Is the UK's system of asylum support fit for purpose?

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 29 September 2016 in Inside Politics

With destitution among asylum seekers increasing, how could the system be made to work better?

13 July 2016 was the most important day of Theresa May’s career. Elected to Parliament in 1997, her rise within the Conservative Party was steady, with the MP for Maidenhead moving from party chair, through a number of shadow ministerial positions, to being appointed to the cabinet in 2010, where she went on to become the longest serving Home Secretary in sixty years.

May had long been viewed as a possible party leader and in July she got the job. Winning the Tory leadership contest almost without a fight, she found herself giving her first speech as Prime Minister weeks before the votes had been due to be counted.

Standing outside Downing Street, May promised her government would work to combat “burning injustice”, and that the UK would “forge a bold new positive role for ourselves in the world, and we will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us”.

Speaking directly to families who are only just managing to get by, May said: “We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives. When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but you. When we pass new laws, we’ll listen not to the mighty but to you.”

Four hundred miles away, on the edge of Glasgow, a woman was experiencing a very different reality to the one set out in May’s vision.

Anna, originally from South Asia, is trying to claim asylum in the UK. Under Home Office rules – a legacy of Theresa May’s time as Home Secretary – she is not allowed to work. She also has no recourse to public funds, which means, banned from employment, she cannot access the mainstream welfare system.

Anna had her initial application for asylum refused, and is awaiting her appeal. She came to the UK after being abused by her husband and her life would be at risk if she returned home.

Instead of accessing mainstream benefits, she lives on Section Four support, which the Home Office provides to some of those whose claims for asylum are refused but who cannot return home. It amounts to temporary accommodation (on a no-choice basis) and £35 per person, per week, which is provided via credit on a payment card known as the Azure Card. The card can only be used to buy ‘essential items’ in a limited number of large supermarkets, and cannot be used to obtain cash.


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Anna told Holyrood she has had the card refused repeatedly. She was pregnant when her support started and had to walk across town to the shops even up to the point she gave birth, because without access to cash, she was unable to get a bus pass. On one trip, while eight months pregnant, she tried to buy bedding, nappies, milk and a bottle from Tesco, only to be refused at the counter because the assistant considered them to be non-essential items.

She said: “I was so scared, I could feel my face start to go red and I was nearly crying. There was a big queue behind and people were looking at me, so I lost my confidence. I was shaking. The manager took me aside and asked for ID and I explained the Home Office had not given me any. They stopped saying the card was just for food and started asking me other questions. I said I didn’t want to buy anything and that my other baby was at home. I asked for my card back but she said they had to phone the Home Office because they didn’t know it was definitely mine, or that I was who I said I was. I said I couldn’t prove it was mine. Eventually she let me go.”

When her baby was two weeks old, Anna was moved into a new house and she tried again to get things for her child.

“My baby was born in the winter, and the weather was horrible. It was snowing and I walked for 45 minutes to get to Tesco but again, they said ‘no, this card is just for food – nothing else’. I tried to explain how far I had walked and that my baby was at home, that I needed milk, but they just said no. They called the manager and she asked lots of questions. A big queue started and people started asking what was happening. Then a woman started taunting me for being an asylum seeker. So again, I left everything. I was crying.

“After that I was scared of shopping with an Azure Card. It’s like an ID saying I am an asylum seeker. People are nice until they see the card, then their attitude totally changes.”

The card can only be used in a few major outlets, which means it is difficult to buy speciality food or clothing. Anna describes the trouble she has had trying to get halal food, or traditional clothing for festivals. Another problem is the limit put on spending, which restricts people living on Azure Cards from buying more than a certain amount each time.

Shopping for her family, Anna has to go to the supermarket every second or third day, and the system is clearly causing her anxiety. She worries that if her children get sick she will be unable to get to hospital without cash. One of her children will start school this year but she is worried they will be unable to walk an hour to get there. These sorts of stories are common among those living on Azure Cards.

Safana is 16 years old. She came to the UK around a year ago because her mother was a nurse, working for a charity which gave out polio vaccinations, which came under threat from militant groups due to a belief the vaccinations were forbidden under Islamic law.

She told Holyrood her family has repeatedly experienced racism while trying to use the Azure Card. She said: “People who have Azure Cards are asylum seekers, they are not from here, and they often do not know the language. One day I was with my aunt. It was freezing outside and she wanted to buy her son a jacket because he kept sneezing. She took one that was about £20 but they refused to sell it. I went and spoke to the manager and he said she was not allowed it, because it is not a food item. Another woman I know went to the supermarket to buy flowers because it was her wedding anniversary, but they wouldn’t give her them.”

She adds: “You feel low, you feel dominated. Sometimes it is just small things – for example, the no uniform day in school. The school always have donations, they ask for a pound, but how can you get a pound if all your money is on the card? You don’t have cash. What about travel? You can’t get a bus pass with an Azure Card.”

A 2014 report from the British Red Cross, ‘The Azure payment card: the humanitarian cost of a cashless system’, catalogues failings within Section Four support, warning “the Azure Card creates unnecessary suffering for people who have fled war, violence and persecution – and are already in desperate situations”.

It found the card often fails to work because of technical difficulties, with three-quarters of organisations surveyed reporting that Azure Card users struggle to provide enough food for their children, and that even the shops which do accept payment often misunderstand it, leaving users open to stigma, embarrassment or abuse.

