By Helen Longworth
At the parliamentary launch of our latest research I spoke to a refugee who had been forced into destitution during her passage through the UK asylum system. Ana told me that, to pay just £10 per week to cover some of the costs of staying at a friend’s house, she had turned to having sex with a man from a local pub. No one, under any circumstances, should ever be forced into such a situation.
Yet our research, launched today, is full of such stories. It shows for the first time the horrors of what is happening here in the UK, and that, despite government policy, people do find ways to survive.
Oxfam works with refugees all over the world. While the majority of refugees are hosted by developing nations, a very small number come to the UK. If they are refused asylum here, they are forced to resort to living on their friends’ sofas, surviving on handouts from charities, entering into overtly transactional relationships and sometimes illegal work, including sex work. In short, they are forced to live in destitution.
At Oxfam, we believe that two immediate changes in policy would help to create a fair, efficient asylum system that protects the rights and dignity of the people who use it. These are:
- giving asylum seekers unconditional cash support until the point of return, and;
- improving the decision making in the asylum determination process.
Lucy, a teacher seeking asylum here in the UK, talks about the problem with this. She speaks of a 45 minute walk until she reaches the one store which will accept her card. On the way she passes not only other shops but markets that sell the African ingredients she knows how to cook with. Section 4 support is costly, and the conditions and poor administration mean that many refused asylum-seekers would rather live in destitution. With an unconditional cash alternative, refused asylum-seekers have access to some level of support.
Secondly, improve the quality of decisions in the asylum-determination process. Oxfam is not suggesting that people who are refused should automatically be allowed to stay, but initial decisions from the system are often wrong. Almost a third of applications that are initially refused and overturned on appeal, meaning people who have been refused asylum have not been given a fair hearing. Returning someone who has been wrongly refused asylum because of poor quality decision-making violates the Refugee Convention by forcing people to return to a country where they face persecution and fear.
Not only would free legal advice and representation for those at the end of the process improve the quality of decision making, but more accurate initial decisions could save up to £13.5m (1). Appellants with legal representation have a 51% success rate, giving the UK a much better chance of running a fair system.
We have a proud tradition of providing sanctuary in the UK. Yet, as we have heard, currently we are leaving some people in destitution. One of the people interviewed in our research remarked that it brings back all the horrible and sorrowful memories of the struggle they went through in fleeing persecution in their own country in the first place. We never need to treat someone like that, under any circumstances. We believe that these changes in policy – giving cash support, improving decision making and granting the right to work – would turn our system from one that leaves people as “living ghosts” into a fair, efficient and humane structure that we can once again be proud of.
1 Deportation costs £11,000, whereas voluntary return costs £1,000.
Coping With Destitution Survival Strategies