New reports show government policy forcing refused asylum seekers into abject poverty

The government’s policy on refused asylum seekers does not work and is forcing thousands into abject poverty, said Amnesty International UK and Refugee Action today (7 Nov), as the organisations published new reports on conditions faced by those refused asylum and left in limbo in the UK.

The findings, contained in an Amnesty International report on London and a Refugee Action report on another nine cities, reveals the suffering caused by an inhumane and ineffective government policy that cuts off support for refused asylum seekers. The policy, said the two organisations, is leading to a new wave of widespread destitution.

The reports note that the government is deliberately using destitution in an attempt to drive refused asylum seekers out of the country. But the research found that, far from encouraging asylum seekers to return to their countries of origin, destitution made return less likely. The two organisations believe it is vital that the government maintain contact with refused asylum seekers and that financial support should continue until their cases can be resolved.

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said:

«The government’s policy on refused asylum seekers is a failure on both a practical level and a humanitarian level - forcing people into complete destitution as an attempt to drive them out of the country is backfiring badly and vulnerable people are suffering.»

«Refused asylum seekers in our towns and cities are being reduced to penniless poverty - forced to sleep in parks, public toilets and phone-boxes, to go without vital medicines even after suffering torture, and to relying on the charity of friends or drop-in shelters to survive».

Refugee Action’s Chief Executive Sandy Buchan said:

«There exists in Britain a new and growing excluded class of people who have no contact with the authorities, no access to work or mainstream support services, and little prospect of their situation being resolved».

«As a policy for dealing with refused asylum seekers, destitution simply is not working. Driving people onto the streets makes return even less likely. This policy is causing enormous suffering to vulnerable people and does nothing to enhance public confidence in the system».

While shelter and food vouchers are available to those who satisfy criteria for so-called “hard case” support - one of the conditions for this is that refused asylum seekers must enter into agreements to return “voluntarily”, even if their country of origin may not be safe.

Many refused asylum seekers are fearful of such agreements, not least as they are from countries - such as Iraq or Somalia - torn apart by conflict or where human rights abuses are rife. Moreover, in practice it is extremely difficult to forcibly remove people to countries where there are serious safety concerns, difficulties in obtaining travel documents or where there is no functioning airport.

In the first in-depth survey of destitution among this asylum group, Refugee Action and Amnesty International interviewed scores of destitute people, but with large numbers of refused asylum seekers presently in the UK for various reasons, there are concerns that thousands may be living lives of extreme hardship. Some people who spoke to Amnesty International and Refugee Action have been destitute for over five years.

Many of those interviewed spoke of their “desperation” and the absolute “hopelessness” of their situation. One case highlighted in the reports is that of a 49-year-old Iraqi Kurdish man living in a caravan provided by a church. The caravan has no sanitary facilities. The man, a refused asylum-seeker whose support was cut off in October 2005, survives on food provided by the same church.

The research also interviewed Abdullah, a 26-year-old man who fled Darfur, Western Sudan, where ethnic cleansing by Arab militia forces has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people. He was denied asylum by the Home Office who insisted that he could safely return to Khartoum, against the recommendations of the UN, and despite evidence of returnees being tortured and detained by security services there. To survive, Abdullah has relied on help from churches and friends, and has endured periods of rough sleeping.

Currently destitute refused asylum seekers are only able to access hospital medical care for emergency treatment or any treatment they were receiving during their asylum process, and they are legally unable to work. Under the present system financial support and accommodation for asylum seekers is currently cut off 21 days after a final claim for asylum has been refused. The only statutory support then available - so-called “hard case” support - makes vouchers and hostel accommodation available only to those who satisfy certain criteria - and even when it is forthcoming, support is often months late.

Instead, Refugee Action and Amnesty International stressed that the government should maintain contact with refused asylum seekers and that financial support and accommodation should continue until their case is resolved. For those who cannot be removed within six months, temporary, renewable “leave to remain” should be granted so that they can contribute to society and the economy. In some cases - where there is no realistic prospect of removal from the outset - this should be done earlier. The agencies are also urging the government to explore practical solutions to tackle the backlog of destitute refused asylum seekers, estimated at up to 283,500.

Sandy Buchan added:

“We are not opposed to the return of fairly refused asylum seekers to safe countries by safe routes. But if a person cannot be removed, a humane solution must be found that can allow people to live with some sense of dignity and purpose.”

Kate Allen added:

“We need a more enlightened policy that would see refused asylum seekers who cannot be returned home rescued from their current impoverished limbo and allowed to stay and contribute to British society.”

Refugee Action and Amnesty International are calling for the government to:

 Ensure that refused asylum seekers remain on the same financial support and accommodation as during the asylum process until their situation is resolved.
 Grant temporary, renewable permission to stay in the country that allows refused asylum seekers, who cannot safely be returned to their countries of origin within six months, to stay in the UK, to work and to access medical care.
 End the long-term limbo of refused asylum seekers still in the UK after several years, by granting them permission to stay in the country, as well as the right to work, to claim benefits and access medical care.
 Ensure that the government’s asylum case-workers build in anti-destitution support measures as part of the so-called “New Asylum Model” where cases are managed from beginning to end.