Canon of Westminster highlights plight of destitute asylum seekers

Canon Nicholas Sagovsky talks to Amy Taylor about how his week living on £10 was an insight into the difficulties faced by destitute asylum seekers

It has been called one of the most perfect buildings ever erected in England, and the gothic archways, fan vaulted roof and polished marble of Westminster Abbey cannot fail to impress.

But behind this grand exterior lies a history of providing sanctuary to those who need it most. Between 1216 and 1272, during the reign of the abbey’s creator, Henry III, as many as 300 people flocked to the abbey every day to receive food alongside its royal and other distinguished visitors.

Today the abbey is taking on a similar role thanks to its canon Nicholas Sagovsky and his work with destitute asylum seekers. In a bid to highlight the issue last month, Sagovsky lived off food equivalent to that provided in Red Cross parcels and £5 for a week to gain some insight into what life is like for those not eligible for support.

The canon is a commissioner of the Independent Asylum Commission, a non-political body which has just finished conducting a two-year review of the UK asylum system, and his exercise marked the commission’s publication of its third and final report of recommendations. This found destitution to be widespread among refused asylum seekers and criticised the government for doing little to acknowledge the issue or to analyse the reasons behind it.

Bolshevik revolution

Sagovsky has a strong affiliation with asylum seekers and refugees, because his grandfather received asylum when his family were forced to flee Russia during the Bolshevik revolution. He also has a history of working for asylum seekers and refugees, chairing an organisation that supported a multi-ethnic, democratic Bosnia in the 1990s.

“I met refugees who had been in a concentration camp in Europe in the 1990s and I was profoundly shocked. I never thought I would meet concentration camp survivors in Europe in my lifetime,” he says.

In 2001-2 he helped out for two months in the chaplaincy at Oakington Immigration Reception Centre, Cambridgeshire. At this time, around 86,000 asylum seekers were coming into the country each year, compared with about 25,000 now. Sagovsky says the system was unable to cope.

Many of these were made up of asylum seekers from Zimbabwe fleeing Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwean African National Union-Patriotic Front government. His work at Oakington left a lasting impression and he decided to call on some of the Zimbabweans he had met there. On doing so, he found most were destitute because they had been refused asylum, because the government had deemed the country safe to return to.

Food parcels

Sagovsky is well aware that his experiment was very different to the experiences faced by refused asylum seekers who live off food parcels week in week out, but he still sees it as valuable.

“I know that I am too weak-willed to do it without going rather public. It seems to me a kind of pathetic gesture for a week, but it’s a gesture of solidarity.”

The canon assembled his food parcel using guidance from the charity Church Action on Poverty. As a fish-eating vegetarian, he expected to be living off pilchards and biscuits, but this was not the case because neither made economic sense. Instead he opted for pasta, pasta sauce, baked beans, tinned spaghetti, spread, bran flakes with raisins, bread, UHT milk, and tea. This was supplemented with some oranges, apples, potatoes, eggs and rolls later in the week.

He spent the whole of his £5 food allowance and says that this represents 10% of the amount he would normally spend on food for the same period.

“You have to be so careful. I got guidance on what you could buy for £5 and then I went to Sainsbury’s for about an hour going backwards and forwards looking at their range of basics. Once in the supermarket, you are very conscious of the abundance of choice if you have got money, but the stuff that is really cheap is on the bottom shelf or the top shelf.”

He says he was pleasantly surprised with the meals he was able to create within his allowance, but acknowledges that, over a longer period, they would have become monotonous. Breakfast consisted of cereal or toast, culminating in eggs on toast at the weekend, washed down with tea, and lunch was mainly made up of baked beans or tinned spaghetti on toast and egg rolls.

Black pepper

As the week progressed, Sagovsky explains how he became more skilled at making the most of his ingredients. Whereas his first dinner was simply pasta with sauce, later on he began to make it tastier by using black pepper, oil, mixed herbs and an onion. He also branched away from pasta, purchasing some potatoes and frying them with some beans and eggs.

“Fruit, vegetables and coffee are some of the main things that went. I had lots of carbohydrate but little protein. I also charged myself 20p a day for toiletries, but if I had actually taken account of the real cost, I would have gone way over budget.”

Like anyone facing a week with no chocolate or other luxuries, Sagovsky had feared he would become tired and moody, but this wasn’t as bad as he expected.

“I was surprised that I have slept quite well, because I have been full of carbohydrates. I haven’t really felt more tired it’s been a very busy couple of months, so I had been pretty tired anyway,” he says.

Mental deterioration

He is sure his busy schedule – the week covered by the exercise included trips to Glasgow to launch the commission’s dignity report, a visit to the Zimbabwean High Commission and the Abbey Choir School’s fête – helped to keep his mind off his hunger, and that help from others, such as with transport, was key.

He is keen to highlight that, for refused asylum seekers who are banned from working, the reality is very different, and long, empty days can lead to their mental deterioration. Although largely able to ignore his hunger, Sagovsky did have one difficult encounter: “I’d been aware of falling to bits inside and needing calories, when I was coming back from Glasgow on the train, sitting opposite this guy who munched his way through sandwiches and pork pies,” he says.

He faced a further dilemma when a voucher entitled him to travel the journey in the first-class compartment and he couldn’t resist the free biscuits on offer.

On reflection, Sagovsky says that while he could get by on £10 a week with help from friends, the isolation and stress of living such a frugal existence got to him. He is also highly aware of the privileges he had while carrying out the exercise which refused asylum seekers would not enjoy.

“You can’t give anything away. There can be no generosities and, in a way, that changes the way that you look at things because it’s always survival.

“Hunger is not sexy it’s private and it makes you see the world differently. I’m glad it’s over, but it’s been a positive experience.”

Spend on food: £5. Extras: £4.22

Published in the 7 August edition of Community Care under the heading Food for Thought

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