voluntary organisations across the country offering asylum seekers legal advice and support in their struggle for immigration status and government assistance. One of them is Haringey Migrant Support Centre in north London, which runs a weekly drop-in centre attended by pro-bono lawyers for immigration and welfare advice.

“Increasingly, the Home Office is trying to force asylum seekers out of the country,” says the charity’s director Karolina Maroszek. “Along with a wide range of other migrants, we are trying to help them access support and defend their human rights. But changes to immigration policy are making it harder and harder to do this.”

Since long before the 2016 policy changes, many asylum seekers have found themselves in a desperate situation. When 24-year- old Rasa’s aunt could no longer look after him, he was left homeless for more than a year. He slept on buses, at friends’ houses and on the street in Whitechapel, east London. “It was so difficult,” he says. “My mind was gone. I tried to commit suicide, cutting myself, so many things.”

“Living this life makes you crazy,” he continues. “Last week I got mad and put my hand through a window.”

The Sri Lankan Tamil now lives in a shared room, provided by the government, and receives his £35.39-a- week section 4 support on a card to be spent only at certain supermarkets. “It’s not enough though,” he says. “It’s only enough for food.”

Destitution at every stage

Perhaps the main problem facing UK asylum seekers is that they are banned from working, preventing them from supporting themselves. Given that over 2,500 asylum seekers have been waiting for more than six months for a decision, it means that large numbers of people are forced to live on next to nothing for long periods.

Mike Kaye is the advocacy manager of Still Human Still Here, a coalition of nearly 80 organisations campaigning to end destitution among refused UK asylum seekers. He says the asylum system leaves people destitute at every stage in the process – even once they have been granted status.

It is not uncommon for accepted refugees to be left waiting for long periods before they can access mainstream benefits and begin work. One refugee called Mohammed in north London had to wait several months to receive his first payment after he was granted leave to remain in September 2015.

A Home Office spokesperson defended the government’s position, saying:

“The system shouldn’t offer any incentives for illegal migrants to lodge spurious asylum claims or encourage those with no lawful basis to remain toprolong their stay in the UK. It’s unfair to those in genuine need of asylum andmigrants who abide by our rules, as well as to hardworking British taxpayers.”

Choosing destitution over return

But organisations like Kaye’s believe the Home Office is doing everything it can to make the environment more and more hostile – not just for undocumented migrants, who the Home Office has made it easier to remove with the Immigration Act 2016 – but also for asylum seekers. The aim, it seems, is to stop asylum seekers from coming to Britain in the first place and to force them out by making their lives so miserable that they want to leave.

Kaye and Williams, from the Asylum Support Appeals Project, agree that this is unlikely to happen.

“Cutting asylum seekers off from support is not going to get them to return,” says Kaye. “Rightly or wrongly, the majority genuinely think they are at risk if they return to their country. In those situations they’re likely to live destitute rather than return.”

This is the case with Rasa, who escaped torture at the hands of the Sri Lankan army in 2008. “They broke my arm and hung me upside down above a fire,” he says shakily. “The army know my face. If I go back, they will arrest me straight away and kill me.”

The alternative for asylum seekers like Rasa and Yonas can seem not much brighter. A hand-to- mouth existence, waiting in limbo, unable to work, and with the constant fear of deportation, is the reality for most asylum seekers in Britain.

“Most of them want to contribute,” says Kaye. “They want to get a job, they want to pay taxes. Why should we leave people well under the poverty line and not give them a route out of that situation?”

The asylum seekers’ names have been changed to protect their anonymity.



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