We thought we were safe, but we’re not

Flores Sukula is only 19 years old but feels like a mother to her two sisters and three brothers. She and her family are asylum seekers and have lived in Bolton for three years after fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo. They were forced to leave after their mother was badly beaten by militia who were looking for her husband. He had already left the country after threats were made against him because of his political activism.

Flores feels like a parent because her mother has become depressed since her claim for asylum was finally rejected in September. “She cries all the time and wants to be left alone.”

Since the claim failed, things have worsened for the Sukula family, as all of their benefits have been withdrawn. Under section nine of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatments of Claimants etc) Act 2004, asylum-seeking families whose claims have been rejected, and who have failed to take reasonable steps to leave the UK, can lose their welfare allowances, regardless of whether or not they have children. Without benefits, the government believes, failed asylum seekers will have no choice but to return to their countries of origin.

But so far, the Sukulas are standing firm. Bolton Council has not evicted them and charities are providing them with tinned food. But it is not enough. Flores says that one of the worst things is when her younger brothers and sisters, aged between nine months and seven years, cry for food that is not available. “It is hard because my family wasn’t like this in the past, we were happy. We thought we were safe when we came here but we are not.”

A teacher at the school that 16-year-old Daniel Sukula attended, Jason Travis, is leading a campaign to help the Sukula family stay in the country. As Flores speaks English, she plays an active role in this. She says it is the one thing that is keeping the family going: “It is our last chance and it helps that people in Bolton are supporting us.”

The use of section nine to withdraw benefits to asylum-seeking families began as a pilot project in December last year in parts of London, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire, and has so far affected 116 families – and 219 children.

Nancy Kelley, head of UK and international policy at the Refugee Council and previously principal policy officer at Barnardo’s, has examined its impact in these areas in a new report.(1)

She says that the most startling fact was that 35 of the 116 families are now not in contact with services. She says this is a very worrying statistic. “Section nine is making people very scared – they are scared enough to leave their accommodation.”

This fear among asylum seekers is something that Emma Ginn, the north west co-ordinator of the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigners, is familiar with.

She says that asylum seekers already live in fear of being returned to dangerous situations, and that section nine just adds to their distress. “The threat of being made homeless and destitute is making everything worse for these families,” she says. Ginn knows of two families who have been evicted from their homes and others who are still in their council accommodation, even though they receive no benefits. “It is a lottery as to how a local authority responds when the National Asylum Support Service withdraws its support under section nine because they all do it differently.”

The withdrawal of financial benefits and the prospect of destitution also has a detrimental effect on children’s welfare. Flores told a meeting in parliament last week that Destin, her seven-year-old brother, has been reported as being distant at school. “They thought he was ill but now they think it’s stress and he has special needs.” 

Patricia Durr, parliamentary adviser to the Children’s Society and chair of the Refugee Children’s Consortium lobby group, says: “It affects children’s school attendance, their ability to study and take exams and their friendships.” She also says that asylum-seeking families who disappear no longer obtain good health care.

One of the biggest problems highlighted by the Barnardo’s research is how section nine conflicts with section 17 of the Children Act 1989, which places a duty on local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area. In theory, a local authority could be required to take the children of a destitute asylum-seeking family into care, while the parents are deported, in accordance with its duties under the Children Act.

As yet, no local authority has been forced to go to such extremes, which is a relief to those practitioners involved. As Ginn says, doing so would go against the principles, training and practice of social work. Nushra Mapstone, British Association of Social Workers professional officer for England, agrees: “Most social workers I speak to are adamant they do not want to implement section nine and some have said they would rather resign than do this.”

But anecdotal evidence suggests that some social workers are warning failed asylum seekers that their children may have to be taken into care because it is the only way the family will get social services support.

Such is the difficulty of adhering to asylum legislation and child welfare legislation that some local authorities are delaying making a decision about withdrawing all welfare support from families. In places this has led to lengthy meetings and budgetary problems, when resources continue to be needed to support the families.

The Association of Directors of Social Services says that it has “serious concerns” about using section nine to withdraw accommodation and support from failed asylum-seeking families in an effort to get them to leave the UK. The Local Government Association is also concerned about how councils should respond and emphasises that it wants to work with the government to find a solution to the dilemma. Its refugee and asylum task group has discussed section nine and a spokesperson says that the LGA “will be expressing its concerns” at a meeting with the immigration minister Tony McNulty at the end of November.

The government is expected to evaluate the section nine pilots early next year, before making a decision on whether to roll the policy out across the UK. Many social workers, charities and vulnerable families are desperately hoping that ministers experience a change of heart.

(1)  The End of the Road, Barnardo’s, November 2005

For more information on the Sukula campaign contact 07976 476181.

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