The fate of failed asylum seekers

Lindsay Stronge & John Robb 8 October 2007

Vilified by certain sections of the British press, asylum seekers are among the most vulnerable people in the country. Yet we’re not going to write about the plight of the relatively small proportion granted asylum. They are likely to face loneliness and isolation whilst subsisting on £40 per week until they are legally allowed to work but, believe it or not, they’re the lucky ones.

Almost 75% of applicants are refused asylum and their outlook is much bleaker. From the moment a person (and that’s a word which is far too seldom used in relation to asylum seekers) is refused asylum in Britain their right to financial support, accommodation and healthcare is taken away. It is illegal for them to work to earn money. The expectation is that most will leave the country immediately. Many, for medical reasons or lack of documentation, cannot; some, owing to what they have previously suffered, simply will not.

It is morally reprehensible and it is government policy. This situation will only be changed if a new campaign called ‘Still Human, Still Here’ is successful. Backed by many different organisations, the campaign aims to have the UK Borders Bill of 2007 amended, in order to grant refused asylum seekers the right to work and access support, accommodation and healthcare until they leave the UK.

The government’s logic is beguilingly simple: either someone is protected as a refugee, or they have no need of protection and should return home. If they choose not to, they are no object of concern for the UK, except insofar as they may be forcibly removed or assisted to return voluntarily.

Try telling this to Louisa, 45, kidnapped in Zimbabwe for handing out leaflets for the opposition MDC party. Destitution isn’t going to convince her that she does not risk being killed if she returns to Zimbabwe, and so she has spent over a year living with her twin sister, having to beg every penny for her clothes, food and medication.Now her brother-in-law wants her out, and she is also afraid that she may be detained and returned forcibly at any moment. “My sister is putting her marriage at risk letting me stay here. But even if I wanted to go home I would be killed. Either way you can’t win. You are not allowed to be here. You are not allowed to be there. You are nowhere.”

There are about 280,000 people in Louisa’s position, living a hand-to-mouth existence and trapped in a legal limbo which strips from them their dignity and any sense of purpose or future. Mental illness in these conditions is common. Two forms of income remain: prostitution and dangerous illegal work for gang masters.

In theory, refused asylum seekers can apply for statutory support known as ‘section 4 support’, but fewer than 2% actually qualify, and even then, it usually takes months before the £35 per week of vouchers arrive.

The government’s logic of distinguishing between ‘genuine’ or ‘false’ refugees misses the fact that there are many people who don’t fit into the legal definition of ‘refugee’ but would suffer grave risk if returned, or who have failed to qualify for protection because of the notoriously unfair and unpredictable UK asylum process. It also misses the fact that it is not physically possible for some asylum seekers to return. The Home Office hasn’t been able to remove a single Eritrean since 2004 because that country won’t recognise travel documents issued by the UK. Yet the Home Office still refuses to extend temporary leave to remain to hundreds of Eritreans affected.

It is hard to imagine the UK government dealing with any other category of person present in our country by depriving them of a legal status or any subsistence, and hoping that they will be forced to leave so as to no longer pose a problem. It is a mark of how far the dehumanisation process has gone when this seems acceptable to the government.

Lindsay Stronge & John Robb

Lindsay Stronge and John Robb are members of Student Action for Refugees