The Home Office must be held to account for the hardship it has caused asylum seekers, left without food or money for weeks due to failures with their payment cards, according to the chair of Scotland’s poverty and inequality commission.
Bill Scott, chair of a commission which advises the Scottish Government, has written to Priti Patel, Home Secretary, claiming it is “not acceptable” for the Home Office to “wash its hands” of mistakes which have seen asylum seekers – including children and pregnant women – left without money for food and other essentials.
Problems with the Aspen payment card – used to provide people in the asylum system with financial support worth £39.63 per week – started on 24 May.
Thousands of new cards – supposed to be sent out as part of a contract transfer – failed to arrive, leaving people stranded. Some cards did not work while new pin numbers and limits on withdrawals were not explained and instructions sent in English only.
Three weeks later problems are ongoing. The Ferret spoke to asylum seeking families – including pregnant women – who have still not received their new cards, or are struggling to access cash points because the cards are not working.
Home office inaction
Though the Home Office is issuing emergency cash support through housing providers for people who have not received cards, Scott said help was still not reaching everyone.
In recent weeks asylum seekers in Scotland have been left reliant on charities including Positive Action in Housing, which provided hundreds of food parcels within days. Grassroots organisation Migrants Organising Rights and Empowerment (MORE) also provided emergency cash to allow people with nothing to buy what they needed.
Following a meeting with asylum seekers affected, Scott has written to the Home Office calling for it to “intervene swiftly and directly” to provide additional resources, ensuring asylum seekers have cash and charities are not left out of pocket.
The Home Office must also pay for additional staff to answer Home Office contracted helplines from Migrant Help, he added. Asylum seekers reported they have been unable to get through to the charity. Some were left on hold for hours at a time, leaving them with nowhere to turn.
Scott wrote in his letter: “We do not think it is acceptable that the Home Office seems to have washed its hands of responsibility for dealing with this issue.
He added: “That people may sometimes be forced to seek asylum does not reduce their humanity nor their rights. It should, if anything, increase the urgency with which states seek to meet those rights. We are asking you to use your office to uphold and champion those rights and to resolve this emergency quickly.”
Scott told The Ferret he was “appalled” that financial support provided to asylum seekers was “about half” of that provided to those receiving income support.
“But when the system breaks down completely like this is it is just beyond shocking,” he added. “It’s a total lack of care. If this was happening to UK citizens someone would be held to account in Parliament. Ultimately the Home Secretary is responsible.
“Let’s hope it’s cock-up rather than conspiracy. If this is just a huge mistake by the Home Office it should be held to account. But it should also have put in place a the additional resources needed. They are completely callous about the level of hardship they have caused.”
The Ferret has also seen a letter sent by Shona Robison, Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities of Scotland, to Home Secretary Priti Patel. Robison asks Patel to account for what went wrong and to explain what lessons will be learned.
Robison wrote that while she understands housing provider Mears Group has been dispersing emergency cash payments, she “remains concerned that these cash payments are not reaching people fast enough. Robison adds: “People are increasingly stressed by the uncertainly of when this will be resolved.”
Last week The Ferret heard from families about the suffering the situation had caused.
They included a mother with four children who had her own business in her home country. She is not allowed to work since arriving in the UK to seek asylum. She said: “Nobody likes to beg. I cry often thinking about how I can have found myself in this situation. So this problem with the Aspen card triggered my mental health. It made me feel as if I was in a cage.”
Her card is now working but new rules mean she cannot withdraw a full week’s worth of financial support for her family at once, due to new limits implemented. She says it means she cannot buy in bulk, which allowed her to make the money go further.
Another woman, who is eight months pregnant and living at Mears mother and baby unit in Glasgow, said it had taken three weeks to receive a new Aspen card, which then did not work. Three other mothers at unit had not recieved cards, she said.
In the first week without support she was unable to make her hospital appointment for a scan because she had no cash, and was reliant on food parcels from Positive Action.
After a week she was given cash payments via Mears but found the lack of certainty stressful and upsetting.
“I’m trying to stay calm and relaxed because my midwife has told me it’s but that’s very difficult,” she added.
Another mother of four said: “When you don’t have food and you have children you can’t think of any other thing. I feel so sad seeing my children go through this. I had to tell them because I didn’t have any money to give them for the bus to school so my son had to walk, nearly an hour from our house.”
Yvonne Blake, of grassroots organisation MORE, said the situation was a continuation of the hostile environment, which was racialised and treated asylum seekers as “lesser”.
She added: “It’s a constant dehumanisation and a constant chipping away at the self esteem of both parents and children. How can the state leave children to be hungry for two weeks and not be accountable?”
The Home Office claimed the “vast majority” of people have now received working cards.
A spokesperson said: “We are aware that a small number of asylum seekers are still facing difficulties using their cards. We are supporting them with emergency cash payments and vouchers, and are issuing replacement cards where required.
“Migrant Help remain available to respond to queries from asylum seekers and anyone experiencing issues can contact the 24/7 hotline.”
Cover image thanks to iStock