Refugee and homelessness organisations have united to protest against new measures in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act which are set to throw tens of thousands of asylum seekers on to the streets.
It is estimated that from 8 January 2003, when the new powers to withhold support apply, every day will see a further 100 asylum seekers left without shelter or subsistence. Charities say they are having to make plans for emergency soup kitchens and open offices, community centres and places of worship for temporary accommodation. One refugee group in Coventry has even made a public appeal for accommodation. Many fear that those denied support will be driven into begging, sex work or crime in order to survive.
Protests against the proposals have been held in Glasgow, Manchester, Bristol and London to highlight the three sections – 54, 55 and 57 – of the Act which change eligibility for support. In London, around 70 demonstrators attended a soup kitchen held outside the Home Office building. In Manchester, over 100 protestors held a rally on the Town Hall steps at which food, clothing and blankets were collected. About seventy people were present at a picket in Glasgow and sixty people attended a protest in Bristol on 4 January 2003 at which a soup kitchen was created outside the Blair family’s controversial luxury flats on Park Row.
A range of groups, including Amnesty International, the British Medical Association, Crisis, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, the Maternity Alliance, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, Oxfam, Refugee Action, the Refugee Council, Save the Children and Shelter, have expressed concern about the new measures and are calling on David Blunkett to think again. The civil liberties group Liberty is planning a High Court human rights challenge to the measures which, because of the way they were introduced as late amendments to the Bill, did not receive proper scrutiny in parliament.
Section 55 of the Act withdraws living allowance and accommodation from asylum seekers who do not claim asylum at a port or ‘as soon as reasonably practicable’ afterwards. This ruling affects two thirds of all asylum seekers – so-called ‘in-country’ applicants – who, in 2001, amounted to 46160 people. There are a number of reasons why refugees might not claim asylum immediately upon arrival in the UK – poor English, no access to legal advice or fear of the authorities and the interview process. Although the government has presented this rule as a way of preventing abuse of the system, there is no evidence that ‘in-country’ applicants are any less likely than others to be granted refugee status. In fact, the opposite is true, according to the Refugee Council.
The Home Office is making exceptions for those with special care needs or disabilities. But people in these categories will have to wait for a community care assessment from their local authority (which typically takes at least six weeks) before qualifying for support. In the meantime, they will not be eligible for emergency accommodation. Families with dependent children will be eligible for support but the implications for pregnant women remain unclear. The ‘in-country’ rule is not being applied retrospectively; only those who make their claim for asylum after 8 January 2003 will be affected.
Previously, ‘in-country’ applicants qualified for accommodation while waiting for their ‘screening’ interview which can take up to six weeks. Under the new system, they will be left destitute until they either get a confirmation letter from the National Asylum Support Service (NASS) saying that they are eligible for support, or a rejection without appeal. Given NASS’s past record of poor administration and delays, asylum support groups are expecting that asylum seekers will experience long delays while they are left homeless. Decisions on eligibility for support will only be made at the Asylum Screening Unit in Croydon where ten staff are expected to deal with all applications for NASS support – around 1000 applicants, per staff member, per month. A further problem is that asylum seekers attempting to appeal their asylum decision will not have an address at which to receive legal correspondence and will have no means of funding their travel to appeal hearings.
A similar measure was attempted in 1996 by the then Conservative social security secretary Peter Lilley and vehemently opposed by the Labour Party opposition. After a crisis period, during which charities provided emergency shelters and soup kitchens to the growing number of destitute refugees, a High Court ruling found that local authorities had a statutory duty to provide board and lodging under the 1948 National Assistance Act. The obligation to provide for asylum seekers thus fell to cash-strapped local authorities, who attempted to provide support through dispersal schemes and food vouchers. When Labour came to power, it institutionalised these ad hoc arrangements in the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act and established NASS to administer them. But vouchers and dispersal have been widely seen as failures. Now – with the fourth piece of asylum legislation in a decade – the government is returning to the 1996 proposal and overruling the original High Court objections.
A second new rule which will remove support is section 54. This will affect asylum seekers who have had negative decisions on their case, those in the country unlawfully and those with refugee status in other European countries. These groups will no longer qualify for support under the National Assistance Act and will be immediately deprived of housing and other benefits. There will be no exemptions for those with special needs or dependent children. The Home Office argues that section 54 is an attempt to tackle ‘benefit shopping’ whereby migrants, supposedly, choose in which European country to claim asylum on the basis of where there is the most attractive benefits available. However the concept of ‘benefit-shopping’ has been questioned by the Home Office’s own research (Understanding the decision-making of asylum seekers, Home Office Research Study 243, July 2002).
A further section of the Act (section 57) allows the Home Secretary to introduce secondary legislation to withhold access to NASS support if an asylum seeker is deemed to be supplying ‘incomplete or inaccurate’ information or if an applicant cannot give a ‘clear and coherent account’ of how s/he came to the UK. This will apply to both ‘at port’ and ‘in-country’ asylum applicants.