Words by Karin Goodwin, photography by Angela Catlin.
SAFE in her baby chair, six-week-old Shasmeen Irshad opens her eyes wide as her 17-month-old brother, Sufiyaan, toddles across the room and engulfs her in that half hug-rugby tackle that makes all new parents simultaneously swell with love and reach rapidly to intervene.
Their father and mother – Mohamed Farook and Fathima Irshad – laugh and prise them gently apart.
This family unit is important. The rest of their loved ones live hundreds of miles away in Sri Lanka, a country Farook claims he fled after he was detained and tortured by authorities.
For now they have a roof over their heads while they gather evidence for a new claim. But after spending many years destitute and homeless they know that state support is not always a given.
Their story is complicated: it spills over the neat, narrative borders that asylum stories should supposedly inhabit. Farook arrived on a working holiday visa in 2004 intending to go home as soon as the threat abated.
Instead the situation worsened with Human Rights Watch noting Tamils were being killed at the rate of one a day and other minorities including Muslims such as Farook, also targeted.
“My father advised I shouldn’t come back to Sri Lanka,” he explains. “I didn’t know what to do. Finally I asked for asylum in 2010 because I saw a programme about the Home Office that advised don’t hide away – come forward for support.”
But in the Home Office’s view he could not adequately explain why he did not, as required, claim asylum at the earliest opportunity. His case was refused. He did not return home as advised. “My life is too important to me,” he says simply.
Evicted from their asylum accommodation, he and his wife spent a night under a bridge and then for more than two years moved from house to house offered by fellow Muslims – 15 or 16 they reckon in total, including an unheated shed where they spent several months.
At 4.43 on a chilly January morning in 2016, Sufiyaan was born and a few months later the family moved to Glasgow where someone else could put them up briefly. They lodged another asylum claim, which entitles applicants to Home Office housing, and as they had been asked to leave the flat where they were living looked for accommodation.
“But nobody would help,” says Farook. “I went to the Hamish Allan Centre [Glasgow City Council homeless service], I contacted Migrant Help [contracted by the Home Office to offer asylum advice] – they told me my case was not active though I had a letter from my solicitor.”
On the day before they were due to be evicted they arrived at social work at 5pm and were told “come back tomorrow”.
The next day Irshad, who’d struggled with pain since a caesarean, stayed in the flat. Farook was shocked at the cold reception of the social worker he saw. “Every word that she said burned my heart, he says softly. “The way she spoke to me was like when someone kicks a dog.
“I didn’t want to cry in front of her but I cried a lot. My wife was waiting at home hoping that we would get a house. I crossed the bridge [over the Clyde] and I just wanted to jump.”
Luckily he made it to the Red Cross instead, where they put the family up for the night in a hotel, called social work to explain the dire circumstance and insisted they would return the following day.
“We went at 9am and they didn’t call us until the closing time,” says Irshad. “I had to sit there breastfeeding, we had no food at lunchtime.” A hotel was booked in Ibrox, which they were told was a 15 minute walk away from the Bridgeton office.
An hour later they arrived soaked from the rain and later that night Irshad was in so much pain she was rushed to hospital.
She speaks fast and low. “They gave us two or three days in a hotel and the next day we would have to sit there all day and then we would get another hotel.
They said: “You want a house? Well, we will give a house for your child but not for you. So we have to take your baby away.” Glasgow City Council denies this, claiming it would never separate children and parents unless there were welfare concerns.
At this point the Red Cross took the unusual step of referring the family to Positive Action in Housing’s Room for Refugees scheme and for four months they stayed with host families across the city without support from either the local authority or the Home Office, an experience for which they express huge thanks to both their hosts and the charity.
Their claim was finally processed and they were given Home Office accommodation.
Refugee and migrant destitution is nothing new. It can happen at various stages most commonly when an application for asylum is refused or with no legal right to remain people are judged to have No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF). For most single adults there are few safety nets.
In March the Red Cross said destitute clients in Glasgow had increased from 326 in 2014 to 820 in 2016. From April to July they saw 487 destitute adults, some likely to have child dependents.
The Red Cross maintains that since the Home Office advice contract was given to Migrant Help – who provide telephone rather than face-to-face help – two years ago, the situation is untenable.
