Rescue workers search for victims close to the Rafah refugee camp in Southern Gaza. Photo: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images
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The UK government must reform its treatment of asylum seekers

Theresa May has until Saturday to respond to a High Court ruling that deemed the government's level of support for asylum seekers "irrational".

Theresa May has an important decision to make before Saturday. Having lost a High Court ruling which determined that the Home Office was “irrational” to freeze asylum support for three consecutive years, the Home Secretary was ordered to review government policy. It is unclear what conclusion the Home Office will come to, yet their verdict will impact on many of the most vulnerable people in the UK.

The support currently stands at £36 per week for a single adult, and is given to individuals who are waiting for a decision on their asylum claim. When introduced in 1999, asylum support was designed to provide 70 per cent of the money that a British national on income support would receive. That figure currently stands at 51 per cent – a meagre amount which has left many in severe poverty.

Indeed, a report from the campaign group Refugee Action describes how asylum seekers are regularly unable to afford food, whilst 88 per cent are unable to buy basic clothing items, leading to “social isolation” and “vulnerability to health problems”. Similar research from the charity Freedom from Torture notes how economic poverty and financial insecurity leads to “a serious deterioration” in the mental health of victims of torture who are seeking asylum. Likewise, one clinician describes how the “hopelessness and vulnerability” caused by poverty often provokes “depression and anxiety” in torture victims, a group already prone to mental illness.

Let’s be clear; asylum seekers are some of the world’s most vulnerable people, desperate to escape persecution such as rape, torture and war. Yet their suffering continues within the UK, largely a result of the paltry financial assistance available from the government. Most striking is their lack of choice; asylum seekers are unable to legally work or receive council housing – by freezing asylum support, the government is failing to provide these individuals’ only lifeline.

Of course, such disinterest in the wellbeing and health of asylum seekers is to be expected whilst UK politics rides a wave of anti-migrant sentiment. With representatives from all parties trying to out-manoeuvre each other to provide a harsher stance on immigration, treatment of asylum seekers is suffering. Indeed, mental health care provision, support for children and the government’s detention programme have all received criticism in recent months. The lack of public outcry over these scandals is likely linked to growing unease over the UK’s immigration policy. 

Yet concern about immigration is misplaced to target asylum seekers. Polls continuously show that the public overestimate the number of asylum seekers coming to the UK, often by more than two-fold. The myth that the UK is burdened by asylum seekers is entirely unfounded. Despite the UN last month announcing that the global number of refugees is the highest since WWII, the UK ranks only 11th out of the EU15 countries for the number of asylum seekers it welcomes, after accounting for population size. Considering that the UK isn’t accepting more than its fair share of asylum seekers, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to better protect those who do apply for asylum.

The freeze in asylum support seems even more malicious when considering its limited financial benefit. Less than 0.1 per cent of the government’s spending on benefits goes to asylum seekers, suggesting that this controversy is driven by ideological, rather than practical, incentives.

Over the past few months, the media has recoiled in horror at the events in Syria and Gaza, while many politicians have spoken out to condemn such conflicts. Yet expressing empathy from a distance is not enough. Victims of war and persecution are also suffering from government policy here in the UK. Come Saturday, the Home Office’s decision will not only impact the 25,000 destitute asylum seekers in receipt of asylum support, it will reveal a great amount about the nature of this government. 

Update: 12th August, 15:15

On 11th August, the Home Office released a letter announcing that they have decided to not change the level of asylum support. Asylum support therefore remains frozen for the 3rd consecutive year, at a level from £36 a week. A spokesperson for the charity Refugee Action said that they were “appalled by the decision”. “It will have a devastating impact on the dignity and wellbeing of thousands of individuals and families in our government’s care,” commented Dave Garratt, the Chief Executive of Refugee Action.  

George Gillett is a freelance journalist and medical student. He is on Twitter @george_gillett and blogs here.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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