Asylum seekers need a helping hand

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The Government is already moving towards meeting its manifesto pledge to review the most arbitrary features of the immigration and asylum laws. But one glaringly arbitrary and harsh legacy of the Tories deserves special scrutiny. The question for the responsible ministers is this: could you look after yourself on pounds 24 a week? That is the kind of sum a destitute asylum seeker who does not seek refugee status at the port of entry must live on.

The idea of withdrawing income support and housing benefit from this group was ostensibly to deter those who did not have a genuine fear of persecution from fleeing to Britain. It is impossible to prove whether the change has had this effect. There was a big fall in asylum applications in 1996, but that may simply be because Britain, and Europe generally, are increasingly seen as resistant to pleas for help from genuine refugees. The new rules, implemented last August, may mean more people risk their lives by staying in brutal regimes.

The plain fact, as successful cases show, is that some genuine asylum seekers will always fail to apply for refugee status at their port of arrival through fear or ignorance. Take, for example, a 39-year-old Kenyan woman, who is afraid to be identified and who asks to be called Jackie. She is confined to a wheelchair following a particularly brutal spell in police custody in Nairobi during which she was raped repeatedly and pushed down a flight of stairs.

Jackie has been given a 10ft by 10ft room in a bed and breakfast hotel in east London, plus pounds 24 a week to pay for the necessities of life. Her local authority has to provide this following a High Court ruling last October. The finding, upheld by the Court of Appeal in February, was that the 1948 National Assistance Act requires councils to provide single adult asylum seekers with the basic means of survival. Jackie has no cooking facilities. Any food must be frozen convenience food which can be reheated in a microwave. She gets some help from meals on wheels but frequently falls back on microwaved jacket potatoes. She misses some meals altogether.

Because of her disability, Jackie suffers a multitude of other difficulties. Dial-a-Ride is her passport to life outside the room, but it costs pounds 1 a time. Its phone-line is constantly engaged and there are restrictions on the amount of time she can spend on the phone at the hotel. Apart from visits to a disabled swimming club, arranged by a volunteer, she spends most of her time alone.

Jackie feared that if she sought asylum at the airport she would be sent home and so did not claim until a fortnight later. After nearly a year in the UK, she has yet to be interviewed about her application. She feels isolated and is under treatment for depression. "I don't think I have a future," she says. "I am in a strange land with not enough money to look after myself. I cannot walk. I cannot work. I have nothing to look forward to."

Erol Yesilyurt is her Turkish-born case worker at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture in north London. He was accepted as a refugee nine years ago and is now a British citizen. Many of his clients suffer from serious depression. "Many people leave detention with a deep sense of helplessness," he said. "When they come to London, they come with hope. In this situation, they regain that sense of helplessness." Some of his clients receive almost no cash at all; some women struggle even to meet their sanitary needs.

Bujar (again not his real name), a 45-year-old Albanian who fled from the republic of Kosovo three weeks ago, is another of Mr Yesilyurt's clients. Ethnic Albanians have come under severe persecution in the Serb-occupied republic and he has deep and extensive scars on his head and hands after being tortured. "I was dead," he says. "I had to escape." There was no question of him claiming asylum at the port of arrival because he stowed away on lorries as they crossed Europe. He jumped from the last one in Bedfordshire and claimed asylum two weeks later. He lives in a bed and breakfast in north London which provides an evening meal, but he receives no money from Westminster, the responsible council. The Medical Foundation has given him pounds 30. Nobody knows what will happen when that runs out.

These are but two examples of wildly differing provision by hard-pressed, mainly London, councils as they attempt to carry out the court judgments in relation to single adults and their duties under the Children Act for families with children and for unaccompanied children.

One central London council gives pounds 18 a week plus food vouchers, while another gives pounds 21-28 a week in cash. Another provides food at community centres but provides no money at all. In one case, a Sri Lankan torture victim receives less than pounds 10 worth of food a week. In all, councils are obliged by the court rulings to help around 4,817 adults, 2,375 families and 526 unaccompanied children out of existing budgets. Some London councils plan to "export" asylum seekers to the north of England, where bed and breakfast accommodation is slightly cheaper. Westminster is negotiating for rooms in Liverpool hotels.

When cutting benefits for asylum seekers was first mooted, the then Secretary of State for Social Security, Peter Lilley, suggested that pounds 200m a year might be saved. But the direct costs of the makeshift system the courts felt compelled to impose could be pounds 50m for the first half-year of the new regime - leaving aside the indirect costs that might flow from ill-health. With most bed and breakfast hotel rooms costing councils well in excess of pounds 100 a week, Mr Yesilyurt insists that current arrangements are unfair on both councils and clients. "Why," he asks, "not give people income support [pounds 49.15 for those 25 or over] and let them claim housing benefit for a rented room costing pounds 50 a week?"

Even if such savings as there may be could be justified, there are the wider moral and legal questions. In his Court of Appeal judgment in February, Lord Woolf, the Master of the Rolls, attacked the asylum policy's rationale. It was wrong, he insisted, to think that all claims not made upon arrival were bogus. As a matter of law, he argued that Parliament, in framing the 1948 National Assistance Act, had intended those in need to receive assistance.

Yet the legal rows continue, signs of a crumbling, insupportable policy. The Government should announce an immediate review.

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