Thousands of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK are homeless, destitute and living in poverty. Banned from working and barred from mainstream benefits, they depend on charities to survive. Many have nothing and nobody to support them and sleep rough. Reports suggest they are growing in number.
The Observer reports today that the British Red Cross had seen at least 3,373 destitute refugees and asylum seekers in the last 3 months alone – 10 per cent more than last year’s figures for the same period.
The law provides for 2 main forms of support. Both require the asylum seeker to prove that they are ‘destitute’. Under section 95(3) of the Immigration Act 1999, a person is destitute if:
(a) he does not have adequate accommodation or any means of obtaining it (whether or not his other essential living needs are met); or
(b) he has adequate accommodation or the means of obtaining it, but cannot meet his other essential living needs.
Although a person may meet this definition under either limb (a) or (b), it can prove difficult in practice, especially when a person has moved from place to place, slept rough or is unable to explain their circumstances clearly.
For destitute asylum seekers, section 95 of the 1999 Act may provide for cash support and/or accommodation. Section 4(2) of the 1999 Act provides for vouchers and accommodation for a limited class of refused asylum seekers. To qualify for support under section 4(2), refused asylum seekers must meet one of the 5 conditions in Regulation 3 of the Immigration and Asylum (Provision of Accommodation to Failed Asylum-Seekers) Regulations 2005). For now, these include a human rights-based condition (regulation 3(2)(e)). However, the government plans to scrap this protection as part of the latest Immigration Bill.
For 2 days last week I represented destitute asylum seekers who had been refused vouchers (worth £35.39 per week) and accommodation (often in poor conditions) by the Home Office. Four out of the five appeals in which I represented were successful. While it was not a representative sample, the quality of some of the decisions being made by the Home Office, particularly the ‘section 4 team’ was demonstrably poor.
Its Byzantine structure means that Home Office decision-makers are separated from those who present their cases in the Tribunal by several organisational layers. Officials refusing or terminating asylum support do not see or hear their decisions get pulled apart. Nor do they seem to appreciate how their mistakes condemn vulnerable people to poverty and homelessness.
Appeals are heard in the Asylum Support Tribunal (‘AST’) based at Anchorage House in the docklands area of east London. The award-winning legal charity, ASAP runs a scheme there (which I’m a part of) offering free advice and representation to asylum seekers and refused asylum seekers on the day of their appeal. Between them, ASAP’s staff and volunteer advocates appear in the AST almost every day of the year, working closely with frontline referral agencies across the UK.
Tribunal Judges decide there and then whether someone gets a roof over their head or a reliable source of food to eat.
It’s unusual, emotional and often rewarding work.
I will never forget meeting a woman who was due to give birth the day after her appeal hearing. She was robustly cross-examined by the Home Office and the Judge for about 45 minutes about her immigration history and why she couldn’t live with her abusive ex-partner. Her case involved a history of gender-related domestic violence. She had slept in a bus garage somewhere in London while she was 7 months pregnant. I watched her shifting uncomfortably in her seat as the baby kicked her ribs. I wondered what kind of system puts anyone, let alone a woman about to give birth, through such an ordeal. Her appeal was successful.
There is no straightforward solution to the rising number of destitute asylum seekers. Realistically, their needs have to be balanced against the need for a fair and efficient system of immigration control. But if the government uses the Immigration Bill to shake up the law in this area and, in summary, make it much harder for asylum seekers to access support, the number of homeless and hungry persons is guaranteed to rise significantly, at least in the short term.
While the government is busy creating a (more) ‘hostile environment’ for illegal entrants and overstayers, the problem is that this is ideologically driven policy-making. There is no evidence I have seen that hostility will achieve their objective of reducing the number of persons who come to the UK (legally or otherwise). For all we know, the more hostile the environment, the more lucrative it is for people smugglers and traffickers to subvert the system.