An upcoming election is a good time for a clear summary of what asylum destitution means, how it happens and why it is such a bad thing.
Destitution is sometimes used loosely to mean ‘very poor’. Joseph Rowntree Foundation, for example, say
“Destitution means going without the bare essentials we all need. That’s a home, food, heating, lighting, clothing, shoes and basic toiletries. We define destitution as when people have lacked two or more of these essentials over the past month because they couldn’t afford them; or if their income is extremely low – less than £70 a week for a single adult.“
That’s bad. It shouldn’t happen to anyone. It’s is shockingly not uncommon in Britain. It’s also not what I mean. When I’m using the word, I’m following Websters dictionary.
“Such extreme want as threatens life unless relieved“
I’m talking about a state thats about £70 per week short of the Rowntree definition.
I’m also talking about destitution in the context of the asylum system, because there is something about asylum destitution that sets it apart from any other form of poverty. Uniquely, it is not a ‘system failure’ caused by people falling through the cracks. It is a consciously employed policy tool. Homelesness and hunger are not side effects of callous immigration policy. They are, at some key points, the explicit purpose of it. In other areas of social policy we tolerate destitution. We may not care enough to alleviate it effectively. We may be comfortable with it as an unintended but all-too-predictable consequence. Within the asylum system we go the extra mile. We spend extra money to ensure that it happens.
There are various ways in which the asylum system creates destitution, but I’m going to focus on people who are ‘appeals rights exhausted’. An asylum seeker is not permitted to work, and must use up any savings they have before becoming eligible for any support. They are then provided with accomodation which can be anywhere in the country on a no-choice basis. Heating, lighting, Council Tax and water rates are covered and asylum support of £36.95 per week is provided. This covers food, clothing, toiletries, phone credit (essential for keeping in touch with family, solicitors and the Home Office themselves) and transport. This is very little money, but it is not destitution.
An initial decision on an asylum claim is made by an immigration officer. Initial decisions are notoriously bad. The majority of people refused asylum choose to appeal to an immigration tribunal, and in 2018-19 44% of appeals were upheld. The lesson from Windrush holds true here. The Home Office makes some shockingly poor decisions which appear to be predicated on a desire to say ‘No’. Generally, once an appeal is refused, assuming no obvious error in law, an asylum seeker is considered to be ‘Appeal Rights Exhausted’. They have been found not to have a well founded fear of persecution and so must return home. Refusals may be because the claim for asylum does not meet the legal criteria, but more often it is because, while the claim would lead to a grant of refugee status if true, the judge disbelieves some or all of it. The refusal is based on ‘credibility’.
Credibility is a difficult area. Asylum seekers, by the nature of fleeing, rarely come with a portfolio of documentary evidence to prove persecution. A judge has to make a subjective decision. An asylum seeker is likely to be working in a language that is not their first, perhaps through an interpreter. They are unlikely to have much grasp of the asylum system or what they need to prove in order to gain refugee status. They may be traumatised by the initial persecution, by the journey they have taken, perhaps even by the experience of seeking asylum in the UK. They may be badly advised (there is a whole other story about the availability and variable quality of legal advice). They may just not want to talk about torture, or sexual violence. In these circumstances, they may be unclear about details under pressure of cross examination. They may not come across at their best. People with very real fears of persecution may not, on one day in court, appear credible.
The legal system is however, realistic. It recognises that mistakes are made. It makes provision for ‘further representations’. If a judge questions the credibility of a particular point, this can be addresssed at a later stage by producing evidence. Newspaper reports, signed affidvits from reputable people, expert reports. A refused asylum seeker has a legal right to present new information. If this has not already been considered; and when taken together with the previously considered material, creates a realistic prospect of success, then it is recognised as a ‘fresh claim‘. The Home Office must then consider it as if it were a new asylum application and must provide housing and asylum support accordingly. Further representations must be made in person in Liverpool. Travel expenses are not paid. It is hard to see this as anything other than a disincentive, an artificial barrier to prevent people exercising a legal right.
While the legal system exhibits flexibility, the Home Office does not. An adult without dependent children whose appeal rights are exhausted is evicted from their property, and all asylum support is ended. With no right to work they are left street homeless and destitute. They no longer have access to free secondary health care. Whatever the legal system allows, the Home Office believes they should no longer be here and should go home immediately.
The reality is somewhat different. At Hope Projects we work with destitute asylum seekers whose asylum refusals, after legal assessment, we believe to be flawed. There are many. Every year we see fifty or more people who were supposedly appeal rights exhausted submit further submissions that require the Home Office to provide housing and support. Every year we see people whose appeal rights were exhausted granted refugee status. The conclusions are inescapable. We make many people who have a well-founded fear of persecution destitute in order to force them to return to face imprisonment, torture or even death.
There are no reliable numbers of destitute asylum seekers. Hope Projects in Birmingham will see around 200 in any given year – and this will not be every destitute asylum seeker in the cachement area of Birmingham, Coventry and the Black Country. By extrapolation there are likely to be thousands of homeless and destitute asylum seekers in Britain. Fewer than 10,000 perhaps, but not many fewer.
Some will be street homeless, some supported by charities (not generally in homeless hostels which are often funded by housing benefit or universal credit, both of which are denied to destitute asylum seekers). Many will be ‘sofa surfing’, supported by friends, often themselves asylum seekers. This is precarious in the extreme. An asylum seeker is not permitted to house another person. In doing so they are in breach of their own license and may be evicted if discovered. The destitute ‘lodger’ may have to leave the house with all of their belongings each morning and not return until the landlord’s staff have left work in the evening. The destitute asylum seeker is asking their friend, living on just £36.95 to support them as well which is clearly not sustainable . Sooner or later, they must move on, and again, until they run out of friends. In this situtation they are incredibly vulnerable. Women in particular are vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
What initially seems like a side issue is the diffficulty in building and pursuing a fresh claim when destitute. How do you contact the people who may be able to provide evidence? You have no money for phone calls, or bus fares. Where do you keep your evidence? How do you even keep it dry if sleeping on the street? How do you maintain the strength to simply keep going from day to day? This side issue becomes critical, because without credible further representations, there is no escape from destitution.
Homelesness is always a tragedy. Often it is caused by a conjunction of seemingly intractable factors. The lack of affordable social housing combined with one or more of mental health issues, reationship breakdowns, drug and alcohol problems, an inability to cope with civilian life after leaving the armed services and so on. It has many causes and no simple answer. Asylum destitution is different. It only happens because it is made to happen. It can be stopped by the stroke of a pen. The numbers are not great. Providing housing and asylum support to asylum seekers attempting to gather evidence to make further submissions would cost a tiny sum within the Home Office budget.
Destitution doesn’t happen by accident. It is conscious policy by the Home Office; a key part of the hostile environment designed to force people to return even if they believe that they will face persecution and furthermore that they are able to gather evidence to prove this. It causes immense suffering to vulnerable people, it frustrates the pursuance of a legal right and it opens the door to horrific abuse. The good news is that it would be easy and affordable to end. An upcoming election gives us all the chance to ask our elected representatives whether they will commit to ending asylum destitution, and if not, why not?
There is more about fresh claims in the excellent Right to Remain toolkit.