Disabled and dispersed

Disabled refugees and asylum seekers in Britain face barriers to
service provision that sometimes leave them without the necessities
of life: shelter, personal care, food and social contact. Having
fled persecution in their countries of origin, they can expect
extreme difficulties getting their daily needs met, and receive
little help from overstretched and often ill-informed service
providers. Support arrangements for destitute asylum seekers fail
to cater for disabled people, and hard-pressed local authority
social services departments cannot obtain funding from the Home
Office for assisting asylum seekers who have personal care

Refugees and asylum seekers have already encountered barriers to
their health and safety in their countries of origin. In recent
research, Jennifer Harris and I found that almost a quarter of the
disabled refugees and asylum seekers participating had undergone
extreme experiences such as torture, war and impairment by hostile
forces. This oppression and persecution – on grounds of religion,
politics and disability – forces them to flee. Yet, once in the UK,
they face further barriers to surmount if they are to access social
services, the benefits system and social contact.

The research found that difficulties in obtaining shelter and food,
and concerns over immigration status became refugees’ main
priority. Other pressing needs relating to impairments, personal
care and social contact often took second place.

The picture that emerges from the research is one of poverty,
inadequate and unadapted housing, failure to obtain support from
social services, a lack of financial assistance with
disability-related costs and extreme isolation. Disabled refugees
and asylum seekers lack access to information about social
services, frequently have no way of asking professionals for help
and often face social isolation to an extent that their mental
health is damaged.

Disabled people given emergency accommodation within the National
Asylum Support Service (Nass) system for destitute asylum seekers
fared poorly. Some were forced to rely upon fellow hostel residents
for necessities such as food and water. The voucher system – which
was in operation at the time of the fieldwork – also caused
hardship. Vouchers could be exchanged only at participating stores,
and when the vouchers were issued to disabled people no account was
taken of the distance between these stores and their accommodation.
Some had to illicitly sell their vouchers for money to obtain food
and necessities at nearer shops.

We found that disabled refugees and disabled asylum seekers
experience severe problems with accessing mainstream social
services – despite a series of court rulings confirming that local
authorities retain responsibility for addressing the needs of all
disabled people, irrespective of their immigration status. These
problems result in unmet personal care needs and a lack of aids and
equipment. Most of those interviewed did not know their
entitlements, or how to apply for or obtain a community care

Similarly, social services, even when alerted to needs for personal
care services, aids and equipment, often appear to delay
assessment, as they believe that, by the time the equipment is
provided or the adaptation to a property made, the asylum seeking
applicant will be dispersed to another local authority’s area.
Under these circumstances, people struggle to manage without
necessary support and equipment.

The access difficulties faced by participants in the research were
extreme because of communication problems between service
providers. There is an acute need for improved joint working
between reception assistance organisations, local authority social
services departments and Nass, all of whom should be involved in
providing services to disabled asylum seekers. With few exceptions,
relations between these key agencies seem strained, arising from
unclear policies and procedures, and a lack of named contacts
equipped to handle inquiries about disabled asylum seekers. There
is confusion in and across agencies about responsibilities for
financing community care packages and suitable housing.

In the research, overstretched social services sometimes viewed the
needs of disabled refugees and asylum seekers as less pressing than
those of other disabled people in the locality, while most workers
in reception assistance organisations lacked knowledge about the
disability-related entitlements and needs of refugees and asylum
seekers. So despite legal clarification that local authorities are
responsible for assessing disabled refugees’ and asylum seekers’
need for services, many social services departments still do not
readily acknowledge this when referrals are made by reception
assistance organisations. Where some responsibility is
acknowledged, the referral is likely to be passed to the asylum
seekers team rather than a disability team – further reducing the
likelihood that an adequate assessment of needs related to
impairments will be carried out.

Service providers were critical of the government’s dispersal
policy and its lack of consideration of the needs of disabled
people seeking asylum. The dispersal system causes severe hardship
to disabled applicants, with a lack of thought given to mobility,
travel arrangements to the dispersal site and personal assistance
on and after arrival. In many cases, people were subjected to a
rigid policy decision to disperse them, despite the fact that
allowing them to stay in the South East, or join relatives
elsewhere in the UK, would give them access to both linguistic
support and, most pertinently, informal support with personal care.
Denying the impact of these requirements increases stress upon the
applicants and, ironically, increases costs to service providers
since on arrival at the dispersal site the applicant has no means
of informal support.

In our report, we call upon service providers to consider the needs
of disabled refugees and asylum seekers rather than discounting
them as “someone else’s problem”, and on the government to resolve
financing support arrangements. We also call for training for staff
in service-provider agencies regarding entitlements to service
provisions. A poster of entitlements has been widely distributed,
and it is hoped that this will go some way to redressing this lack
of knowledge in service-provider agencies.

Against an informational vacuum, in which no official statistics
about the prevalence of impairment in refugee and asylum seeking
communities are available, a postal survey of some 300 refugee
community groups and disabled people’s organisations identified
5,312 disabled refugees or asylum seekers known to these

However, we stress the need to start collecting figures on the
extent of disability and chronic illness within the refugee and
asylum-seeking populations since, without accurate and detailed
statistics, it is difficult to argue for targeted service

The research

  • The research on which this article and the full report,
    Disabled People in Refugee and Asylum Seeking Communities, was
    conducted involved a survey of disability organisations, interviews
    with 38 disabled refugees and asylum seekers living in England and
    interviews with 18 service providers.
  • Interviews with refugees and asylum seekers were conducted by
    seven first-language interviewers who were recruited from Somali,
    Vietnamese, Sorani (Kurdish) and Tamil communities through media
    contacts and refugee community groups.

Keri Roberts is a research fellow at the University of
York’s social policy research

unit and
co-author with Jennifer Harris – senior research fellow at the Unit
– of Disabled People in Refugee and Asylum Seeking
, to be published by Joseph Rowntree Foundation
with Policy Press on 17 September.

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