When the National Asylum Support Service was created in 1999, its policing and deterrent functions were given priority over the provision of welfare for asylum seekers. The system that today forces asylum seekers onto the streets is the inevitable result.
It was only the tabloid press and the Home Office which believed (or pretended to) that the numbers of asylum seekers coming to the UK in the 1990s were driven not by war, civil war and persecution but by the availability of benefits. Acting on this assumption, in 1999 the government replaced statutory benefits and local authority provision for asylum seekers with the NASS system, in which responsibility for asylum seekers’ support fell on the newly created national body. Asylum seekers were compulsorily dispersed around the country and given their benefits in vouchers rather than cash. The meagre allowance (around £36 per week for a single adult) made subsistence difficult and dignity and quality of life impossible, while the accommodation provided ranged from shabby to downright squalid.
In its deterrent functions, the NASS system has failed, as numbers of asylum seekers have not dropped. But, rather than abandon the underlying assumption of deterrence, the Home Office, instead, introduced even tougher measures, in the provisions of the 2002 Act, further refining the criteria for asylum support.
During the passage of the Act, the provisions which attracted the most controversy were the accommodation centres – asylum camps designed to house 750 people in the middle of nowhere, detention centres in all but name, where asylum seekers would be housed, fed and, most controversially of all, their children educated, segregated from mainstream provision. But these provisions have not yet been implemented. The sections excluding large numbers of asylum seekers and others from any form of support went through quickly and quietly; their effect has been devastating.
Section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 excludes from all support childless ‘late claimants’, that is, asylum claimants who did not claim as soon as ‘reasonably practicable’ after arrival in the UK – unless denial of all support would breach their human rights. Home Secretary David Blunkett told parliament that the section would be used against people who had been in the country for a while and had then claimed asylum just to get support. But when it came into force on 8 January 2003, a much more draconian interpretation was adopted. NASS officials were instructed to refuse support to all childless asylum seekers who failed to claim at the port of entry. Those forced into homelessness in those freezing winter days included:
- ‘M’, a Rwandan woman regularly raped and beaten by Tutsis in a refugee camp, who arrived in the UK on 7 January, did not know where to claim asylum, had no money and nowhere to live. She was taken to the Refugee Legal Centre the day after her arrival, but was told that the Home Office was not accepting any more applications that day. After her interview at Croydon the next day, she went to Croydon police station, where police allowed her to stay the night sitting on a chair provided she did not fall asleep. After that, she had nowhere to go, and survived only because a stranger took pity on her.
- ‘D’, a 22-year-old Angolan suffering from trauma after his father was shot dead, his mother and sister raped by soldiers and he was interrogated and beaten. He claimed asylum on the day he arrived, and was found a bed for one night but then had to sleep rough outside the Home Office.
- ‘Q’, a 20-year-old Iraqi Kurd who arrived in London in a lorry on 8 January at 5am with no money, speaking no English. An Arabic speaker told him to go to Croydon. He walked for three hours until he reached the Home Office. He had stomach-ache and toothache and was feeling sick and tired. He slept the night in a tunnel by a phone box.
These three were among a number of asylum claimants who successfully challenged the refusal of support in the High Court. The judge held that the refusals breached the law of common humanity as well as the claimants’ human rights. The Home Secretary tried to appeal but, in March, the Court of Appeal upheld the verdict, saying that the officials had interpreted the requirement of prompt asylum claims too strictly and had behaved unfairly – but the judges said that the Home Office was entitled to refuse all support to late asylum claimants, unless and until it became apparent that they could not get help from charity and would not be able to ‘fend for themselves’.
Human rights lawyers and refugee groups condemned the decision, pointing out that the ways in which people forbidden from working could ‘fend for themselves’ were limited to begging, theft and prostitution. But since the decision, thousands of asylum seekers have been refused support, and hundreds more, who were temporarily housed in emergency accommodation while the test case went forward, have been and are being evicted – by refugee support organisations which provide the emergency housing but are funded by the Home Office.
To make things even more difficult, the Home Office has only been allowing in-country asylum claims from Croydon and Liverpool – although there are immigration offices in many major cities up and down the country. Asylum seekers who are brought in by lorry have no choice about where they are dropped. Those who try to claim asylum at a local immigration office are told that they have to go to Croydon or Liverpool but they are given no money or means to travel. They are given no document to show that they have tried to make an asylum claim and there is no way around their making the claim in person.
