Road to nowhere
New rules mean failed asylum seekers must travel to Liverpool if they wish to submit fresh evidence to support a new claim. But for most, the journey they most need to make is the one they can least afford. Emily Twinch reports.
When Heather* arrived in England in 2003 she had endured years of unimaginable suffering. She had been raped and tortured and her husband murdered in their native Zimbabwe because of their criticism of president Robert Mugabe’s regime.
Now the 52-year-old faces another ordeal in her fight to remain in the UK. Changes to immigration rules mean failed asylum seekers, like Heather, must travel to the Further Submissions Unit in Liverpool to make a new submission if they have fresh evidence that could back their claim.
The rule, which came into force on 14 October last year, has enraged asylum charities and has led to accusations that its only purpose is to make claiming asylum even more difficult. The change affects asylum seekers who made claims before March 2007, when the government altered the way it processed claims. But campaigners say there is a substantial backlog in the system which means thousands of failed asylum seekers now scattered across the UK could face problems.
Prior to the change, applications could be submitted by post. Since 14 October, 350 failed asylum seekers have made further submissions. If their case is re-opened, they can claim section four support to fund their accommodation.
However, the Home Office does not pay for travel to Liverpool or accommodation in the city, leaving people like Heather struggling to get there.
So how are destitute asylum seekers, unable to work and without any access to funding, able to make the journey? And what has the impact been on the homelessness and asylum charities struggling to help them?
Heather borrowed money to get a bus from London to Liverpool when she got an appointment on 3 November - staying overnight in a cheap B&B miles from the city centre. Having completed her 20 minute interview she is now waiting for a decision.
‘When you are a failed asylum seeker, who cares about you? What’s the point of me going there and coming home empty-handed without a decision? I have suffered enough. I have already been tortured,’ she states with tears in her eyes.
Heather is not alone. David*, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, fled to the UK after his mother was murdered because of her Rwandan origin. Until July last year he received support from social services because of mental and physical health problems. When his claim for asylum failed, however, this support stopped. Since then David has slept on the streets of Birmingham and, when he can, in a night shelter.
‘A house, a house, please’, he repeats.
David had an appointment on 5 January at the Liverpool centre but when Inside Housing spoke to him he had no idea how he would get there.
‘I am looking for help,’ he said. ‘I will go because I need a house.’
This help often comes in the form of charities such as Asylum Support & Immigration Resource Team. Edin Hromadzic, co-ordinator of destitution services at ASIRT, says the voluntary sector has been left to deal with the consequences of the rule change.
‘They [the Home Office] expect him [David] to get up to Liverpool but don’t provide him any money for travel. He doesn’t have any money - he is rough sleeping.’
The problem is starting to attract attention. In December Clare Short, MP for Birmingham Ladywood and former secretary of state for international development, was so concerned she secured an adjournment debate to ‘plead with the government to reconsider the disgraceful arrangements’.
‘It is impossible to explain these changes without concluding that the ending of postal applications is simply designed to make it more difficult to make an application,’ she said in the debate. ‘This will inevitably increase destitution and homelessness among this very vulnerable group of people.’
Louise Zanre, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, confirms two-thirds of the 120 people that came through its doors last year were destitute. The service has decided to pay for people making submissions to get to Liverpool - it has already sent two people.
‘It’s another drain on limited resources,’ she says. ‘Those that are even more vulnerable are those who don’t have any link with charities.’
Lisa Nandy, policy adviser at the Children’s Society says many families are sleeping on people’s floors, squatting or sleeping rough. ‘There’s no way the families we work with could get on a train or bus to Liverpool,’ she says.
The effect the rule change would have on children is something that Donna Covey, chief executive of the Refugee Council, says she feels the government did not fully consider.
‘The whole thing seems nothing more than a blatant attempt to make the asylum system even more inaccessible,’ she states.
But Matthew Coats, head of immigration group at the UK Border Agency, insists the UK operates a ‘firm, fair and efficient asylum system’.
‘This [system] allows us to maintain contact with applicants, minimise the risk of fraud and, where we decide that the further information submitted does not amount to a fresh claim, ensure their return as soon as possible through voluntary or enforced measures,’ he adds.
Unless the rules change, people will continue to struggle to get to Liverpool to state their case, leaving them to face homelessness and the voluntary sector to pick up the pieces.
* Names have been changed
In figures: asylum decisions since the October rule change
Number of initial asylum decisions made in the third quarter of 2009
Number of further submissions made by failed asylum seekers since the rule change on 14 October 2009
79 per cent
Proportion of initial claims made in the third quarter of 2009 that were refused
Source: the Refugee Council and Home Office