Cut adrift

The New Year did not bring new hope for asylum seekers. On 8
January the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 came into
force and ended their automatic right to access support services.

Under section 55 of the legislation, asylum seekers will only be
eligible for services from the National Asylum Support Service
(Nass) if they can prove they applied for asylum “as soon as
reasonably practicable” after their arrival in the UK. They must
also prove that they meet the criteria for destitution. According
to Home Office minister Beverley Hughes, 700 asylum applicants a
week will no longer be eligible for Nass support as a result of
section 55.

The government claims it is aiming to stop “bogus” asylum seekers
abusing a system designed to help those fleeing persecution. Hughes
says the changes will only hinder illegal immigrants planning to
extend their stay in the UK by falsely claiming asylum and not
those asylum seekers who genuinely need protection and

Section 55 of the act is the subject of a legal challenge and the
government may yet be forced to back down. But if the challenge
fails what impact will section 55 have on asylum seekers? And how
will this affect social services departments?

Refugee campaigners, homelessness charities, human rights
campaigners, and voluntary and statutory agencies working with
asylum seekers are opposed to section 55. All claim it will lead to
more asylum seekers being made destitute because Nass can now
refuse support to those not making a claim within a “reasonably
practicable” time. In-country applicants are also unlikely to
receive Nass support unless they are able to provide tangible
evidence backing up any reasons behind their failure to claim

The main problem is that section 55 does not contain a clear
definition of what period of time is considered “reasonably
practicable”. All too often it is left to individual immigration
officials’ discretion to decide. While some professionals argue it
should be acceptable to apply for asylum within 24 hours of
arriving in the UK, it seems immigration officials are not among
them. Homelessness charity Shelter’s asylum and refugee policy
officer Deborah Garvie says she knows of people whose claims have
been rejected when they have done this. Refugee Council head of
policy Alison Fenney says she is aware of individuals who have been
told they applied too late after they waited two days before making
their claim.

She adds that increasing the number of unsupported asylum seekers
runs counter to the government’s aim of removing failed applicants
more quickly. Fenney says: “If people are not being supported by
Nass then the government will lose contact with them and won’t know
where they are.”

But why would someone not claim asylum the moment they reach the
UK? Garvie says many people are not even aware that this is a
requirement: “They think the fact that they have arrived in the
country makes them a refugee.”

She adds some individuals may still be traumatised by their journey
here: “Some asylum seekers have a real fear of authority because
the countries they have fled are not ones where a person would
willingly go into a government office.”

Asylum seekers refused Nass support are turning to social services
for help under section 21 of the National Assistance Act 1948 and
section 17 of the Children Act 1989, according to Fenney. She says
only adults with special needs children are eligible for services.
Most asylum seekers are in neither category.

Leicester Council corporate director of social care and health
Andrew Cozens says he has “grave reservations” about the impact of
section 55 on asylum seekers. “There is a risk of further excluding
a group of people who are already vulnerable.”

A Lambeth Council spokesperson says the council is worried about
destitute asylum seekers having to sleep rough before they become
social services’ responsibility. He says: “We have some concerns
about the situation for asylum seekers under section 55 and are
waiting to see what happens.”

Other London councils are concerned that they will be forced to use
their social services budgets to pick up the tab for Nass.
Westminster Council social services deputy director Vivienne Lukey
says: “We have been promised time after time that councils will not
have to support asylum seekers, but section 55 is already
generating extra demands on social services departments.”

The borough is one of the capital’s local authorities collating
information on what effect the act is having on demand for social
services on behalf of the London Asylum Seekers Consortium. Jasmine
Ali, the consortium’s project manager, says it has created
templates for all London councils to record how many asylum seekers
with special needs have applied for support, how many unaccompanied
asylum seeker age disputes there are and how many asylum seekers
local authorities have to turn away.

She says: “We are relying on asylum teams, community care teams and
children’s teams to feed back to one person in their local
authority who will then inform us.”

Asylum seekers not eligible for support from Nass or social
services are left with little choice about how they survive. Some
might turn to unlawful activities while their claim is being
assessed. Cozens says unsupported asylum seekers will rely on
refugee community organisations for help if statutory agencies are
unable to. “They’ll have no other means of supporting themselves
and may have no option but to work illegally,” says Cozens.

Garvie agrees, adding that only the more fortunate ones will
receive help from their friends or family already in the country,
as well as charities and concerned voluntary organisations.

Asylum seekers without support are in a tough position, says
Fenney. “The Refugee Council is worried people will be forced into
illegal work or prostitution because they are being pushed to the
edges of society.”

While section 55 remains on the statute book, Garvie advocates
better joint working between social services departments and
voluntary sector agencies as a way of helping asylum seekers access
appropriate support. “If agencies have a clearer idea about who
social services might provide services to then it will be easier
for us to refer people,” she says.

Fenney adds: “The government saw that vouchers did not work and
abolished them. We want it to do the same with section 55.”

Despite the bleak outlook for asylum seekers with no statutory
support, there is a glimmer. Peter Wrench, deputy director general
of policy at the Home Office’s nationality and immigration
directorate, told a Refugee Council conference last month that the
government was aware of professionals’ concerns.

“We are at an early stage of seeing what the practical implications
are of section 55,” he said. “We’ll have to wait and see if there
are any side-effects that the government had not anticipated.” It
will be down to the social care sector to tell the government what
those side-effects are.

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