Implemented like this, section 55 no longer looks like a reasonable rule to prevent opportunistic asylum claims. It looks like yet another obstacle in the way of asylum claimants – another attempt to get the numbers down. It’s important to remember (yet again) that the Home Office insistence that asylum claims are made at the port ignores the fact that immigration laws make it impossible to travel to the country legally as an asylum seeker and force refugees either to use false documents or to be brought in by smugglers.
The Home Office has used all sorts of tricks to stop people’s support. One practice has been for the Home Office to tell NASS that they have decided to refuse an asylum claim, without telling the asylum seeker. If an asylum claim has been rejected and no appeal is brought, any housing and benefits being given to the asylum seeker ends. But if an asylum seeker is not told that the claim has been rejected, then they are not given a chance to appeal. The effect then is that their support is stopped and NASS tells them that they have to leave their accommodation.
In June 2003, the House of Lords condemned this practice as contrary to fundamental principles of justice. What the Home Office now does instead is to notify the person that their asylum claim is rejected but not make a decision on whether to refuse (or grant) leave to enter. This puts them in an immigration limbo, in which they cannot appeal against the refusal and so cease to be eligible for support.
Others who are left in limbo are those whose appeals have been rejected but who cannot leave because of conditions in the home country. Many Afghanis, Iraqis and Zimbabweans are in this position. If they are childless, they are evicted once their appeals are rejected. They are eligible only for workhouse-style ‘hard cases’ support, but even that – at least in the cases of some Zimbabweans – is being made conditional on written promises by the asylum claimants to leave voluntarily when they are told to.
Worse still is the situation of overstaying families with children who are now being evicted or threatened with eviction by local authorities. Previously excluded from welfare benefits, this group remained able to access social services assistance, including accommodation, if they had children or were disabled, ill or had other special needs, regardless of their immigration status. But Section 54 and Schedule 3 of the 2002 Act completes the social and legal exclusion of Britain’s ‘sans-papiers’ – those with no permission to be in the country. Now, authorities are obliged only to look after the children of such families, and not to keep the family together by housing them as a unit. Many single mothers are forced to choose between taking their children and sleeping on friends’ floors just to stay together, or having the children taken into care.
Culture of disbelief
At another test case on section 55, heard on 16 and 17 July, the High Court heard evidence of how unfair the exclusion system is, and its effects. Support is routinely refused on the basis that people are lying about their entry to the UK. The Home Office expects everyone to have a complete understanding of these procedures, and ignorance is construed as evasion. But a number of refugee organisations testified that many refugees genuinely know little or nothing about asylum or immigration procedures, airports or passports before their arrival, and are completely reliant on the agent, who deals with everything and answers immigration officers’ questions at the airport.
- One of those seeking to challenge a refusal of support, a Somali, found support in the community for a short time, and then slept rough for a month, becoming malnourished and psychologically disturbed. He then re-applied and was accommodated for three months but was then refused and evicted, and had to sleep rough again. He became gaunt and exhausted, complained of stomach pains and eventually refused food. He lost weight and developed a swelling in his neck.
- Another was a profoundly disturbed Chinese asylum seeker who had hardly spoken to anyone for nearly 14 years; he was due to be evicted from emergency accommodation for failure to claim promptly. He slept at the airport for several days. He got a fever, a cold and a stomach bug and was regularly told to move on by police. He begged for shelter at three churches but was turned down and returned to Heathrow, where he could not sleep because of the noise and the lights, and he became demoralised and frightened.
- A third, an Ethiopian, was evicted from emergency accommodation and slept rough, going without food. An Ethiopian family allowed him to sleep in their room for two days but not for longer, since his stay was unlawful and jeopardised their own NASS support. He begged for assistance from the Refugee Council, the police, his immigration solicitors, Shelter and a local Ethiopian community association without getting any help. He was left frightened, depressed and humiliated, feeling sick, dizzy and with headaches. There was blood in his urine and he had stomach pains.
The Court of Appeal said in the earlier case that charities might be able to support destitute asylum seekers. But conventional UK charities are unable or unwilling to support and accommodate destitute asylum seekers, while none of the refugee charities has sufficient resources to do more than to offer food to a few. Many asylum seekers refused support are now forced to sleep rough, and commonly suffer physical and mental illness as a result. Once homeless, it also becomes impossible for them to pursue their asylum claims properly.
The dispersal system, in which thousands of people are shunted around the country from one makeshift abode to another, is bound to have a detrimental effect on the health of asylum seekers. Inevitably, patients lose touch with doctors and effective management of information about individuals’ health proves difficult.
