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7 August 2014

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".

By George Gillett

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. 

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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.  

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