Asylum seekers’ experiences of social services

Asylum seekers often complain that social services are not receptive to their cause. Rowenna Davis reports on obstacles faced by social workers and on organisations that help

I never met Janifer Maseko. The 20-year-old mother of two was forced to cancel two interviews to deal with social services. It’s a familiar struggle. Since she arrived from Uganda seven years ago, Maseko has been entitled to statutory support, but has consistently been denied it.

Maseko was 13 when she arrived in the UK. Having managed to escape rape and persecution by armed rebels in Uganda, she turned up alone at Heathrow airport clutching little more than a passport. As an unaccompanied minor, she should have been entitled to statutory support. But despite legal proof of her age, she was only granted benefits for two years. Her pledges for appeal were refused, and she was left with no choice but to sleep on the streets with her one-year-old baby. When she contacted the council, a social services manager shouted at her that she was an illegal immigrant, and that they weren’t going to help her.

“They (social services) treat her like an animal,” says Cristel Amiss, a member of the Black Women’s Rape Action Project (BWRAP) based at the Crossroads Women’s Centre in Kentish Town, north London. She explains how this group helps Maseko and other female asylum seekers fight for their statutory entitlements. “What we see in this centre are the cases that would otherwise be invisible,” Amiss says. “These women are discriminated against and shouted at by social workers, but they are dependent on them for support. They’re perceived as scroungers, but they’re forced here because of persecution in their own countries.”

Resist deportation

For two years BWRAP has been helping Maseko resist deportation, escape incarceration and fight for her right to stay in the UK. Now granted indefinite leave to remain, Maseko has been given the accommodation to which she was always entitled, but how long this will last is unknown.

Maseko’s case is not exceptional. The experiences of the women BWRAP help suggest that social workers are failing to give this user group the support to which they are entitled. In some cases this is the result of discrimination. In others, it is down to a lack of time and training. The system of entitlements for asylum seekers is a quagmire of complications, thickened by a set of rules that keep on changing in response to tabloid headlines and political pressures.

Asylum seekers who have been through different abuses have different entitlements, and different levels of migration status come with different levels of support. In such an environment, social workers find it difficult to give people the help they deserve.

Massive stress

Josephine*, who fled Burundi and also sought support from Crossroads Women’s Centre, says: “Most of the social workers I dealt with didn’t know anything about asylum seekers. They kept saying ‘we don’t know how this applies to your case’. They gave me money for one child but not the other; they give some people without status help and not others. It causes massive stress – my mental health deteriorated. If I didn’t have a lawyer, I don’t know what I’d do.”

After being denied accommodation by her local council, Josephine lived with her baby on a friend’s living room floor for a year. It was only after she was given legal aid to make her case that a judge ruled that she was entitled to accommodation of her own.

So asylum seekers end up with a raw deal either because social workers don’t know the system or, where they do, are prevented from fulfilling their duty to ­protect this group because of a system beyond their control. If the best outcome for a child is legally prohibited, there is nothing any social worker can do to change the situation.

Apartheid system of services

“Social workers are operating in an apartheid system of benefits, healthcare, education and housing created by the government,” Amiss says. “This sends a message that asylum seekers’ lives don’t count. In order to ensure they get what asylum seekers are entitled to, social workers need to act independently and go against the prevailing tide. Few rise to the challenge.”

Rose* fled Uganda in 2002 after being raped and persecuted. A small woman, she sits in front of me relating her experiences almost in a whisper, playing nervously with her rings as she talks. After her asylum claim was rejected, Rose’s National Asylum Support Service support was cut off and she found herself pregnant and on the streets.

“I slept on overnight buses and in front of houses for over a month,” she says. “By that time I was not myself. I was traumatised because of being raped and so depressed I wasn’t eating. I found a builder’s rope and started looking for a place I could hang myself with the baby. I wanted to hurt myself. I pulled the rope tight, and passed out.”

Psychiatric hospital

She woke up in a psychiatric hospital. Aware that her status wouldn’t entitle her to benefits, the doctors kept her in the hospital until she gave birth. However, when her physical condition left her too weak to breastfeed, they said there was nothing more they could do; Rose’s status meant she was not entitled to milk on the ward.

When social services arrived at the hospital, Rose was encouraged. They said they were there to safeguard her son – she had after all just made a suicide attempt – and that he had a right to stay in the UK and receive support. But Rose did not. With no legal status, no financial entitlement, no right to work and no accommodation, she was in no position to look after her child and he was taken away. Explaining her predicament to me, she breaks down.

“I appreciated their help for my son, but they didn’t help me to look after him. If they gave the money to me (rather than his foster parents) I could have looked after him. But they were very strict – they didn’t help me get anything sorted out, they just said I had to go back to my country and that was it. It was like they wanted me to be deported.”

Today, Rose still does not have custody of her son and is waiting to hear whether she can remain in the UK.

* Names have been changed

  •  For advice or information, contact Black Women’s Rape Action Project phone 020 7482 2496 or e-mail the project


‘In most cases social services are responsible’

Sarah Cutler, head of policy and public affairs at the Refugee Council, explains the asylum support system.

“It was set up in 1999 to exclude adult asylum seekers from mainstream benefits and services. They are accommodated and supported primarily by the Home Office through the UK Border Agency (UKBA), and are not entitled to benefits or mainstream council housing.

“If an asylum seeker has special needs that are not caused by destitution – if they are disabled, very elderly, are suffering from a serious illness such as HIV/Aids or have mental health needs – they can apply for a community care assessment and accommodation under section 21 of the National Assistance Act 1948 from a local authority, who may then provide housing and services for them.

Nursery provision and free school meals

“Families may also be entitled to certain services, such as nursery provision, social work and free school meals. Local authorities are also responsible for the care of unaccompanied children seeking asylum. Funding towards the cost is provided by the Home Office but these children are generally entitled to care provision in the same way as British children are.

“All asylum seekers are eligible to be assessed for this kind of council support, regardless of whether they are awaiting a decision on their claim, or if their claim has been refused.

“Although there is sometimes disagreement between the UKBA and social services as to who should take responsibility for supporting adult asylum seekers with special needs, in most cases social services are responsible.”

This article is published in the 4 June 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “Excluded from help”

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