In October 2002, the British Medical Association found that asylum seekers’ health tended to get worse after their arrival, as not enough was done to safeguard their health. They cited failure to perform basic tests to pick up illnesses, failure to refer torture victims to specialist centres, failure to give appropriate vaccinations to unaccompanied children, insufficient translating services, lack of continuity of care, dispersal and poor accommodation, which aggravated the physical and psychological effects of war and torture.
Similarly, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on AIDS and its sister group on Refugees reported on 10 July 2003 that the current system exacerbates poor health, particularly for those with serious communicable diseases such as HIV. The report pointed out that the ‘current immigration system forces individuals to live in abject poverty, thereby undermining clinical efforts to maintain good health’. It said that NASS ‘consistently disregarded the opinions, expertise and professional medical reports of specialist professionals including doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists’. A north London doctor complained that he had never been officially notified of the dispersal of patients. Sometimes, tragedy resulted. The sudden dispersal by NASS of an HIV-infected pregnant mother resulted in her giving birth to an HIV positive child. By the time she was located and brought back into an appropriate care system, it was too late to save the child from infection.
A study published in March 2002 by the Maternity Alliance echoed the dangers that pregnant women and babies face under the NASS system. Mothers in Exile found that dispersal and emergency accommodation put the health of pregnant women and babies at serious risk. Poor quality, seriously overcrowded temporary accommodation led to a high risk of accidents and impaired babies’ development. Meals were not suitable; the mothers often had to miss meals for hospital appointments or because the baby was asleep or crying, and they were not allowed to take the meals later; and neither formula milk nor baby food was provided, despite the fact that babies were unable to drink ordinary milk and were vomiting.
In July 2002, the High Court ordered NASS to provide milk tokens to a nursing mother who was HIV positive and could not afford to buy formula milk for her baby, essential to prevent transmission of the virus. NASS and the Department of Health had refused to provide the milk tokens.
Protection from violent racism
NASS has also failed to protect those in its care from racist violence. In Plymouth, racist attacks have become ‘routine’ in the past few months, with an average of 22-30 racist incidents each month against Iraqi, Zimbabwean, Afghan, Somali and Chinese asylum seekers. In April, attacks on Zimbabwean asylum seekers in Portsmouth were reported; in June, severe racial violence erupted in Wrexham. In many other parts of the country, dispersal has already been abandoned because the Home Office feared that rioting would ensue.
But NASS has nevertheless insisted that asylum seekers accept the accommodation given to them, even when they have become victims of violence. In September 2001, the ‘G’ family were dispersed by NASS from Tottenham to the Toryglen estate in Glasgow. Within days the Kurdish family had been subjected to racial abuse and hostility. They were shouted at in the streets. Groups of people hanging around the Toryglen Estate threatened them with dogs, spat at them and swore at them. Mrs ‘G’ was humiliated in shops when using vouchers and waiting in the queue and checkout. Her son was bullied at school. Mr ‘G’, who was already suffering from psychological problems as a result of torture, tried to throw himself out of a window. Asylum seekers in an adjacent block of flats had their windows smashed. On 27 October 2001 the home was attacked by a group of men who tried to stab the youngest son.
The family fled back to London, and returned to overcrowded accommodation shared with relatives. They applied to NASS, which said that they must return to Toryglen estate pending investigations. Three weeks later they were informed that enquiries were complete and that, if the family did not return to Glasgow within a week, all support would be terminated. On 27 November 2001, NASS decided that the family was not entitled to further accommodation because they would not return to Glasgow. And, no food vouchers were sent to the family until 30 January 2002. NASS only withdrew its decision after receiving reports from the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture on the effect of the family’s experiences on their mental health.
The ‘G’ family lost a claim for damages against NASS earlier this year, but the judge, Mr. Justice Moses, remarked that ‘the undisputed social intimidation and violence, which this family suffered, brings shame upon any country, which holds itself out as a safe haven against persecution’. He criticised NASS for its apparent ignorance of the problems of racist violence on Toryglen. But he concluded that NASS had not acted unlawfully in sending the family there, and insisting that they return there.
The Glasgow charity Positive Action in Housing expressed bitter disappointment, saying that the judgment gave NASS the green light to continue forcible dispersal without consideration for asylum seekers’ safety or protection.
With this appalling record of failures over the last three years, perhaps it was not surprising that, in July 2003, the Home Office refused to publish the full report of an independent review of NASS’s operations, releasing only a few summary lines. The review team found ‘basic processing errors’ and ‘weaknesses in core operations’ including difficulties in asylum seekers making phone contact, and concluded that NASS ‘faced real difficulties getting on top of its job’.
How many more damning reports will be needed before this failed system is scrapped and asylum seekers get the same rights to benefits and work as everyone else?