“Without a more holistic, face to face approach we are concerned that people, including families, will face unnecessary destitution, “ says refugee integration service manager Jillian McBride.
Migrant Help however claims it has “effective” local partnerships, which “help us all to reach the most vulnerable people”.
But speak to front line caseworkers in Glasgow and they claim what is new is how tough it currently is to get support as a refugee or migrant, even with children involved.
Call it gatekeeping or just a roll-out of Theresa May’s ,’hostile environment,’ delays and refusals of support are growing in number.
Just had a baby?
Just had a baby? Evicted after the death of a family member? Severely disabled? People now need a slew of evidence to send to the Home Office that proves beyond doubt that they’re entitled to support.
The Home Office offered no direct comment on this when approached by the Ferret.
A spokesman instead insisted that asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute were eligible for support from arrival in the UK until a decision on their case was reached.
Those who are refused should leave the UK “at the earliest opportunity” he advised.
Yet claims for support under a raft of circumstances are refused. And it’s necessary to fight the local authority tooth and nail to get help, according to Natalia Farmer, of Asylum Housing Support (ASH) project’s Catch 22 project.
The project was set up last month to help the increasing number of families – Farmer has worked closely with six over the last year – finding themselves destitute despite both UK and Scottish legislation that should prevent it.
Under the Immigration Act the Home Office should make asylum decisions that reflect the best interests of the child, while under Section 22 of The Children (Scotland) Act 1995 the local authority must promote both the welfare of all children, and to that end, their parents.
Despite this, Glasgow City Council is claiming that its hands are tied. It says that while it is “committed to ensuring everyone who contacts us is treated with respect and will do “everything in our power to help them”, it cannot legally offer support to those who are appeal rights exhausted.
A spokeswoman said it was now working with the charities to make “an evidenced case to the UK Government” for powers allowing them to offer assistance to be devolved.
Those supporting migrants and refugees say the legislation is being wrongly interpreted. One recommendation of the Scottish Parliament inquiry into destitution earlier this year was an “urgent review” of the interpretation of Section 22. Months later it seems no progress has been made.
The Asylum Support Partnership believes they may not come into force though others think the UK Government will try to get them through Parliament. But children in Scotland are still ending up destitute.
Refugee Survival Trust, which provides grants for refugees claim that the number of families with children seeking help from them have almost doubled. In the last financial year it gave an average of 33 grants per month to children, up from 19 the year before and eight three years ago.
“It is really concerning to see how many children are being caught up in destitution,” says coordinator Zoe Holliday. “It should not be happening.”
Meanwhile, Positive Action in Housing claims that as well as supporting 998 adult migrants and refugees last year, the charity provides both emergency grants and meets a small but growing number of accommodation requests for those with children.
They have included a mother with a new baby, homeless on leaving hospital, who received neither housing or any financial support from the local authority for many months.
“The asylum system is riddled with bureaucratic delays that prolong the time spent in destitution,” says director Robina Qureshi.
In the southwest of Glasgow, Govan Community Project workers are also fighting frustrations with the system. This week they saw an eight and a half month pregnant mother with four children under six, who had been refused support even after appealing the decision.
They cite tens of cases of those facing long delays for decisions on support, left destitute for weeks and months.
Details shared with The Ferret include those of single mothers required to find swathes of evidence – documents from the banks or former employers in their home countries, and signed statements from friends or contacts who have lent them money or offered a place to stay – within days of the Home Office deadline.
Bizarre and inhumane decisions for refusal given to their community members and service users include a claim by the Home Office that a family should sell a property in the home country they fled, in order to fund their life in the UK.
One woman had her support reduced because her son was bought a laptop as part of an academic scholarship.
In a particularly harrowing case, an African woman was refused a limited form of emergency support – known as Section 4 – after it was ruled that her claim – that she was unable to travel because her children were in foster care in Glasgow – was not valid.
The judge claimed that due to a social work decision not to allow contact visits for a year, it was reasonable for her to return and stay in contact by post.
Significant resources end up going into stopping people from accessing minimal support Owen Fenn, Govan Community Project
Owen Fenn, Govan Community Project manager, describes these Home Office practices as “gatekeeping”. “If you create a feeling that people are coming here to claim benefits then the response is to make it as difficult as possible to claim what they are in fact entitled to,” he says.
