A day in the life of an asylum seeker
By Amy Taylor
Last Thursday Tony Blair praised asylum seekers and refugees’ contribution to society in a speech made as part of Refugee Week (15-22 June). Amy Taylor talks to Ahmed Bedawi, an asylum seeker from Iraq, about the realities of his day-to-day life in the UK. Ahmed is a member of the Refugee Media Action Group, a project at the charity the Migrants Resource Centre in London which encourages asylum seekers and refugees to counter negative reporting of their situation.
What does an average day consist of for you?
It is difficult for me to describe my average day as I have problems sleeping. I stay up till 5 am every day, unless I take a sleeping pill, because of stress and worries about my situation. The future looks very bleak to me. I am usually up by 9am. I spend most of the day indoors, because I do not have any money to spend. I am not allowed to work, and I only receive vouchers exchangeable for food only. I try to read all the time, but I am unable to concentrate for too long. I spend most of the day thinking about my situation. I am worried about my family back home, and very concerned about their safety. I am worried they might face the same fate as my mother and sister who were killed in a revenge attack.
Even if I go outside my accommodation for a walk, I am reminded of all my miseries. There is a cemetery in front of my house, and another one behind it.
The only day I go out is when I collect my vouchers and go to get my food, when I go to see my doctor, and when I come to the Migrants Resource Centre to attend the meeting of the Refugee Media Action Group (once a month). I also leave my accommodation once a month when I need to report to the immigration office.
Life is not easy for an asylum seeker. You are not allowed to work, even though you are a professional with years of experience, you are not entitled for support all the time, you are forced into poverty, you just sit and wait not knowing what is going to happen to you, you do not have anything to look up to.
Do you receive financial support from the government and if so is it adequate?
At the moment I receive vouchers exchangeable for food only, from one supermarket. The value of the weekly voucher is £35. I do not get any cash, not even for travel expenses for when I go to the immigration reporting centre to sign, which I must do, or when I go to the supermarket that accepts the vouchers to get my food. The supermarket (Somerfield) is far from my accommodation, and I need to take two buses to get there. It is not possible to walk all the way from Somerfiled with my shopping back to the accommodation. I sell some of the vouchers for less than half of their value, so I can pay for the bus fare which means I have less to spend on food. I can not afford to buy any clothing, or other essential items. I can not even buy the food I like from another shop because I can only use the vouchers at one specific supermarket, which is more expensive than the nearby market or other shops. I have been living on vouchers for a year and two months now. Before that I spent a year and a half destitute and moving between friends, not entitled for any support, and totally relying on friends, charities and the church. I have not bought any clothing for over three years. All my clothes are donated by charities.
So my answer to your question is no. the support is not adequate at all. But this is not important. We, asylum seekers, do not want benefits. What we want is the right to work and support ourselves. Giving us the right to work will also make us feel like human beings again and a useful member of the society.
Are you forced to undertake any cost-saving activities?
I can not afford any activity. Due to my financial situation, I feel like a handcuffed person.
What do you think of the levels of financial support provided to asylum seekers in general?
As I explained earlier, the level of support is very poor and leads to hardship. What makes it harder is that asylum seekers are not permitted to work and support themselves. David Blunket described the vouchers when he was Home Secretary as ‘humiliating’. I do not understand why vouchers were brought back. People are able now to identify asylum seekers from the vouchers and this is leading to mistreatment of asylum seekers by some members of the public.
What is your accommodation like?
I live in NASS (National Asylum Support Service) accommodation. I share a three bedroom house with four other asylum seekers. We all share one kitchen and one bathroom. The condition is acceptable.
How are you treated by the general public?
Once people know I am an asylum seeker from Iraq, they do not want anything to do with me.
How are you treated by professionals working with you?
Most of the housing staff are unsupportive and unhelpful to me. The sales people working at the tills at the supermarket where I use my vouchers makes me feel very uncomfortable when I hand over the vouchers. The Home Office staff are normal with me. My GP is nice to me. My solicitor is very helpful and supportive. People working in charities and the church are very helpful.
How long have you been waiting to hear about the results of your asylum claim and how is this waiting affecting you?
I arrived to the UK in November 2002, and attended the Home Office initial interview the following month. I am still waiting now to hear about my case. When I arrived to the UK, I was offered accommodation and financial support (£38 a week) for a year. Then all the support was withdrawn, due to confusion amongst different departments within the Home Office. I have received a letter from NASS to inform me that I am no longer entitled for any support because my application for asylum has been refused. It also stated that I should receive a letter from Home Office within two days to confirm this. However, neither my solicitor nor I received any letter from the Home Office. I still do not know why I was refused asylum, if I was, and if I could not launch an appeal, since I did not receive the refusal letter. I ended up destitute for a year and a half with no support entitlement. When my solicitor contacted the Home Office public enquiry line to inquire about my case, he was told that my asylum application was still currently under consideration. They also confirmed to my solicitor that no letter had been sent to me at the time. We have written to the Home Office, and we are still awaiting to hear from them. I should not have been thrown to the streets for a year and a half for their confusion. Now I am back on NASS support since April 2005, under section 4, which is not really for people like me. What helped me to get back NASS support is a Home Office decision to support Iraqis who are unable to go back to Iraq.
The waiting and all the troubles I have been through, caused me anxiety and depression. I am unable to sleep properly at night without sleeping pills. I am unable to concentrate for too long. My mental health has been badly affected. I had to undergo counselling to help me control my anger. I keep asking myself why did all this happen to me? What is my crime? And why am I treated like this? I came here looking for protection and hope. I ended up very depressed with no hope. The asylum process destroyed my life and made my future very bleak. The waiting made me feel trapped and useless. I am a mechanical engineer with years of experience, yet I am sitting and waiting for a number of years unable to support myself.