By Jasper Hamill
She is the human face of a government policy that stands accused of condemning refugees to a life of enforced poverty.
Maryam doesn’t wish to give her surname as the story she has to tell is so degrading: she is forced to live on just £5 a day by the British state.
The sum can’t be spent as she likes because it is loaded on to a Government-issued card which can only be used in certain supermarkets.
It means she can’t get a bus and cannot get the halal food she requires as a Muslim, and the card is often not recognised even by staff in the stores where it should be used.
Like many her application for asylum has been refused, but the state accepts that it cannot send her back to her home country as her life would be in danger.
That is when the humiliation starts. They make me feel as if I am a thief.
Maryam, asylum seeker
As a result of this policy – branded Kafkaesque by critics – she has the so-called Azure Card, which gives her the £5-a-day allowance. Now a coalition of British refugee support groups backed by the SNP are demanding that Westminster rethinks the way it supports people like Maryam.
The Scottish Refugee Council and its counterparts in England and Wales have compiled a report called: “Your inflexible friend: the cost of living without cash.”
It’s believed there could be as many as 500,000 failed asylum seekers in the UK.
Maryam, 30, fled Somalia in 2007 after her son and daughter disappeared, and arrived in Glasgow, where she still lives.
She is forced to buy all her shopping with the card, so has to walk for an hour to the nearest big supermarket. She says she is humiliated when staff do not recognise the card.
“I am standing there, with a queue behind me,” she said. “That is when the humiliation starts. They make me feel as if I am a thief. Sometimes I have had to wait for half an hour until the manager comes, because the staff do not know about the card.” She added: “If they want to give us money, they should give us cash, otherwise we are not free to spend it as we wish.”
A survey of asylum seekers revealed more than half did not have money to travel to see a doctor or lawyer, 40% could not buy food that satisfied their religious requirements, 40% had had the card refused at supermarkets, and 56% felt anxious and ashamed when using it.
John Wilkes, chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, said: “The Azure Card is forcing asylum seekers into unnecessary hunger and hardship. This payment system doesn’t just restrict what they can buy and where, but often it doesn’t work at all.
“People who have to get by on the Azure Card are either waiting to return to their countries of origin, or cannot do so because it is unsafe. The UK Government doesn’t allow them to work and support themselves.”
Pete Wishart MP, left, the SNP’s home affairs spokesperson, said he would raise questions over the card in the Commons. He said the scheme was “unworkable”, adding: “If we are providing this support anyway, it is common sense to allow people to access that support in the most cost-effective and practical way.”
- Tell Damian Green to let asylum seekers live with dignity
Refugee Action: Please email the Immigration Minister now, and ask for the card to be replaced with cash. This would not only save staff time in a period when the government are cutting services, but it would give people greater dignity, and allow them to think about their options rather than struggle to buy the basic necessities for every day life. The government is currently looking at how to improve the asylum system, so this is a time when our voices can really make a difference.