Organisations such as the British Red Cross and Scottish Refugee Council have long been calling for the Azure Card system to be scrapped and replaced by a cash-based system, with problems with travel in particular arising as an issue.

Another young woman, who came to the UK from Mexico, has had her application refused but cannot go home. She told Holyrood she cannot survive on the Azure Card.

She said: “It makes me feel depressed. I feel like I am begging or I am a prisoner, but I know it is my right. I am not begging from anyone. I am Muslim and I need halal meat, but it is a long time since I have been able to buy any from the shops where I can use the card. I survive because of my friends.”

Only some asylum seekers live on Azure Cards – most support is cash-based – yet support organisations have highlighted problems across the system.

Destitution among asylum seekers is increasing. Unable to work, denied access to the social security system, and unable to go home, asylum seekers can be trapped in destitution and homelessness for years, often with no realistic prospects for return.

Women are particularly affected by problems in the support system, in part because the vast majority of single parent households are headed by women. Organisations working to support asylum seekers say they have seen issues with pregnant women on Section Four support time and again.

Refugee women are more affected by violence than any other women’s population in the world. And because most refused asylum seekers are not entitled to any form of financial support, many women are left at risk.

Being prohibited from working forces asylum seekers to find other survival strategies such as illegal work or begging, and means they are more likely to enter into or remain in exploitative or abusive relationships.

The UK’s system of support has been found to push thousands of children into poverty, with a recent parliamentary inquiry reporting that support was too low to meet children’s living needs, and hearing stories of instances where “children were left destitute and homeless, entirely without institutional support and forced to rely on food parcels or charitable donations”.

Cases like these have fuelled calls to add a greater degree of humanity to the system, yet campaigners remain concerned by upcoming changes.

The Immigration Act, introduced by Theresa May towards the end of her six-year stint as Home Secretary, will reform the way support is provided. Guidance has not been released, but Holyrood understands that although the Azure Card will be abolished, it will be replaced by a new card for those currently on Section Four support, and a cash withdrawal facility will not be introduced.

Over time those on Section Four support are expected to transition over to a cash-based system, while new claimants should receive the new form of support immediately. The Home Office is due to publish further details on the planned changes in the near future.

Meanwhile the Act is also likely to make it harder to meet the criteria for support, and organisations working to support asylum seekers expect to see an increase in destitution.

Rejected applications are one of the biggest causes of destitution, but Nina Murray, Women’s Policy Development Officer at the Scottish Refugee Council (SRC), warns the Immigration Act will also reduce the right to appeal rejections. Fewer cases will have a right of appeal, or, if they do, they will have to do so from outside the UK.

She says: “There is a risk that more people will end up in a situation where they are still here but do not have the right to either a further appeal or to any support. So if you have a further appeal and you are still in the court system you can, at the moment, apply for Section Four support, or some sort of support at the end of the process, but if you don’t, if you are here and it is dangerous for you to go back, there is very little support available beyond charitable funds. We have been saying it is just not acceptable there are people here who are not entitled to any support. It is not acceptable and it is not humane.”

It was questions over the direction of Westminster’s approach to support for the most vulnerable that led to the devolution of new welfare powers to Scotland, and some have questioned if the Scottish Government could use levers brought by the next phase of the Scotland Act to improve or top up support.

On the face of it, solutions are not obvious. People claiming asylum are not part of the social security system, and immigration and asylum issues remain reserved, meaning it is not as simple as increasing mainstream welfare payments, because asylum applicants do not access them. Yet the SRC remains hopeful that new powers could be used to improve the situation for those claiming asylum.

Murray told Holyrood: “It is something we have started to think about, along with others in the sector, because we know destitution is a reality in Scotland. There is an example in Northern Ireland, where the administration provides a small grants programme for destitute migrants, which the Red Cross delivers.

“We have been exploring the possibility of something similar being put in place in Scotland, and looking creatively at what the Government could potentially do with new powers, and whether there are options for some kind of charitable fund, or some kind of public fund, that could be delivered through charities on the ground. Not just for destitute asylum seekers but for migrants or people with insecure immigration status who don’t have any other recourse to public funds.

“It would be an emergency fund that could provide some kind of respite to those groups who don’t have any other recourse. We wouldn’t want it to replace people who should be getting access to support, but rather for those who don’t have any other kind of recourse and are left in a kind of limbo situation. Fundamentally, though, the UK Government needs to stop its brutal and inhumane regime of destitution.”

There has been a public push in Scotland to do more to help refugees, particularly as the crisis in the Mediterranean has worsened, yet these cases show that, for many, reaching Scotland has not meant finding security. For those who have fled horrors most people will never need to contemplate and travelled across the world, reaching Scotland should mean finding sanctuary. Yet these stories show a different reality – one characterised by destitution, poverty and a sense of powerlessness.

As Murray put it: “When you dig into these policies, you can see how they are increasingly restrictive and they increasingly impact on the most marginalised and the most vulnerable. It is very much a one-size-fits-all system and you are expected to fit in it. If you have any additional needs – if you are a woman, if you have experienced violence, if you have a disability, if you have mental health issues, the system really doesn’t work and it becomes dangerous.”

After six years as Home Secretary, Theresa May moved into Number Ten, leaving Amber Rudd in her place, and given the change of leadership at the top of the Conservative Party, it seems likely that the new asylum support guidance will be delayed. Whether it will make a difference for women like Anna and Safana remains unclear.

Some of the names in this piece have been changed to protect identities

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