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.

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.

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

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’?

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.

Media Round Up

28 Jan – 1 Feb 2013

Asylum destitution in the UK hit the headlines this week, following a Parliamentary Inquiry and report by the Children’s Society into Section 4 Support – the regime asylum seekers are forced into, banned as they are from working or accessing mainstream support.

Here’s the round up of what caught our eye this week. Feel free to let us know what stood out for you in the Comments below.

‘Asylum-support system is pushing families into severe poverty, say MPs’

30 Jan 2013, The Guardian, Amelia Gentleman.

Thousands of children and their families who have sought refuge in the UK have been pushed into severe poverty by low levels of asylum support, a parliamentary inquiry has revealed, concluding that the support system for asylum seekers is in urgent need of reform…

‘Lives of destitution’

18 Jan 2013, Inside Housing, Keith Cooper.

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…

‘Evicting asylum seekers? We just follow orders’

14 Dec 2012, The Guardian, Zoe Williams.

It emerged on Monday that a pregnant asylum seeker had been evicted on the day that her baby was induced; that the housing subcontractor, Target, knew she was set to give birth on that day; and that G4S (wouldn’t you know it), the main contractor, had an excuse waiting ready. “Neither G4S nor our subcontractors can remove an individual from their housing without the prior approval of UKBA” (the UK Border Agency)…

‘For failed asylum seekers, life on section 4 is a nightmare worse than Kafka’

30 Jan 2013, The Guardian, Zoe Williams.

The findings of that inquiry are chilling to read. A family slept for months on the floor of a mosque. A woman had twins prematurely, lost one and had to walk to and from the hospital to keep appointments for the other, carrying the baby and an oxygen cylinder. A woman gave birth while her benefits were delayed, and had to carry her newborn home in her arms, because she didn’t have buggy or any money for a bus. Another woman died of a brain condition brought on by being HIV positive, and her baby starved to death…

‘Asylum-seekers ‘forced into prostitution’ by support system failures’

30 Jan 2013, The Independent, Charlotte Philby.

Child asylum seekers are living in destitiution in Britain – with their mothers forced into prositution – because of failures in the support system, a Parliamentary report has found…

‘Asylum benefits delays criticised’

30 Jan 2013, BBC, Dominic Casciani

Too many genuine refugees are becoming destitute because of administrative delays in helping them to settle in the UK, a cross-party inquiry has found…

UK leaves its asylum seekers ‘destitute, scared and hungry’

The findings of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Asylum Support for Children and Young People, published today, resonates with caseworkers supporting asylum seekers who are released from immigration detention – into destitution.


The Ex-Detainee Project welcomes the findings and recommendations of the Parliamentary Inquiry, particularly the recommendations that:

The government should abolish Section 4 support and urgently implement a single cash-based support system for all children and their families who need asylum support while they are in the UK.

Asylum support for families also provided with accommodation should be aligned with mainstream benefit rates paid for living expenses.

Permission to work should be granted to asylum seeking parents and young adults if their claim for asylum has not been concluded within six months. Refused asylum seekers who cannot be returned to their country of origin should also be allowed to work.

Family units should be accommodated together and every effort should be made to ensure that family life is maintained and that every child is able to grow up with both parents.

Real hardship

At DDVG we are very aware that families who are awaiting a decision, or whose immigration status is undecided or complex, face real hardship on a regular basis – frequently having to make difficult choices with their extremely limited resources. Adults missing a meal so the child can pay the small cost for a non-uniform day at school, for example.

We know of families forced to live in one room of because of the mouldy, damp conditions of other rooms in their accommodation – nobody will come to fix the problems despite repeated complaints. A mother of newborn premature twins newly released from hospital was left in only her nightdress in a B&B with no clothes, nappies or food. She couldn’t avail herself of the breakfast as she had no means to bring two babies with her to eat and no appropriate clothing to wear.

Section 4 Support

The conditions and difficulties being faced in the report rang very true for us. We recently visited some shared Section 4 accommodation for single asylum-seekers / bailed migrants and were horrified at the conditions that people are forced to endure. Asylum support accommodation is on a no-choice basis. When you have no permission to work to support yourself, you have to take what is provided or sleep on the streets. What was provided was dire – no lighting in the communal areas, missing fire extinguishers, leaking sinks, broken taps, damp, broken washing machine, no curtains, no kettle, and holes in the front door.

The accommodation was a 40 minute walk very far from the nearest shop that accepts the Azure card, there are no organisations that provide help or support to migrants in the area. There is no cash to travel anywhere or undertake any activities. Work is not permitted. If this were a short term situation it might be just about bearable – however, some of the people in the accommodation we visited were Iranian men whose asylum claims have failed or who are waiting for a decision on a fresh claim. The UK has no diplomatic relations with Iran so there is no way for these people to be returned to their country, even if it were safe for them to be returned.

Can the UK government really expect people to subsist at that level of poverty year after year without any realistic prospect of improving their situation through work?

‘Another type of detention’

One of our clients described Section 4 as ‘another type of detention’ and having now seen it, I am inclined to share that view.


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