Thousands are living destitute in Leeds
Destitution (n) 1. extreme want of resources or the means of subsistence, complete poverty
2. a deprivation or lack, a deficiency
There is a hidden, largely unreported population in British society which survives on less than a dollar a day – the yardstick that defines acute and unacceptable poverty across the globe. These people are rejected asylum seekers who have ‘chosen’ to live in destitution because they fear that their lives will be in danger if they return to their home countries.
The section of the Home Office responsible for asylum seekers, the UK Border Agency (UKBA) does not put an exact figure on this population but estimates range from 300,000 to 500,000. These ‘failed’ applicants are given 21 days, known as the ‘move-on’ period before financial, legal and health aid is severed. Without a home, thousands of people have taken to living under the radar in Britain, enduring severe poverty, extreme hunger, mental and physical ill health and multiple forms of abuse. Amnesty International believe this to be a deliberate tactic to rush people out of the country. Even the House of Lords deemed that by ‘refusing permission for asylum seekers to work and operating a system of support which results in widespread destitution, the Governments treatment of asylum seekers in a number of cases reaches Article 3 ECHP threshold of inhuman and degrading treatment’.
A recent report published by PAFRAS, a charity that works with asylum seekers and refuges in Leeds revealed over half of the people it works with survive on one meal a day and less than £5 a week. Severe depression is widespread and many have experienced racial and physical abuse (including rape) by ‘white English people.’ Crucially, 95% of the people PAFRAS speak to are from affluent professional backgrounds including lawyers, teachers and television presenters. So the question must be asked, why would they choose to remain here and suffer such neglect and privation?
According to the Refugee Council, half of all recorded destitution cases come from only four countries, Iraq, Iran, Zimbabwe and Eritrea – all places of conflict or that have human rights records. Many were forced to flee these countries because they dared speak out against oppressive regimes in countries where opposing the government leads to detention, torture and sometimes death. Yet despite the government arguing it has ‘a proud tradition of offering a place of safety for genuine refugees’, many people from these troubled countries continually find their application rejected. But in the case facing many Zimbabweans, legal action currently prevents the government from removing refused asylum seekers back to the country and therefore many have little choice but to slip off the radar.
In contrast to popular opinion, the UK does not receive the most asylum seeker applications in Europe; last year both France and Italy took higher numbers. There are 10.6 million refugees in the world and 90% live in Africa and Asia. In 2006, only 23,610 people claimed asylum and up to two-thirds of these were refused – asylum was just 4% of overall immigration in 2007. Those who do it make to the UK have done so through people smugglers, often paying $10,000 to get passage to a safe country. Their socio-economic status then in their home country debunks the myth that asylum seekers are poverty-stricken individuals whose primary aim when in the UK is to claim benefit and secure council housing.
The destitute asylum seeker population is invisible, it statistically does not exist. But the human stories are there to be discovered. PAFRAS has seen demand for its services (free meals, toiletries, clothes, support and advice) rise from 2,230 visits in 2006 to 6,112 in 2008. Much of the help received by asylum seekers is provided by other impoverished asylum seekers but who are on Section 4 Support – £35 supermarket vouchers a week and no choice accommodation). As one put it, ”It’s left to those of us with almost nothing to support those with absolutely nothing.” This leaves many homeless, starving and open to exploitation and racist attacks.
Thirty-five percent of the women in the PAFRAS report who have no choice put to sleep on the street claim they had been sexually assaulted. One woman was attacked by a gang of five men while she was sleeping in a park – two of these men raping her. Another man was racially abused and stabbed in the eye with a piece of broken glass. But, the vast majority of attacks go unreported as failed asylum seekers are fearful of the police liaising with immigration officials to expedite their removal from the UK.
Jon Burnett of PAFRAS perhaps offers the best possible summary when he states ‘the fact that so many people who have escaped persecution are suffering such extreme privations is nothing short of a completely avoidable humanitarian disaster in our own backyard’.