Last month, a quiet announcement from UK Home Secretary Theresa May dashed the hopes of thousands of asylum seekers in the UK. A court ruling in April had criticized the very low level of support it gives to those seeking asylum and had given her four months to show how she had calculated that it would cover their needs. The Home Office duly did its sums, but announced that the amount to be paid would not increase.
The decision was a blow to campaigners who had brought the case to show
that asylum seekers were being forced to live in extreme poverty while
waiting for their applications to be processed.
Dave Garratt, the chief executive of Refugee Action, the organization
which took the Home Secretary to court, told IRIN that asylum seekers
were coming through their doors, telling them that they were really
struggling to survive. But the campaigners did at least force the Home
Office to give an account of how the asylum seekers’ allowance -
currently just over £5 a day for a single adult - was calculated.
“Essentially what they have done,” says Garratt, “is base it on the
expenditure of the lowest 10 percent of people in the UK. But we think
that is quite flawed, because that is about expenditure, not about need,
and many of those people have other help, from family and friends. It
doesn't take account of the special circumstances of asylum seekers who
may arrive without clothes or shoes, and have no stored food to fall
back on. We still think it is not high enough, but now we have the
analysis written down, at least we have something we can debate about,
and the formula will have to be re-applied every year so they can show
they are doing their job properly.”
British immigration law prohibits asylum seekers from working legally,
the purported rationale being that allowing applicants to work would
blur the line between asylum applicants and economic migrants, and
thereby serve as a “pull factor.” Around 11 other EU states do allow
asylum seekers to work - if only six months after their arrival - and
such policies do not appear to increase the number of asylum applicants.
A single adult asylum seeker's allowance is currently only just over 50
percent of the benefit known as “income support” - in itself considered
the minimum needed to lead an adequate life. In cases where an initial
asylum request has been refused and a destitute applicant is waiting for
the result of an appeal, or has agreed to return to their country of
origin but is unable to do immediately, the allowance, known as Section 4
support, is no longer paid in cash, but loaded onto a “Azure card”.
This can only be used at designated shops, for food and a limited range
of other items. The recipient has no money for anything else - bus
fares, postage, faxing documents or any of the other expenses needed to
pursue his claim.
The UK is also somewhat ungenerous compared with its western European
neighbours. In the Netherlands, for instance, asylum seekers receive the
same benefits as any other needy resident. France, Germany, Belgium and
Italy have similar systems to the UK, but pay higher levels of support.
And most countries are less restrictive than the UK about allowing
asylum seekers to work and support themselves.
Freedom From Torture reports that poverty and anxiety are seriously
compromising the ability of their clients to recover from their
experiences. The low level of support means that they are not just
relatively poor by British standards, but absolutely poor. More than
half of the 85 torture survivors who responded to a questionnaire said
they were never, or not often, able to buy enough of the right food for a
nutritionally balanced diet. Thirty-four said they were never, or not
often, able to buy enough food of any kind to satisfy their hunger.
The worst off were the clients with Azure cards, who could only buy at
designated shops - mostly mid-priced supermarkets - rather than in the
cheaper discount supermarkets or at market stalls. In one of the
designated shops the cheapest form of minced meat now costs £3.75 a
kilo, a tin of tuna is 95 pence and a 300gram piece of plain cheese £2.
Apples are now in season and abundant, but four apples cost a pound. The
daily allowance of around £5 does not go far.
Another problem is warm clothes. It is hard on this level of income to
save enough for new shoes or winter clothing. Charity shops, which sell
good quality second hand garments, are useful but of little help to the
Azure card holders, who can only use those run by the Salvation Army or
the Red Cross - no help if the only charity shop within walking distance
belongs to Oxfam. Card holders are also prevented from saving because
they are not allowed to accumulate a surplus on the card - anything more
than £5 disappears at the end of each week.
Ironically the very point at which asylum seekers finally succeed in
getting refugee status can be one of the most difficult moments.
Temporary support stops four weeks after that status is granted. The
refugee can now work and is eligible for normal welfare benefits, but
has just one month to find new accommodation and get a job, or else
negotiate a whole new set of form filling, interviews and bureaucratic
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