“Significant resources end up going into stopping people from accessing very insignificant resources in the form of minimal support. People are being put in an impossible situation, asked to provide information that they can’t possibly provide. It feels like a trap.”
Natalia Farmer of Catch 22 agrees but her frustration is largely directed at social services, which in Glasgow, she claims, are repeatedly failing families entitled to help.
“They [families] are misinformed by social services and are told they are unable to access accommodation and financial support because they have ‘no recourse to public funds’,” she says.
“This has a massive impact, and families are forced at best to rely on networks and community groups, or at worst, find themselves street destitute.”
Proper advocacy is needed she argues, as well as the political will – at national and local level – to afford people their basic human rights.
Farmer adds: “Families have stated they have been told, we can accommodate your child, but not yourself. In addition, families who are able to access support are accommodated in inadequate B&Bs, with no cooking or laundry facilities.”
I didn’t realise someone like me could do that
The former tourist guesthouse where Mercy lives – on the edge of the city centre – is one of those B&Bs. Now weeds grow in the hanging baskets outside and between the cracks of the paving. Inside, the brass plaques on the doors are faded, the peach wallpaper peeling.
Mercy (not her real name) and her secondary school aged daughter, live in the biggest room here. The “antique suite” is just large enough for a single and a double bed, a wardrobe, dresser (holding a neat row of cereal boxes) and a desk and chair.
It feels like an upgrade – she’s been in the B&B for six months and was recently moved from a tiny room upstairs.
It’s hard for her to remember how many places she’s lived in the last decade – the length of time she’s been in the UK since fleeing Nigeria to prevent her daughter becoming victim to female genital mutilation (FGM). Her older daughter died of complications following the procedure at just six-months-old.
“When I had a second child I said I will not let that happen again,” she says. “I fled with my child when she was two years old.” She paid a smuggler and claims she ended up being trafficked, held in a room in London soon after arrival and forced to sleep with men against her will.
After escaping she survived for many years in the underground economy. “I was doing trade by barter,” she explains, “helping families by looking after their kids to get a room with them.”
Later, lawyers and others asked why she didn’t seek asylum. “To be honest I thought it was only politicians that could get asylum,” she admits. “I didn’t realise someone like me could do that.”
She ended up in Glasgow through contact with an African association and put in a human rights claim for leave to remain. Though social work allocated the B&B immediately financial support took some time to follow.
After a couple of weeks she was given £50 to last her and her daughter a fortnight, later it went up to £50 a week. Very recently it has reached a giddy £73.90, more inline with mainstream benefits.
We discuss the daily difficulties of life in a B&B with a child. It’s not an issue that also affects Scottish families. They are protected by legislation that says councils can only accommodate children in B&Bs for a maximum of 14 days.
“Downstairs there is just a microwave and a fridge,” she says. “We’re living off junk food! There is no washing machine. And when it’s time for her to go to bed I have to go to bed too – the light and the TV has to be off so she can sleep.”
Her daughter, who is not entitled to free travel or school meals because of their status, does not want to invite friends over. “Cause, you know, it’s funny isn’t it?” Mercy glances at her ringing phone and pauses. “It’s my lawyer. Can I….?”
With the volume turned up the lawyer’s voice can be heard through the speaker. She makes polite chit-chat before cutting to the chase: “I have some good news.” Leave to remain has been granted.
Mercy’s world seems to speed up and slow down all at once. She slides slowly to the floor, and cries and sobs, the pain and stress of holding it together for so long breaking in overwhelming waves. At last she wipes her eyes.
“You don’t know what I have been through,” she says finally. “I can start living again. My daughter can have a life like other children.”
A few weeks later there’s a text from Farmer. Another family are on the brink of eviction, social work is refusing support and she has spent ten days, on a voluntary basis, advocating for the woman and her baby, while they decide, she claims, if they are “deserving or not”.
“It’s an absolute battlefield,” she says. And there is more bad news. Farook and Irshad’s case has been refused – the appeal date is set for next week.
“All families, regardless of their immigration status need to be treated with respect and dignity,” says Farmer firmly. “No child, no matter what their parents immigration status is, should be street destitute.”
Who would disagree? But the real question remains unanswered: what is being done to ensure that does not happen?