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4 February 2011

The scandal of asylum-seeker destitution

Welfare cuts are no reason to allow already vulnerable people to suffer further.

By Jonathan Ellis

Oxfam’s new report today about the scale of destitution among refused asylum-seekers is yet more evidence of the major flaws in the asylum system. The fact that thousands, according to the report, choose to remain homeless and hungry rather than apply for financial support from the government, because they have little faith in the asylum system and think they have been wrongly denied asylum, should be an embarrassment to the government.

But what is perhaps even more of an embarrassment is that even those who do receive financial assistance from the government are facing hardship and poverty because the system in place simply doesn’t work.

I refer to refused asylum-seekers, who receive £35 a week from the government via a payment card. Many of these people are just waiting until it is safe to return to their own countries, but are not allowed to work, and so must rely on state support to survive.

The “Azure card” is intended to pay for “food and essential toiletries only”, and it can only be used in stores selected by the Home Office – including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Boots.

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Introduced in November 2009, the cards have caused countless problems since relayed by our clients. Granted, without the card they, would be completely destitute. But that even with the card many are facing poverty is proof that the system is not working.

At the Refugee Council, we have consistently raised these issues, including publishing a report in November 2010 (Your Inflexible Friend: the Cost of Living Without Cash, Asylum Support Partnership) which showed that card users struggle to get value for money and often cannot buy enough food to feed themselves or their families. Without cash, they cannot pay for transport to the shops, or crucially, to essential legal and health appointments.

Furthermore, 79 per cent of respondents told us that the card had been refused by shop staff, and over half told us it simply hadn’t worked. The Home Office’s response stated that 92 per cent of failed transactions were due to insufficient funds. Does this not strongly suggest people need more than £35 a week to get by? And what about the remaining 8 per cent of failed transactions, a total of 13,312 in less than a year? Surely this proves that technical difficulties with the card must be urgently addressed?

In addition, the card allows users to roll over only £5 each week, and the Home Office has confessed that they have clawed back a whopping £650,000 of unspent money since the card was introduced. Many of our clients, for example, have reported being unable to get to the selected supermarkets due to illness or bad weather. It is totally unacceptable that when their money goes unspent, the Home Office reaps the rewards while they go hungry.

We simply ask that the Azure card be replaced with cash. Then asylum-seekers would be able to shop at markets, or local shops that meet their cultural and religious requirements, and would better be able to feed and clothe their families. They would be able to pay for transport to attend essential legal, health and asylum appointments. They would not face the stigma the card currently provokes, and they could live in dignity until it is safe for them to return home.

We sympathise that welfare cuts will cause suffering across the spectrum this year, but this is no reason to allow already vulnerable people to suffer further. Whether refused asylum-seekers are on government support or not, from Oxfam’s evidence published today, and our own report last year, it is clear that their suffering is being largely ignored.

It is high time the government not only improved support for refused asylum-seekers, but that they use the opportunity of their Asylum Improvement Project to overhaul the whole asylum system. Only then will people seeking safety here have faith that they are being given a fair hearing. And that would, at the very least, go some way to saving the government further embarrassment on this issue.

Jonathan Ellis is executive director of advocacy at the Refugee Council.