A tough choice
Charities claim the UK asylum system is forcing thousands of refugees to live in destitution on the UK’s streets. Emily Twinch investigates
Khadija was sleeping on the floor of a Birmingham mosque when her application for food and housing support from the state was refused.
The 70-year-old Somali woman had already faced a struggle persuading an immigration judge she was from Somalia at all. After losing an appeal for asylum in the UK she supplied new evidence to the UK Border Agency, including new testimonies to back her story - this is a recognised official process known as making a ‘further submission’. In Khadija’s case the futher submission was also rejected - and her rights to be housed or supported in the UK were all but at an end. In all but a limited set of circumstances, she could not access ‘section 4’ support, the financial and accommodation subsidy given by the UKBA to eligible failed asylum seekers while they appeal against decisions or make active preparations to return home.
Khadija faced a stark choice: return to Somalia where she said she feared persecution as a member of a minority clan, or remain in the UK illegally and sleep rough. Despite her frailty and age, Khadija chose destitution and she is by no means alone.
Though no exact data exists on the number of failed asylum seekers sleeping rough, charities claim thousands like Khadija ‘go to ground’ for a life of ‘sofa surfing’ or on the streets when their further submission applications are rejected.
So how big is the problem and what do charities think should be done to prevent failed asylum seekers adding to the UK’s growing homelessness problem?
Figures obtained by Inside Housing through a freedom of information request reveal for the first time the number of failed asylum seekers making further submissions (see table).
The Home Office data shows 57,136 further submissions were made between the start of 2009 and June this year. Ninety-three per cent of these were either rejected or are apparently awaiting a decision - a process that should only take 15 days - with the latter accounting for 51 per cent of the total. Ninety-six per cent of the 23,550 applications refused were done so with no right to appeal, meaning there is no entitlement to section 4 support unless the rejected applicant proves they are making strenuous efforts to return home. Even then, charities claim some are simply unable to return even if they want to.
‘Our research shows that most refused asylum seekers who find their further submissions rejected do not return to their country of origin either because they cannot as their country of origin will not co-operate with the UK Government, or because they continue to fear for their lives,’ says Gary Christie, head of policy and communications at the Scottish Refugee Council. ‘They end up without access to public funds, hungry and homeless. This is a desperate situation.’
Life on the streets
Unwilling to return home and ineligible for section 4 support, this group of failed asylum seekers face extreme poverty. Charities claim this situation forces thousands of people, some vulnerable like Khadija, to turn to measures such as petty crime and prostitution to survive.
‘We are concerned about evidence that women in this situation are at particular risk of violence due to their precarious circumstances,’ says Judith Dennis, advocacy officer at the Refugee Council in England. ‘The low proportion of further submissions accepted by the UK Border Agency means there are many people in the UK living in destitution as they will not receive even the most basic support at this stage of the asylum process.’
The UK Border Agency insists ‘no one need face destitution if they comply with the law and go home’. A spokesperson states that there is support available while claims and appeals are under consideration, but this ends when ‘the courts have confirmed the individual asylum seeker has no need for protection and no legal right to stay in the UK’.
But charities argue that initial court decisions are not always right, hence ‘further submissions and judicial reviews into cases, and that failed asylum seekers still deserve basic levels of support.
Hugo Tristram, refugee services development officer at the Red Cross, explains that proving refugee status is difficult because the UN Convention definition - which forms the legal definition of a refugee in this country - is narrow, and requires someone to face persecution personally. Someone scared to return to a war zone, for example, would not be considered to have a case for asylum.
Calling for change
Charities including the Red Cross and Scottish Refugee Council want the government to offer support to all asylum seekers until they have left the country or are allowed to remain. Offering this support would not only prevent homelessness but, on the face of it, would also make it easier for the Home Office to keep track of people who would otherwise disappear, thereby making the process of deportation much easier.
‘The Home Office doesn’t know where they are in a lot of cases,’ says Mr Tristram.
The charities also want to see reform of the asylum process. Currently asylum seekers do not receive legal advice before the primary interview on their initial claim. Refugee Action wants the Home Office to provide better legal representation at the early stages of the asylum process, which it says would result in fewer failed asylum seekers applying for further submissions.
Jean-Benoit Louveaux, legal officer at Refugee Action, says: ‘At this late stage of the process, asylum seekers are hugely disadvantaged. There just isn’t the capacity among legal advisors to address each individual case adequately. Even if a solicitor has the time to consider an asylum seekers’ further submissions, they are unlikely to have the inclination given that they are usually not paid enough under legal aid for their time.’
Khadija is one of the lucky ones. A partnership between Birmingham-based charity Asylum Support and Immigration Resource Team and legal advice agency Birmingham Law, helped her launch a judicial review into the rejection of her further submission application and receive section 4 support while the judicial review is ongoing.
But, while Khadija has a roof over her head for now, like thousands of others, she is likely to return to a life on the streets if the courts once again turn down her application to stay in the UK.
[Tables with the figures released to Inside Housing through the freedom of information request to the Home Office, giving country and city breakdowns, attached below].
Further submissions in the UK from 2009 to 2012
|Country||Total further submissions||Submissions accepted||Submissions refused with right to appeal||Submissions refused with no right to appeal|
|*where postcodes do not fit within a local authority area so cannot be matched to England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Source: Home Office|