Conflict and its effect on the UK: Nowhere else to turn

Thousands of failed asylum seekers, cut off from state support and faced with destitution, are calling on the Red Cross

Humanitarian aid might be a phrase most people associate with the aftermath of natural disasters and the consequences of war, but the British Red Cross also carries out humanitarian work in the UK, helping people who are completely destitute get the basic resources they need for survival.

"In the last four years we've become increasingly involved in supporting people who are destitute," says Nick Scott-Flynn, head of refugee services at the British Red Cross. "This is the result of a change in the law in 2003 that made it harder for people to get support if their asylum claim was rejected."

"Essentially, when the law changed it meant that there were lots of asylum seekers whose asylum claims were rejected, who were then cut off from state support but who weren't allowed to work. These are the people that we call destitute asylum seekers. Most of these people felt unable to return to their countries because they still feared persecution. Increasing numbers of people presented themselves at the offices of the British Red Cross and other organisations seeking help. We felt able to respond because we were being presented with a clear humanitarian need, not very different from the many instances of need we respond to all over the world in our international work.

"Now we are seeing thousands of people every year in this situation. In 2006 we helped destitute asylum seekers on over 40,000 occasions. For example the British Red Cross Office in Leicester sees approximately 50 people a week who are destitute."

One person in this situation is Mirwias, 32, who arrived in the UK from Afghanistan in 2000. Refused asylum but afraid to return to Afghanistan, he came to the British Red Cross's Islington centre three months ago with nowhere to sleep, no money to buy food and severe health problems. "I don't know what I would have done without the Red Cross," says Mirwias. They arranged for him to see a doctor, helped him to fill out forms in English and gave him a one-off emergency supermarket voucher so he could buy food.

"You know the story of the children of Israel? The one in the Bible, where they are delivered from slavery in Egypt? Well, that is what the Red Cross has done for me I feel like they have delivered me to safety," says Jacqueline, 35, from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Jacqueline has been in the UK for five years and had her initial request for asylum rejected, although she was subsequently reunited with one of her children and is able to stay in the UK with her daughter while a fresh claim is considered.

"The Red Cross gave me a voucher for food. They gave my daughter clothes. They helped me with the paperwork I need to do and they helped me to get temporary accommodation. They helped me to find a lawyer. I felt like I was wandering aimlessly and they helped to give me direction," she says.

Attacked by government forces in the DRC, Jacqueline was assaulted, raped and detained in jail. Her husband was also arrested and died in detention. Although reunited with one daughter, two of her children are still missing. She does not know where they are and the Red Cross worldwide family tracing service has been so far unable to locate them in the DRC.

"I want to stay in the UK because, where else can I go? My child goes to school here. Her father is deceased. My other two children are missing. I can't go back. I want to stay here and work as a nurse and to work for the Red Cross as a volunteer to thank them for the help they have given me."

It is more than just material assistance. "We give a huge amount of emotional support. The people that we help often tell us that they felt welcomed by our staff and volunteers and that our approach went some way to restoring their dignity. Simply put, many say they felt that they were being treated as human beings again," says Scott-Flynn.

Duncan Wilson is service manager at the Red Cross's London Refugee Unit in Islington. "The first thing we do is sit down and talk to the person. We go through their case properly. Sometimes we can't help. A person might come here having been refused asylum, refusing to return home and with no reason to get a fresh asylum claim and it might be a case of explaining this and then giving them the provisions to survive such as a sleeping bag and a warm coat. We can't give indefinite support, but we can help with short-term crisis intervention and we try to point people towards other agencies who can help them in the future."

One person the Red Cross has helped in this way is a 56-year-old man from Algeria who left in 2001 fearing for his life and who does not wish to give even his first name. After his asylum request was rejected, he says he had to report to the police station every month while waiting for his appeal to be heard. On one occasion when he went to do this, he was arrested and deported he says mistakenly so. "When I got back to Algeria I was arrested, beaten and tortured and I was without my medicines [he is on medication for depression]. After some months I managed to see a doctor and they took me out of prison and put me in a psychiatric hospital. I was there for nine months and I didn't really understand what was going on. I managed to get back to the UK in May 2007. I have to claim asylum again from the beginning as if I'd never been here before. If I go back to Algeria again I am sure I will be arrested. The Red Cross helped me find a solicitor. They also helped me see a doctor and gave me clothes. I don't want to be here illegally but I am not going back to Algeria."

Both he and Mirwias depend heavily on friends who help with food, but without that support, and the emergency help of the British Red Cross, they would be utterly destitute with no means of survival. "The work we do all over the world is responding to people who are suffering an emergency or crisis or who are specifically vulnerable at a particular time," says Scott-Flynn. "The work we do in the UK is exactly the same, responding to very basic needs and helping people just to survive."

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