British asylum policies are condemning increasing numbers of children to illness, poverty and deprivation before they are even born.
On the top floor of a high-rise flat in Leeds a young mother sits with her newborn child. Unlike most new mothers she is not surrounded by cards and flowers. Nor is she surrounded by well-wishers. The flat is dilapidated and in the bedroom a second-hand cot is pushed up against a damp and moulding wall. It is the only piece of furniture the baby has.
Like most new parents she is tired and under intense stress. Unlike most mothers, though, her child is malnourished and underweight. This is a direct result of a policy which forces destitution on asylum seekers who have had their claims rejected. The child is one of an increasing number who are being harmed before they are even born, as their mothers are forced into rough sleeping, without food, denied the right to work and access to secondary medical care.
Estimates of the number of destitute asylum seekers vary but some organisations suggest a figure of up to 400,000. With no official figures, it is impossible to say how many of these are pregnant mothers. The Leeds-based charity Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (PAFRAS), however, is seeing an increasing number of babies born with serious defects and sometimes chronically under-developed. Recently, a mother gave birth to a baby weighing a little over four pounds. In the UK, the average is seven and a half pounds.
Such under-nourishment is a clear sign that the child has not been able to develop properly in the mother’s womb and it can be an obvious signifier of physical harm. According to the Rev Paul Nicholson, Chair of Zacchaeus 2000 – a London-based charity committed to combating poverty – poor maternal nutrition can lead to brain disorder and mental illness. Whilst Christine Smith, a retired senior sister who has significant experience of work at a premature baby unit explains: ‘An unborn baby will take every ounce of nourishment it can from its mother but if there is nothing there, it has nothing to take. If a mother is destitute there is a higher risk of still birth. But even if born alive the child will be prone to colds, coughs, asthma, and diarrhoea. With a weakened immune system, in the first year at least there will be a higher risk of death.
Destitute asylum seekers who reach seven months pregnancy can apply for ‘Section 4’ support, which entitles them to £35 a week in food vouchers and provides accommodation. Getting the claims for support processed though, can, and often does, take up to two months. By this time the child may already have been born. And even when this support is processed, the ‘benefits’ provided are often woefully inadequate. The government has contracted out Section 4 housing in a public/private market which, for the applicant, operates on a ‘no-choice’ basis. A virtual industry of housing providers have been quick to move in and the standards of properties are often particularly low. In one case, a pregnant woman was put in a room with no furniture – not even a bed.
And in order to spend her £35 food vouchers, the mother mentioned above needs to walk miles to a specific supermarket that has a contract for voucher redemption. The vouchers will not be accepted anywhere else and she has no money to use public transport. If she is lucky, the supermarket will allow her to spend her vouchers on nappies, toiletries and items for her child. Some, however, do not. In which case she may be forced to contribute to a growing economy whereby people sell their vouchers for cash. This, though, is rarely an equal exchange and £35 in vouchers seldom trades for £35 ‘real’ money. Either way, she has to get to the shop first to find out. This is made more difficult by the fact that she has no pram for her child. After only a day, she was discharged from hospital and has since been left to bring up her child with practically no assistance. Her midwife has not visited and she has no support from a health worker. Unsure of how to feed the child, she has had to rely on local charities to provide basic kitchen utensils to warm up baby milk. She has only one set of baby clothes and no blankets, and keeping the baby warm is particularly difficult. Housed in an area known for racist violence; not long after the child was brought home a brick was thrown through a window of the flat.
She is yet to find out whether the period spent destitute whilst carrying her child has caused any permanent damage. In order to do this she would have to first access secondary care, which she may be charged for. One mother with a newborn child, who could not afford the costs, was soon after visited by a debt recovery agency.
In a policy climate where the New Labour government proclaims ‘every child matters’, increasing numbers of children are being condemned even before they are born. Yet these children offer living (though sometimes barely so) proof that some children mean nothing to the same government that utters these words. This is the same government that dehumanises their parents – making them endure abject, enforced, poverty in an attempt to force them to leave the country – and the existence of a ‘condemned’ number of children is not even acknowledged. Moreover, this situation may become even bleaker. Plans to debar ‘failed’ asylum seekers from primary health care, originally mooted in 2004, have recently been re-invoked and, as well as condemning untold numbers of people to increased illness, their children, too, will suffer.