After more than a decade since Limbuela, and three years after Refugee Action, Home Office policy continues to drive asylum seekers into destitution. The Refugee Action report, Slipping Through the Cracks, candidly outlines these failings of the asylum support system. This is hardly the first time these sorts of flaws have been exposed. The whole report features real stories and quotes from the asylum seekers let down by the process, and is well worth a read.
The first problem is the decrease in support level over time. Rates used to be set at 70% of mainstream benefits. This meagre level seems princely compared to the current non-emergency (“Section 95”) support rates, which the report notes are set at a little over 50% of income support for those aged over 25. Not only this, but in August 2015 a single weekly rate for all asylum seekers, regardless of family size or age, was introduced. This counterintuitive step represents a significant decrease in support for families with children. Asylum seekers in general are not allowed to work, so this income is all that they will usually receive.
This amounts to little more than a safety net; destitute asylum seekers receive just £5.28 per day to pay for all their meals, toiletries, clothing and transportation.
Yet asylum seekers face several barriers to even accessing this level of support. Refugee Action have noted five ways in which asylum seekers who should be granted support are denied it:
- Incorrect refusals of emergency support
- Poor application of the destitution test
- Extended periods spent in Initial Accommodation
- Delays in receiving section 95 support
- Onerous requests for further information
The delay between application and ultimate receipt of support, should it happen, means that asylum seekers risk exploitation by being forced to stay in uncertain and informal situations. Those applying for non-emergency accommodation and financial support waited an average of nearly two months, while those solely applying for financial support were left waiting three months on average. During this time those waiting are at risk of destitution; with Brexit around the corner threatening to overwhelm the Home Office, these delays may become even longer unless proper attention is drawn to it.
The delays do not end there. As well as representing a limbo, Initial Accommodation is inadequate for long-term habitation. For example, it is unsuitable for survivors of torture and other vulnerable individuals, access to boiling water for sterilising baby bottles is limited, and several of those contacted by Refugee Action described their Initial Accommodation as cold and dirty. The average waiting time in initial accommodation was 37 days, nearly double the Government’s target of a maximum waiting time of 19 days.
Much of the burden on the Home Office is avoidable and of their own making. Of those who were refused emergency support, 92% of the refusal decisions were overturned. Another way of putting it is that of all applications for emergency support, 50% were wrongly refused.
Throughout the course of this research it was routine to record delays of several months, during which clients were often left living in precarious situations. In one case, two sisters waited 254 days for their support to come through; during this time their only form of support came from charities and food banks. They were given a place to sleep by an acquaintance, but told us that they felt unsafe where they were staying.
The report made several recommendations, for example the correct application of the test for destitution and for emergency support, providing refugees with the right to work to ease reliance on state support, and backdated payments for destitute asylum seekers from the point at which the Home Office had sufficient evidence to make a decision on their applications for support.
Once the Home Office has granted refugee status, the problems do not disappear. Rather, their support disappears, leaving them with a severe risk of destitution before they have a chance to receive appropriate payments from their Local Authority. This removal of support means that refugees are impeded from being able to rebuild their lives and to start working. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees released a ground-breaking report on this issue earlier this year.
The Refugee Action report adds strong evidence to the view that a needlessly hostile environment is being applied to those who could contribute significantly more if they received sufficient support in good time. The current state of affairs, the report shows, often bars asylum seekers from the stability they need to rebuild their lives.