How much money do you spend each week? No – how much do you spend every fortnight?
Would £15 cover it?
At our centre in Wapping, we try to respond to the needs of refugee friends by offering various practical, legal and casework support, alongside a host of refugee activities aimed at creating a sense of community, learning new & fun skills, and passing time in a safe space.
I’m in charge of the practical support we offer from our centre, which includes the JRS Shop where friends can pick up essential food & toiletries, access to phone credit, and bi-weekly top-ups of £15 to refugee friends.
“I can make my own choices”
Every two weeks, refugee friends supported by JRS are given a £15 hardship grant on their “Equals card”. This is a card that works like a bank or a debit card. Many asylum seekers are prohibited from accessing financial services such as bank accounts, so an Equals card is a way we can provide secure access to money without determining or limiting how it should be spent, which would be the case if we provided vouchers and coupons, for example.
As one refugee friend put it: “Sometimes charities give vouchers for specific shops – which I do appreciate – but sometimes I need to travel to reach a branch of that shop, which costs money in itself. Sometimes the shop is expensive and I know I’d be able to get things cheaper elsewhere.”
This system means that refugee friends can directly buy the things they need, from spaces that are accessible, making better, more resourceful choices suitable to them. This means that limited funds – we know these payments aren’t enough – can go even further.
“I can budget better”
One refugee friend told me: “Having the cash available on a card means that I can make my own choices – I can shop around. I can budget better.”
The Equals card has features similar to a debit card. In addition to providing some security and convenience (think back to peak Covid times, when many shops weren’t taking cash payments – many still don’t), there is an app which friends can use to view transactions and budget accordingly. The Equals cards can thus provide a sense of control and agency for refugee friends, even it is small.
We’ve found too that Equals provides an easy transition for asylum seekers when they are granted refugee status and can open bank accounts, as they have already had experiences of using and managing bank cards.
So, what is the money used for?
We don’t place any conditions on the money we distribute, nor do we ask refugee friends to report to us how they use it. We do have some idea on main areas of spend from what refugee friends have shared with us when we collected feedback on our switch to using Equals cards.
One refugee friend told me: “Receiving the £15 bi-weekly payment has been extremely valuable. With the bi-weekly payments, I am able to use the money to do the laundry and travel to places and appointments without the need of asking others for funds. For some, receiving the bi-weekly payments might not be sufficient, but for me, it is useful as I have no other financial recourse and it gives me a sense of financial empowerment.”
Though we provide other assistance at our centre, the money is still essential to meeting basic needs. For example, our JRS Shop has basic pantry items, but we might not always have certain cultural or dietary foods which refugee friends require. The Equals cards are also used to pay for travel, to the JRS centre and to other appointments.
These bi-weekly hardship grants thus allow those we support to develop human and social capital, enabling access to travel to see friends, or to attend college or religious or cultural events/communities. I’ve often heard that it is “a good rule of thumb” to have at least three months’ outgoings accessible as savings. These £15 payments definitely don’t provide that, but they do hopefully give a bit of cushion to afford last minute emergency situations, such as urgent and unexpected medical or legal appointments.
Is the money enough?
For some refugee friends, £15 hardship grants fortnightly may be adequate alongside other support from JRS and other organisations. However, some of those we serve receive financial support only from JRS, which means they are very stretched. With the recent increases in the cost of living, our support is stretched even thinner for refugee friends.
Though the money isn’t enough, what we are able to contribute is valued by refugee friends. In the words of one refugee friend: “Lots of people need money… what can I do? We can do nothing. They give you something, you have to appreciate it.”
We will continue to support refugee friends in all the ways we can, including these fortnightly payments. In its small, inadequate way, we hope it hands back to those we accompany some choice and financial freedom, as well as making accessible essential goods and travel. We can’t do this without your help, and I would like to say thank you for all your generosity in helping us to walk with refugees.