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British Red Cross and Refugee Survival Trust report considers destitution in the asylum system and how to prevent it


In-depth research on destitution among asylum seekers in the UK, with a particular focus on Scotland

Date of Publication:
18 October 2021

British Red Cross and Refugee Survival Trust report considers destitution in the asylum system and how to prevent it

18 October 2021

New from the British Red Cross and the Refugee Survival Trust last week is an in-depth report looking at destitution in the UK asylum system, especially in Scotland, and how to prevent it.

Report coverThe 108-page report, How will we survive? Steps to preventing destitution in the asylum system, can be downloaded here.

Research for the report was commissioned by the Destitute Asylum Seeker Service (DASS), which provides needs-based support across a range of areas, including accommodation, casework, and legal advice.

The report's authors explained: "[T]he main aim of this research is to explore what steps need to be taken so that destitution can be prevented among people seeking asylum in the UK, with a particular focus on Scotland."

Researchers carried out interviews with 26 people who have lived experience of the UK asylum system and interviews with 8 practitioners who support people within the asylum system in a variety of capacities. In addition, a survey was conducted of over 130 people with lived experience of the UK asylum system in order to generate a broader picture of people's experiences of destitution and financial hardship.

Overall, the British Red Cross and the Refugee Survival Trust found: "It is clear that parts of the system are not working. Home Office-provided asylum support is insufficient to ensure people can meet their basic needs; organisations working to help people lack the necessary funding; mental health services are strained and often unavailable; and the information and assistance given to those in the asylum system is often inadequate or not straightforward to access. Taken individually and collectively, these factors can eventually lead to destitution. And yet with no right to work, no right to a bank account, and no real financial independence, people in the asylum system have little option but to become dependent on the limited support available. This dependency, which is built into the asylum system, is a significant source of unhappiness, with people desperate but unable to contribute to the society that is protecting them."

The report's key findings are as follows:

  • The first six months of a person's time in the UK asylum system is one of the most difficult periods.
  • Experiences of destitution are widespread among people seeking asylum, resulting from complex Home Office processes, long waiting times, poor decision making and inadequate asylum support.
  • Being moved multiple times between different types of Home Office accommodation, with little or no explanation or notice, erodes people's networks and makes them more vulnerable to destitution.
  • Good quality advice and advocacy, including interpreters and legal support, are paramount if people are to navigate the asylum system, understand rights, get support, and be in a stronger position when facing destitution.
  • One connection or person can be enough to turn an individual's situation around and prevent them from becoming destitute. The voluntary and community sector is where people often turn for their essential needs, though the sector can sometimes seem over-stretched, and there is some lack of clarity about support and eligibility.
  • Being able to develop social connections and support networks, and to contribute to society, are essential to building resilience, meaning that people are better able to navigate the asylum process and to deal with the threat of destitution.

Many of those interviewed and surveyed for the report said that, as a result of destitution and financial hardship, they live hand-to-mouth and are often forced to make difficult choices between basic essentials such as food or transport.

The report states: "Many of those we spoke to had used foodbanks or got vouchers to see them through to their next support payment. Others thought that destitution was an ever-present threat, and were anxious they would experience it at some point, having seen it happen to many others they had met who were seeking asylum."

Mental health was found to be the most common concern among those who had experienced destitution during their time in the asylum system: "Every interviewee spoke about the impact of being destitute or experiencing regular financial hardship on their mental health and wellbeing. As a result of struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis, all said that they experienced high levels of stress, as well as a lack of dignity, control and sense of agency."

Issues around legal aid and legal representation and are also considered in the report (see, in particular, from page 56).

The report notes the importance of asylum seekers having access to quality legal advice and advocacy, to help them navigate immigration and asylum systems and make informed decisions about their future. The British Red Cross and the Refugee Survival Trust said: "In our research, we have also seen the impact on people when this is lacking, including delayed progression of a person's claim, a breakdown in trust and disengagement with the asylum process. Not only can delays mean a person is trapped in the cycle of poverty that so often accompanies the asylum-seeking process, but this can also affect their resilience, meaning they may feel they have fewer places to turn for help, or are less likely to do so. Access to good quality legal representation is fundamental to the progression of a person's asylum claim. Choosing legal representation was an issue that came up throughout the research, with participants describing the need for better support, more guidance about choosing their legal support, and more information about what to expect from their solicitor and their right to change solicitor."

The report makes a number of recommendations, including calling on the Home Office to:

  • establish the right to work for people waiting for a decision on their asylum claim.
  • provide an initial cash grant to people entering the asylum support system so they have start-up support to purchase clothing, phones and other essential items.
  • improve and speed up asylum decision-making so people aren't stuck in limbo facing destitution as they wait for months, and even years, for a decision.

Esther Muchena, services manager at the Scottish Refugee Council, said: "The report makes welcome recommendations on how we can bring an end to destitution, in Scotland and in the asylum system more widely. It builds on the excellent work of many refugee and housing rights charities, notably in the Roof Coalition and Fair Way Scotland. We need to see these latest recommendations be implemented as part of the existing Ending Destitution Together strategy as part of a coherent approach to ending destitution in Scotland. Peer support works best when it is underpinned by stable accommodation, good legal and professional holistic advocacy."