Fifty asylum seekers describe their lives in a new report published last week by the charity, the Migrants Resource Centre.
Two of the asylum seekers in the group have tried to commit suicide, an indication of the wretched experiences most have endured. These include foraging in rubbish bins for food and a disabled asylum seeker forced to use a bed pan because she cannot get to the toilet.
The survey, Seeking Asylum, is small and does not claim to be representative of all asylum seekers but puts details of their daily lives on record.
The disabled asylum seeker cannot get her wheelchair into the bathroom, so uses a bed pan and could not shower properly for three years. Another disabled woman spends most of the time in her room, as she cannot climb the stairs without help.
Poverty Ten participants receive no financial support, and rely on charities, churches, friends and working illegally. Twenty three get cash (varies between £10 and £38 a week) and 17 live on vouchers (valued between £20 and £35 a week, exchangeable for food at specific supermarkets).
Responding to the report, a Home Office spokesperson told Community Care: “The level of financial assistance paid to adult asylum seekers supported directly by the National Asylum Support Service is set at 70 per cent of the relevant income support rate. The same level of grant is paid for the entire time that the asylum claim is under consideration. All asylum seekers supported by NASS receive all their financial assistance in cash.
“Unsuccessful asylum seekers in receipt of support from NASS will receive vouchers (£35 per person per week) to enable the purchase of food and other essential items.”
Accommodation The majority of participants lived in NASS accommodation. Six were in B&Bs, 13 in shared flats, 14 in hostels, eight in shared houses, five with friends, four destitute or sleeping in churches.
Five described their accommodation as good and seven as average. Seventeen did not wish to comment, and the rest called their living quarters poor and very bad.
“Many” spend “too long” indoors, due to lack of money, the report says.
A “large number” of participants reported “dirty” accommodation “infested with mice and cockroaches”. Some who complained about vermin did not have their concerns taken seriously.
One was told, “London is full of mice and insects, this is normal,” and “maybe you brought the mice and insects in your luggage with you”.
One asylum seeker, who had no cooking utensils, and relied heavily on cereal and sandwiches, told the manager of her accommodation that mice ate her dinner. The manager laughed and said, “Can you take a picture next time?”
Poor furnishing, poor or no heating, lukewarm or cold water, bed bugs and damp are all reported.
One asylum seeker‘s room and bed was flooded from a leak in the ceiling next to the light bulb. She spent the night standing up. Her mattress did not dry out enough to sleep on for a few days. Another did not have her bed sheets changed for four months.
Housing provider staff were described as “rude and racist” by “many”.
Many participants felt unsafe in their accommodation and neighbourhoods.
Female victims of sexual violence were not happy with mixed sex accommodation. One was raped and sexually assaulted three times by another resident, before he was moved away.
The Home Office spokesperson said: “We are concerned to learn that some asylum seekers were unhappy with the standard of their accommodation. All accommodation contracted to NASS is expected to meet strict specified criteria. Performance measures are in place which require providers to rectify faults within agreed timescales.
“Where a fault is so serious as to make the accommodation uninhabitable, alternative accommodation must be provided while the defect is repaired. Asylum seekers concerned about their accommodation should contact the provider in the first instance, although NASS will investigate any complaints made directly to it.”
Food Money for food is hard to find for the asylum seekers in the survey. “Most” participants shop for the “cheapest food even if it is past its sell-by date”.
Some go to fast food shops like KFC to look for overnight left over food. One asylum seeker sold most of her clothes in a Sunday market to buy a carton of milk and a box of cereal. Another ate biscuits from a rubbish bin.
Someone else said that he and many of the people he knows sell food vouchers for less than their value to buy essentials, such as bus fares to the supermarket that accepts vouchers, as it is far from the hostel.
The Home Office said: “NASS has worked hard with accommodation providers to ensure that any difficulties experienced by individual asylum seekers in purchasing non food items are resolved.”
Asylum seekers provided with meals at their accommodation instead of money described the quantity and quality as “poor.”
Attitudes When asked about attitudes towards asylum seekers, health and education staff, plus solicitors and charity workers received the highest rating for being helpful. Thirty seven out of 50 participants described Home Office staff as “unhelpful, rude or racist” and “most” felt the same about housing staff.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Any incidents of racism or unfair treatment will not be tolerated and all allegations of such treatment will be fully investigated.
“If any allegation is proven appropriate action will be taken.”
Immigration status Waiting a long time for a decision about their status distresses asylum seekers in the survey. Sixteen have waited three years. Three people have waited for six years, one for seven and another for 10 years.
Right to work Asylum seekers are not allowed to work but the majority say the right to work would improve their lives.
Many of the group are trying to improve their situation. Learning English and voluntary work are popular activities. Many have professions and worry that being out of work for too long will damage their skills.
Seven described their English as fluent, 22 as good, the remainder as average or poor.
Thirty six male and 14 female asylum seekers (nine have children) took part in the research during 2005 and early 2006 and were selected randomly. Countries of origin included Algeria, Iraq, Libya, Turkey, Zimbabwe, and many more, from 19 countries in total. When asked why they left, “all participants mentioned war and persecution on political, ethnic, religious, and other grounds,” according to the report.
All live in London and many are service users of the Migrants Resource Centre, which works with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, providing legal advice, education and training.
The report was produced by the Refugee Media Action Group, a Migrants Resource Centre project encouraging refugees and asylum seekers to counter negative reporting of their situation.
Seeking Asylum is the first report from the group.
It recommends that asylum seekers should be given the right to work; the right to a decent standard of living; and the right to a speedy resolution to their status.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of their asylum claims, surely these modest demands are not too much to ask for in Britain in the 21st century?
Download Seeking Asylum report http://www.migrantsresourcecentre.org.uk/Reports.php