Asylum seekers and refugees who were already only barely surviving. In the UK, asylum seekers are generally barred from work until they have attained refugee status. If they do not receive an initial decision on their asylum claims within 12 months, they may apply for jobs only on a list determined by the Home Office to be in short supply in Britain, including nurses, social workers and engineers.
Although the Home Office says asylum claims are usually processed in six months, the Refugee Council charity published a report in 2021 showing that the average wait time for even an initial decision is likely to be one to three years with some waiting up to five years. Advocacy groups estimate that this waiting time has not decreased since then.
Asylum seekers who report being destitute are provided with accommodation but cannot choose where they live. They are entitled to a £45 weekly allowance to buy essentials.
It is an amount that works out to £2,340 a year.
This is less than a tenth of the £25,500 that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the poverty alleviation charity, recommends as necessary for a minimum acceptable annual standard of living although this sum includes housing, which destitute asylum seekers do not need to pay for. Experts say that there are usually long delays for asylum seekers to receive this allowance. Many wait up to a year.
In the UK, once asylum seekers are given refugee status, there is a 28-day period before all their support comes to an end.
A report by the British Red Cross and the UN Refugee Agency in August revealed that futile attempts to secure employment to pay the bills have driven asylum seekers and refugees into domestic servitude, labour exploitation and forced criminality.
“One month after asylum seekers get refugee status, they no longer get shelter or support. But just because you’re now a refugee, it doesn’t mean you speak the language or have a job.”
The British charity Maternity Action reported that in 2021, its specialist support line helped 407 pregnant asylum seekers and refugees in the UK who had been erroneously charged for healthcare with fees beginning at around £7,000. Asylum seekers and refugees are legally exempt from healthcare fees charged to foreigners by the National Health Service (NHS).
Pip McKnight, a former community midwife specialising in immigrant maternal health and a teaching fellow at Coventry University, suggested that pregnant asylum seekers might not know how to navigate the healthcare system when they arrive.
“This could be because of difficulties with language or just anxiety over a healthcare system that looks quite different to the one in their home countries,” she said. “And the NHS doesn’t always understand these women’s needs or that they shouldn’t be charged.”
Asylum seekers in the UK are excluded from the state-run Healthy Start scheme, which offers vouchers for fruit and vegetables and milk for low-income pregnant women. That means they end up having to “spend what little allowance they have on these things, … and that obviously makes a huge dent,” McKnight said.
Asylum-seeking and refugee women are also being forced into making difficult sacrifices just to keep their families going, according to Sarah Taal, advocacy and policy director at the Baobab Women’s Project, a grassroots advocacy group in Birmingham, UK.
“Those with pre-existing [health] conditions feel shamed by their doctors for buying processed food instead of fresher options, which they simply can’t afford,” she said. “Mothers are also struggling to prepare nutritious meals or buy clothes for their growing children.”
“We’ve also heard about women starving in order to purchase items needed for their personal hygiene,” Taal said. “This can include shampoo, soap, menstruation products and so on.”
Özlem Ögtem-Young, who is head of research on poverty, precarity, savings and debt at the University of Birmingham in the UK, said charities that are themselves hit hard by the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis have been struggling to support the increasing numbers of asylum seekers in need of food and clothing.
“There are reports of outbursts at food banks when people are turned away, causing anger, desperation and distress,” she explained. Many charities that have witnessed cuts in funding and resources have been forced to put their services on hold, Ögtem-Young said.
Community organisers are increasingly concerned about asylum seekers losing safe spaces where they can find support and also socialise, seek out learning opportunities and gain a sense of belonging. Rising prices are likely to force desperate refugees into slavery or trafficking.
Lifting the existing ban on asylum seekers’ access to the labour market would save the economy more than £333 million a year. That would include about £249 million in tax contributions and the rest through savings on some subsistence support that could be reduced for those who find work.
Ireland is a country showing a positive example. In 2022, Ireland launched a scheme to give the country’s 17,000 undocumented people legal access to its labour market without fearing deportation or arrest. Earlier, during the pandemic, it became the first EU country to offer hardship payments to undocumented non-citizens. Belgium, Luxembourg, Malta and Spain are also making moves towards giving undocumented people the legal right to work.
Instead of spending millions of pounds on detention camps and hotel accommodations for refugees and asylum seekers, the government, for instance, could subsidise regular housing for them, helping asylum seekers and refugees integrate better into their new neighbourhoods.
Can asylum seekers in Europe survive the cost-of-living crisis? | Refugees | Al Jazeera