A small charity described as “an absolute lifeline” has raised concerns about its ability to respond to a growing “invisible epidemic” of refugee destitution.
Refugee Survival Trust – which provides emergency grants to asylum seekers and refugees when their support has been stopped – is raising the alarm after distributing more than £100,000 of destitution payments in 2017.
Refugee charities and campaigners across Glasgow – still the only Scottish city where asylum seekers are housed under Home Office contracts – echoed its fears.
The British Red Cross claimed that seeing people “feeling hopeless and suicidal” as a result of destitution was a now a “routine occurrence”, while Positive Action in Housing, which also helps destitute refugees and migrants, said its own most recent figures were “shockingly high”.
According to new figures Refugee Survival Trust paid out a total of £112,737.85 to refugees and asylum seekers in crisis in 2017.
RST said it also received high numbers of applications from refugees from Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Pakistan.
It is the first year in the charity’s 21-year history that payments have topped the £100k mark. The average grant given out is about £80 and stipulations are strict. It is intended as an emergency one-off payment.
RST Coordinator Zoe Holliday said: “This is a huge figure, particularly given the small size of our grants. We are a tiny charity with less than four full time staff members and we are very concerned about our ability to continue to meet demand if applications for our grants remain at the current level.”
Refugees can find themselves destitute due to administrative delays and errors at all stages of the asylum process, and sometimes have to fight to prove their eligibility.
After all appeals have been refused the Home Office insists people should return home and declares them to have no recourse to public funds (NRPF). However many people claim their lives would be in danger, if they were to return.
Holliday also raised concerns about the high number of children supported by the grants, an average of 41 every month since July 2017, despite legislation that should ensure protection both by the asylum system and the Children Scotland Act.
One refugee family who applied for help had been told it would take 26 weeks to process their claim for child benefit.
Holliday also highlighted the rise in grants required to pay for travel to Liverpool – as since 2015 those wishing to submit fresh claims or further submissions must travel there. The Home Office does not provide travel expenses even to those who are destitute.
“In an age when information sharing is so incredibly easy, it is absolutely crazy that we are putting people through this journey, which is at best inconvenient and expensive and at worst dangerous and psychologically damaging,” Holliday said.
She claimed that the government had done “a great PR job” of celebrating the successful resettlement of Syrian refugees, supported through the UNHCR’s Vulnerable Persons Resettlement programme.
The Scottish Government has housed 2000 Syrian refugees across the country since 2015. They are granted refugee status and given leave to remain in the UK for five years.
However, for an estimated 3,500 asylum seekers housed in Glasgow – whose claims are processed while in the UK – Holliday claimed the experience was “bureaucratic, unpredictable and profoundly upsetting”.
Meanwhile, Positive Action in Housing said it distributed £30,969 in crisis grants from October to December last year. with families with children making up 28 per cent of its destitution caseload.
Its Room for Refugees hosting programme is currently providing free temporary shelter to about 70 families or individuals. The charity also provided several rooms to homeless families.
Director Robina Qureshi said: “The [UK] Government appears to be ripping support away when people are fast tracked into refusal, leaving people in a kind of shock as to what to do next. The stress is unimaginable.”
She claimed charities were being left to “pick up the pieces” of the failing asylum policy. “This seems to be the growing trend of government,” Quereshi said.
She added: “to leave the basic humanitarian needs to be provided by charity and faith groups and ordinary citizens.
“We have been charged with the care of very vulnerable groups – children, older people with suspected dementia on the verge of street destitution, [people who are] mentally ill and those who have been trafficked.”
Jillian McBride, Refugee Services operations manager for British Red Cross, said that many people it worked with, relied on hosting schemes, night shelters or ended up on the streets.
The charity, which is due to release new figures next week, last year said it helped almost 15,000 destitute refugees across the UK.
“Since 2014 we have seen a worsening crisis in Scotland, which increasing numbers of people presenting in our office homeless and or hungry,” she said.
In April 2014 a face-to-face support and advocacy service, run by Scottish Refugee Council and funded by the Home Office, was replaced by a UK phone line run by Migrant Help on a reduced grant from for the UK Government department.
McBride added: “Sadly, seeing people who feeling hopeless and suicidal has become a routine occurrence within our services and we’ve had to have all of our staff and volunteers trained in suicide intervention skills.”
Scottish Refugee Council said it was also dealing with upsetting cases. It recently saw a family with two children who had had no asylum support for six months although they were eligible for it.
SRC claims it also helps families with children over 18, at which point asylum support stops leaving them in crisis.
Destitution is designed into the UK ‘s asylum system. It is a cruel, punitive policy that absolutely wrecks people’s lives. Pauline Diamond Salim, Scottish Refugee Council
“Organisations like Refugee Survival Trust and Positive Action in Housing are an absolute lifeline when there are no other options,” said media officer Pauline Diamond Salim.
“Destitution is designed into the UK ‘s asylum system. It is a cruel, punitive policy that absolutely wrecks people’s lives. It is completely unnecessary and inhumane to force people into exploitative and dangerous situations. The UK Government uses destitution – and the threat of destitution – as a central element of its hostile environment policy.”
Alison Thewliss SNP MP for Glasgow Central said her office regularly dealt with individuals and families in the asylum system who were destitute as well as those surviving on just £5 per day. She has campaigned for asylum seekers to be allowed to work while their claims are processed, which can take months or even years.
“It is real cause for alarm that the Refugee Survival Trust (RST) has issued a record-breaking number of destitution grants in 2017,” she added.
“The assistance being provided by charities and organisations such as the Refugee Survival Trust is invaluable, but at the same time, the need for such third party intervention clearly illustrates the inadequacy of support on offer from the UK Government”.
Bruce Adamson, Children and Young People’s Commissioner stressed that children had the right to be protected from poverty and destitution.
“Children of asylum seekers and those with insecure immigration status are amongst the most vulnerable in our society, particularly where financial support is withheld from their parents by the State,” he added.
“Councils have legal obligations to act in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights. All public bodies must properly and fully assess the child’s rights and wellbeing when considering the extent of their legal duties to provide support.”
A HMRC spokesperson said that though the majority of claims for child benefit were processed quickly delays sometimes occurred where further information was required.
“We aim to process all child benefit claims as quickly as possible and have processes in place to deal with claims from individuals with refugee status,” he added.
A spokeswoman for the Home Office said support was offered while people’s asylum claims were processed if they would otherwise be destitute.
“If an asylum seeker is granted refugee status or humanitarian protection they have immediate and unrestricted access to the labour market and many mainstream benefits,” she added.
“Failed asylum seekers are expected to return to their home country, but if there is a genuine obstacle to the return can apply for continuing support from the Home Office.”
Photo credit: Glasgow at night | CC | Stuart Mckiggan | https://flic.kr/p/HJzTBX