Asylum-seekers 'are left to starve' in Britain

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The Independent Online

Thousands of people are forced to spend years living in abject poverty on the streets of Britain's cities after fleeing persecution in their own countries, an independent asylum inquiry has heard. The destitute have no access to help from the state as they have not been granted asylum, yet they prefer to stay in Britain rather than return home because they fear of being tortured or killed.

Senior lawyers, doctors and immigration officials even claim such destitution is, in effect, now being used by the Government as policy, in an attempt to force desperate people out of the country.

There are at least 280,000 people living in poverty in Britain after having their leave to remain refused. Some of them are appealing those decisions. Some just go completely underground, taking their chances on the streets of the UK with no money or shelter.

Living on the margins, these outcasts have been "failed" by the place where they thought they would be safe, the inquiry was told. Many sleep rough; few have access to the healthcare that UN legislation says they have a right to. Sir John Waite, a former High Court judge and chair of the Independent Asylum Commission that will report to the Government next year, said: "I think it's a serious omission that we haven't looked earlier at this very pressing problem. There is a significant element of the population subsisting while awaiting hearings or asylum claims, especially after rejection. And some of them are suffering serious hardship either because they don't understand the system or because the system fails them."

The Commission met last week in Manchester to hear evidence from immigration experts as well as direct testimonies from those who had experienced the struggle of surviving in the UK first-hand. They described the extremes of poverty they suffered while living in fear of returning to their countries of origin.

In an impassioned plea to the Commission, Iranian Afshin Azizian, whose asylum case is still undecided after 12 years, said: "Thousands and thousands of asylum seekers have been made destitute. I ask those in the Home Office to think, if you were to spend one day in my shoes how would you like to be treated? We never had much of a voice until recently. If you don't have a piece of paper from the Home Office you're not considered human. How can you call yourselves civilised?"

The 36-year old, who was beaten by Revolutionary Guards in Iran, fled after his activist friends were brutally tortured by the regime. Until recently he was sleeping rough, before finding sanctuary in a monastery. Sleeping everywhere from laundrettes to parks, he said that his living conditions had been better in Iran. "I was not poor in Iran – I did not come here for your money but I was seeking refuge. I would never have believed that one day I would be starving for food, and I would never have imagined that people would get this kind of treatment in this country. We're human beings. You signed the [European] Convention on Human Rights: do you not respect your own signature?"

Financial support is cut off after 21 days for those without children whose asylum case has been rejected. Immigration experts have called this a "deliberate tool" to rush people out of the country, often before enough evidence has been collated to ensure the safety of their return.

Sandy Buchan, chief executive of Refugee Action, condemned the country's treatment of failed asylum seekers: "It seems the Government is using destitution as an instrument of policy. It's no accident. It's very much a deliberate tool of government. It's morally unacceptable to force people into utter destitution, and the most desperate and degrading circumstances when people are frightened of what awaits them when they return home.

"Destitution is an unworkable policy that has completely failed to deliver on its objectives," he added. "It means the Government loses contact with asylum seekers. Each day they are destitute, the chances of return become more remote."

Ruth Heatley, an immigration solicitor, said that part of the problem was in the phasing out of Exceptional Leave to Remain, a policy that used to grant temporary residency to those whose safety in their home country was still in question. In 2002, one in four initial asylum cases was granted this temporary permission; by 2005 this had been reduced to just one in ten.

"This is wrong and inhumane, and the policy doesn't work: people would rather face destitution than persecution," she said.

Dr Angela Burnett, who was at the hearing representing Medact, which campaigns to improve health worldwide, said healthcare provision for many asylum seekers was so poor that it broke UN conventions.

"Torture survivors are being denied access to healthcare due to an inability to pay. This contravenes the UN Convention Against Torture, ratified by the UK, which obliges states to provide as full a rehabilitation as possible to torture survivors," she said, adding that thedifficulty of understanding a labyrinthine set of regulations meant that even those eligible for healthcare missed out.

"The complexity of the current and proposed rules means that some people who do have full entitlement to free healthcare, such as people who have active asylum claims, have erroneously been excluded or charged."

The Independent Asylum Commission is conducting a nationwide review of the UK asylum system and will present a report to the Government in 2008. Last week's hearing in Manchester, was the sixth of seven nationwide hearings and was specifically aimed at tackling the issue of poverty amongst asylum seekers and refugees.

Mary Namkussa: 'It was like being an animal'

Mary Namkussa fled Uganda after she was raped and beaten by soldiers hunting for rebels. Her brother-in-law had been a rebel, but she had not known.

After months of being held captive and repeatedly raped by soldiers, the 40-year-old mother of two was released and pushed out of a car on to the road. She tried to resume life as normal in the pharmacy she owned with her husband, but her home was raided and her husband disappeared.

When she escaped to England in 2003, her Home Office interview was delayed as she was being operated on for internal injuries caused by being raped. Her solicitor asked the GP for a medical report, but he never sent it, and the Home Office refused her entry. At an appeal hearing in 2005 she had a medical report, but again she was denied asylum. She was left homeless and penniless, and for two and a half years she has survived on Red Cross food parcels.

"It is difficult for me to put into words how I feel about being destitute," she said. "I think living the life of a destitute person is like living like an animal, not a human being."

"If I was returned I'm sure I would be targeted. Who will help me? I'm not a public figure or significant, so no one from the West would help me if I was imprisoned. I would like to be able to work so that I can do something instead of just roaming or sitting still. I used to work, I am not disabled, I am an educated and hard-working woman. I can use my brain.

"I think about my children, my family and my position every day, and every day I cry."

Ibrahim Zukrya: 'I was harassed and abused'

Ibrahim Zukrya was captured and tortured in prison after photographing a bomb site in Darfur. The 47-year-old teacher, who had already been in trouble for encouraging his students to be politically active, was tied upside-down and beaten as he was questioned. He escaped during a prison transfer, when his van had an accident in the jungle. After a trek by camel through the deserts of Chad and Libya, he found someone who transferred him by ship and lorry to the UK in 2003. His application for asylum was refused, and after an appeal was turned down he was told to return to the Sudan. Mr Zukrya preferred destitution to being returned "to be killed by my enemies". He slept rough. "Drunk people would come up to me and harass me with racist comments. The only organisation I could get aid from was the Red Cross, who used to give me a parcel of food and £5." Finally, after being imprisoned at a detention centre for two days, he found a new solicitor to represent him, and was granted asylum in September last year.

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