by Tekla Szerszynska
(Names have been changed to protect anonymity)
We spoke to four women, who are asylum seekers based in Greater Manchester, to find out what their experiences of the asylum system have been, and how they feel about the treatment of asylum seekers in this country. All of the women have been living in the UK for a number of years and most of them are awaiting final decisions on their cases which have been significantly delayed. This is the second part of these interviews, read Part One here.
Rose’s story reflects how fear develops. Rose arrived in the UK 8 years ago, fleeing Zimbabwe. She didn’t know about the process of claiming asylum and came to the UK as her daughter’s visitor. It then became clear that if she were to claim asylum on arrival she would be detained because it would contradict her original stated reason for coming. Rose’s daughter tried to help her by applying for Rose to be considered her dependent but she was too young. Rose then applied for asylum and her application was rejected. She found herself with no benefits and no housing – she was destitute. Although the Home Office ruled that Rose was not allowed to work, she could see no other option but to look for a job. She began work as a carer, which she enjoyed, and found that the support she offered was valued highly by her clients. But this work came to an abrupt end when her home was raided by UKBA and she was detained in Bedford detention centre for three months. The raid was terrifying for her. ‘They sent six cars just for me,’ she explains. Since that day, years ago, the clients Rose cared for continue to contact her to plead that she returns as their carer. ‘It is so frustrating but I am too scared to go back’, she tells us. Her treatment in detention was ‘horrific. I’ll never forget that life and that I was a prisoner when I did absolutely nothing. Working in this country is a crime for us’.
She has now been waiting on a response to a fresh claim – a submission of new evidence to support an initially rejected claim – that she submitted two and a half years ago. The other women tell her that she should be eligible to apply for a work permit as she has been waiting over a year. Rose explains that although you can apply, they will only allow you to work in specific, high level areas, such as engineering, medicine and law. You just need to look at the ‘Shortage Occupation List’, which outlines the possible jobs for those who have permission, to see that they exclude huge numbers of people. Rose doesn’t have the skills for these jobs and, what’s more, her education and work experience have been held back by the years she has spent in the asylum system, barred from seeking employment. Most importantly though, whatever Rose’s skills and education, the trauma of the raid and her period in detention along with regular news of other asylum seekers being arrested, detained and even deported without warning, have left her living in fear. Now she has learnt the potential consequences of putting a foot wrong, Rose wouldn’t dare draw attention to herself by trying to navigate a system that has her life in its grip. She can only hope to hold on long enough for some good news; good news which may never come.
So as these women wait to learn their fates, with no idea when or if they will, they are held in a state of limbo; unable to improve their lives by earning a living and in constant fear of being snatched from their own homes. A further limitation on their freedom to improve their situations or exert any control over their day to day lives comes in the shape of the Azure card. The small benefit payment they are provided with, £35 per week for single asylum seekers, is held on this card and can only be spent in specific, large shops. Card users cannot use the card to buy store/gift cards, fuel, tobacco products or alcohol, its cashless format rules out travel costs or school trips and the balance cannot be saved and carried over above five pounds per week. These restrictions are only the beginning. All of the women I speak to have experienced humiliation and rejection when using the card. Shop staff ‘say they don’t know the card. They call the manager in front of a long queue who are all listening. The manager asks me what I’m buying. I may have toiletries, sanitary pads, and sometimes they say I’m not allowed to buy these things. So many times I’ve been refused to buy a cheap five pound pair of shoes.’ Often this is because staff aren’t trained in how the card works and the consequences of this are summed up by Sara – ‘that’s the only money you can use to buy food for the week so you’re stuck.’ What should be a simple shopping trip to meet a basic need – such as groceries or a school uniform – often results in embarrassment and distress. Josie then explained that her card credit has recently been reduced to only £2.43 per month because the Home Office noticed a payment into her bank account from her sister. The payment was to pay for Josie and her son to make a rare visit to their family in the South of England over Christmas. Josie’s son doesn’t even qualify for free school meals because of her asylum status. They are now relying on emergency food parcels from the health visitor.
All of the women we spoke to live in government provided housing which is managed by Serco. They describe cold and damp houses with no lights, broken furniture, and no hot water, shower or heating for extended periods. ‘You would be shocked by the house,’ says Rose. ‘I wish I could take pictures and show the world the house I’m living in.’ She describes her attempts to improve her home – trying to decorate her living room with flowers and a carpet her neighbours didn’t want any more. The manager of the housing told her they had to be removed. There is a sense that these daily struggles have a particularly significant impact, as they demonstrate that the lack of control these women have over their lives even extends to the one place they should be able to feel safe and comfortable. Their requests for repairs and improvement are dealt with slowly and badly, if at all and the management ‘only start acting when you write a letter to the National Asylum Support Service.’ Many of them also feel further isolated by women they share their house with, who often don’t share their religion, language or background, and have experienced racism in their own homes. ‘We are afraid. There are some people who don’t know their rights. Some house managers want to treat people as if they’re in prison.’
The women we spoke to concluded in emphasising that the way asylum seekers are treated in the UK is as though they are being punished for a crime they haven’t committed. They can’t understand why they were given the legal option to claim asylum if this would be the consequence. These women have found vital support in small, local asylum seeker groups and organisations – who they note have been invaluable in helping them when they have had nowhere else to turn, such as when they have been unable to find legal aid, or when they need support to make long journeys to the reporting centre with their children and no travel money. They have also found strength in the solidarity of the asylum seeking community, without which they may not have made it this far. But they know that many other asylum seekers have not been able to access this support; they are hidden and extremely isolated. And ultimately, through each exhausting and humiliating day, they feel that they are fighting a losing battle in which the Home Office and the UKBA are powerful assailants. ‘Some of the people are just regretting that they came to this country – truly speaking, I’m one of them’ says Rose. ‘The whole world should know, don’t ever come to England to seek asylum… the way asylum seekers are treated in England is horrific.’ But these women also want to explain that they don’t just wish to draw attention to the oppression of the asylum system, they want to be recognised as human beings who want to make an active and positive contribution to the society they are living in. ‘We ran away from persecution and we came here to find a safe place, to find shelter, not just to sit,’ Josie explains. ‘We want to help this country, we want to go to work, we want to be normal people and do everything that normal people do. We didn’t come for benefits.’ While they remain under the stifling control of a system which treats them with suspicion, cruelty and condemnation they have no means of controlling the mundane elements of their day to day lives, let alone of improving their circumstances for themselves and their families. ‘If they said ‘go and work on your own’ that would be the best thing – then we’d work for ourselves. This is destroying us – they’re destroying us… Some people think dying is better. The only thing that is keeping me going is the fact that I have a little boy now.’
Manchester No Borders are running an Azure Card Buddy Scheme where volunteers give support to asylum seekers when out shopping, helping with any problems that arise. You can find out more info and sign up here.
“The Azure Card replaced the voucher system for the provision of weekly funds to asylum seekers in the UK. In addition to the tiny amount people are asked to live off with these cards, capped at £35 a week, they greatly restrict both where and on what people can spend their money. They also prevent asylum seekers from saving money and so obtaining even basic essentials as a pair of shoes or a winter coat becomes near impossible. Other problems people report facing with these cards include stigmatisation, including humiliating treatment from cashiers and members of the public, and having their money unfairly reduced by the Home Office without warning. There have also been many reports of the card not working at all and card users have to go home without food. The Azure Card system plays a central role in restricting and destabilising the lives of asylum seekers in the UK.”