Dickensian poverty in the twenty-first century


Dickensian poverty in the twenty-first century

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Written by: Frances Webber


The asylum support system destroys hope and sanity.

In his home country of Zimbabwe, Gabrial Ziki was chair of the National Aircraft Engineers’ Association – until 2003, when he organised a strike and his life was threatened. He fled to the UK, where, shockingly, his asylum claim was refused, and since then he has received no support. He ended up living in a car outside the women’s hostel in Shelton, Staffordshire, where his wife was placed, and she bought food for the two of them from her weekly entitlement of £35. In November 2009, at Stoke on Trent Crown Court, Gabrial was sentenced to six months imprisonment, suspended for 18 months, with 180 hours’ unpaid work, for obtaining a false passport in order to seek work.

The level of support for adult asylum seekers was recently reduced from just over £42 to £35.15 a week. It is bad enough to expect anyone to live on that amount, which is designed to cover food, toiletries, clothes, transport and phone costs – in fact everything except accommodation and utility bills. People are living like that for months, sometimes years. But as this story reveals, and it is repeated all over the country, those in receipt of this pittance frequently have to share it with friends, who receive absolutely nothing.

Refused asylum seekers only get support if they’re taking steps to leave the country or if they can’t leave. Many Zimbabweans in particular have been in a cruel limbo for years, having had asylum claims refused but unable to return to Zimbabwe – a situation the government accepts in its policy of no forcible removals (because of the dangers awaiting anyone who is not a paid-up Mugabe supporter), while denying many even the most basic support on the grounds that they can return voluntarily! No it doesn’t make sense. Somalis, Iraqis, Afghanis, Eritreans and Iranians are in a similar situation.

For those refused asylum seekers who qualify, support comes in the form of a ‘smart card’ only exchangeable for goods in certain supermarkets. There is no cash, and so no money for travel costs. But in October, the government announced that those wishing to make a fresh claim to stay in the country on asylum or human rights grounds have to go to Liverpool or Croydon (depending on when their initial claim was made) to apply in person. And no, travel costs would not be paid. This means that a refused asylum seeker, whose health is likely to have been compromised by the physical effects of destitution (not to mention whatever they might have suffered in their own country or en route to the UK) must walk or hitch-hike tens or even hundreds of miles in order to make a fresh claim. Friendly solicitors and other sympathisers have been ‘buying’ the cards in order to provide cash. The Home Office response has been to make the cards not transferable, so that only the named holder can use them.

Refused asylum seekers who can’t leave have been told they can’t work, despite a strong campaign by the Still Human Still Here coalition. And some have been told to stop attending college too – in one case the Home Office contacted the college direct and the person was ejected in front of class-mates. There is no legal basis for this.

In December 2008 the High Court declared unlawful the Home Office blanket policy of refusing permission to work to all refused asylum seekers, regardless of whether they had made a fresh claim, how long they had been in limbo or the prospects of their leaving the country. Then in May 2009, the Court of Appeal ruled that refused asylum seekers who put in a fresh claim should be able to work after a year, as first-time claimants may. In that case, the appellants had been waiting four and five years for the Home Office to decide their fresh claims, with no rights to work and (in some cases) no right to any support. The Home Office has refused to accept either ruling, and is seeking to appeal to the Supreme Court. In the meantime it has been refusing all applications for permission to work.

If the Home Office had complied with the courts’ rulings, Gabrial and those like him would at least have been able legally to obtain work, to support themselves and to regain some self-respect, which the gradgrind asylum support system appears calculated to destroy, along with hope and sanity.

The refusal to allow refused asylum seekers to work creates opportunities for blackmail, too. Three managers at ISS Mediclean, an agency employing 43,000 cleaners in hospitals across the country, were arrested at Kingston hospital in November on suspicion of blackmailing undocumented migrants who did not have permission to work.

Related links

Still Human Still Here

National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns



The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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Liam Sewell
Liam Sewell
10 years ago

The government appears to be leaning towards the idea of immigration by stealth, thereby evading actually facing the issue. They no doubt wish to placate those who sensationalise the whole area of immigration, but haven’t really addressed any of the areas mentioned in your article. In the meantime, they will no doubt be happy to accept labour at cheaper prices from abroad without providing any means for those people to access language education, as well as brushing aside the whole notion of politial asylum despite having supported the policies which created that necessity for many of the current applicants. All this on top of the fact that nobody seems interested in arguing the idea of redistrubuting the wealth we have in the country, rather than Cameron’s insistence on cuts which will no doubt affect people at the lower end of the income spectrum far more than those at the top, who are unlikely to be affected at all, despite many of them having had a large part to play in the recent ( and some would say ongoing ) economic crisis.

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