A recent report from the British Red Cross is the latest damning evidence that refugees in the UK face utter destitution – even after the government has recognised their need for international protection, acknowledging their refugee status. At JRS UK, we see this time and again. We accompany people who have fled here in fear for their lives and then been forced to do battle with an unjust asylum system that disbelieves and dehumanises them. This can mean years and years of struggle during which one is not allowed to work or claim benefits. Many people cycle between utter destitution, dependent on charities and friends to survive, and life on asylum support equivalent to just £5 a day and very poor accommodation.
We seek to stand with refugees through this struggle. We also share in their joys. And when, finally, a refugee friend gets status, the euphoria is palpable across the staff and volunteer team and among other refugee friends in the day centre. We all rejoice. Here, finally, is freedom from the bonds of an unfair system and the dire poverty that it enforces. Here is a chance to rebuild one’s life. Finally.
But then, they face a further period of destitution. In fact, if they had some form of asylum support directly before their status was acknowledged, their destitution actually deepens.
How on earth does this happen? After all, those acknowledged by the government as refugees are entitled to work, and access the benefit system. The problem is that transferring their details to the Department of Work and Pensions takes a long time, sometimes months. Asylum support, however, cuts out 28 days after refugee status is acknowledged, whether you’ve been transferred or not. Even if the bureaucracy happens relatively quickly, finding a job and somewhere to live takes a very long time for someone emerging from years of enforced unemployment and poverty. Even setting up a bank account into which benefits could be paid can be a complicated and long process. This “move-on” period simply isn’t long enough to allow someone to move on. You find yourself, yet again, in limbo.
Numerous NGOs working with refugees have called for the move-on period to be extended but, disturbingly, recent changes to the benefit system may have made this problem even worse; the Red Cross’s recent report notes that Universal Credit creates additional problems because there is a five-week waiting period to access it. The short move-on period creates a gap, through which numerous vulnerable people fall. Could it be in danger of widening further?
Most of the people JRS UK works with are rendered destitute as a deliberate consequence of government policy to exclude them and place them outside of community. Their humanity is rejected virtually within policy, not as a failure of it. This is not the case with newly recognised refugees (a small constituency among those we work with). The destitution of newly recognised refugees is, in some sense, a bureaucratic failure. The government has acknowledged they need international protection and help and has agreed to provide it – often, as with our refugee friends whose status is acknowledged, all too belatedly. If it is truly serious in this, it must ensure that asylum support remains in place until refugees are actually able to support themselves by another means. Otherwise one must question whether, even at this stage, decision-makers are really regarding refugees through a human lens.
Read our topical briefing on destitution among those seeking asylum