News Comment: Asylum Destitution Comes to Light

Reports of asylum destitution in the UK have been trickling out of media outlets for some time. This week, however, the public got the chance to get to grips with the scale of the problem posed by the Section 4 Support regime.

Photo credit: epSos.de, http://www.flickr.com/photos/epsos/

In December 2012 Zoe Williams reported on UKBA’s practice of evicting asylum seekers onto the streets, and the appalling conditions in which a Zimbabwean mother is being forced to live with her baby. Also in December 2012 Keith Cooper reported on the ‘lives of destitution ‘going under the radar in the UK, and the issues of child protection raised by a government forcing families into poverty, to survive on vouchers in squalid accommodation.

This is not the first time we’ve heard reports of asylum destitution, but the issue rarely attracts sustained media coverage in the UK. An investigation into the deaths of a mother and her starving baby in Westminster in 2010, highlighted the UK’s failure to protect asylum seekers.

What is Section 4 Support?

Asylum seekers in the UK are not allowed to work. They are not allowed benefits. While DDVG’s caseworkers support clients facing these problems on a daily basis, this week we welcomed the more intense coverage, allowing communities to get to grips with the scale of asylum destitution in the UK.

When people in our local community realise that asylum seekers are living in squalid poverty under Section 4 Support, they tell us they didn’t realise that asylum seekers were forbidden access to mainstream UK social welfare and housing.

They also tell us that – whatever their opinions on migration and border control – of course they don’t want new mothers to be left to walk home with their babies in the snow from hospital. They don’t want families struggling to walk with their toddlers the 45 minutes to the nearest store that accepts their Azure card (asylum support is cashless). It doesn’t sound right that anyone in the UK should have to rely on emergency Red Cross food parcels.

No-one wants other people to be treated cruelly or inhumanely, wherever they’re from.

Why this week’s media attention?

The heightened media attention this week was due to the publishing of a Parliamentary Inquiry’s findings into the destitution of asylum seekers in the UK, and specifically asylum support for children and young people. The evidence that Sarah Teather MP heard as the Chair of the inquiry made her feel ashamed, she said.

We have to ask ourselves, what sort of country do we want to be? One that protects vulnerable children, or one that allows them to go destitute, scared and hungry?

Section 4 Support was singled out by the Report:

The families with the worst ordeals are those on Section 4 support. We could see no merit in maintaining this parallel support system. The regime is described by ministers as austere. It would be hard to argue that is humane. Leaving children and their families with no money to catch a bus, make a phone call, or buy basic goods seems senseless, particularly with the cost involved in running a parallel bureaucracy such as this.

Who is an asylum seeker? Why can’t asylum seekers ‘go home’?

Photo credit: Sustainable Sanitation, http://www.flickr.com/photos/gtzecosan/

The UK Border Agency’s response to the Report was that,

No-one need face destitution if they comply with the law and the decisions of the courts and go home when required to do so.

But of course, asylum seekers, by definition, cannot ‘go home’. When you seek asylum in another country it means you are seeking protection from war, torture or persecution. DDVG’s clients have often lost their homes and families. They have nothing to ‘go home’ to.

Sometimes the UK refuses to grant people asylum. Of course States need the discretion to refuse asylum to people who it believes are not genuinely and reasonably afraid to return home. However, when it comes to countries like Iran, with whom we have no diplomatic relations, the person is left in limbo. His/her home country has refused to take him/her back. The only option is to stay in the UK – in destitution.

Asylum seekers arrive with nothing. Under the current system, the UK forces them to try to continue to survive with nothing:

Given that most families fleeing persecution, war and violence arrive in the UK destitute and are not allowed to work or claim mainstream benefits, the support system is their only means of survival.

‘Milking the system’?

Photo credit: Tim Fields, http://www.flickr.com/photos/fieldsofview/

This week’s reports have gone some way to exposing the truth about how asylum seekers are treated in the UK. Asylum seekers aren’t milking the system: they’re not allowed to access jobs or benefits. In many cases the UK is making vulnerable children and their families ‘destitute, scared and hungry’.

At DDVG we support people struggling on Section 4 Support. However, we’re aware that reforms to asylum support are desperately needed.

Perhaps if more people discover what is being done in their names – as British citizens – they will write to their MPs to ask for change. As Sarah Teather MP wrote in the Parliamentary Report this week,

This country has a long and proud record of giving protection to those fleeing persecution and war. It is important that our treatment of families who seek our help matches the high standards our reputation would expect.

Read the media coverage reviewed in this blog post for yourself here.

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