‘We’ve skipped meals’: Thousands of asylum seekers still without cash cards five weeks after botched contract transfer

Exclusive: Lawyers prepare to take legal action over ‘unlawful’ delays as charities call for investigation

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Sunday 04 July 2021 11:56 BST
<p>Five weeks after the issues first emerged, around one in 13 asylum-seeking households are still without working cash cards</p>

Five weeks after the issues first emerged, around one in 13 asylum-seeking households are still without working cash cards

Thousands of asylum seekers across the UK have been without working cash cards for over a month after their financial support was cut off due to a botched Home Office contract transfer.

Lawyers have told The Independent they are launching legal action over the failure to ensure families receive their weekly allowance, warning that the human rights of asylum seekers are being breached “continuously and egregiously” as a result.

Charities are meanwhile calling for an independently conducted investigation into the causes of the ongoing issues, and for the Home Office to apologise to those who have been left facing destitution.

More than 11,000 asylum seekers, who have no right to work, stopped receiving their weekly subsistence payments on 24 May after their new Aspen cards – a form of debit card issued to asylum seekers so they can buy basic supplies – either failed to work or did not arrive.

The issue arose following a transfer of the Home Office’s Aspen card contract from facilities management company Sodexo to financial technology firm Prepaid Financial Services, which meant asylum seekers were to receive new cash cards on 24 May.

Five weeks later, thousands are still not receiving their rightful financial support, with immigration minister Kevin Foster confirming in a Parliamentary written question last Friday that 7 per cent were without working Aspen cards.

Based on the number of asylum seekers who were eligible for Aspen cards in the first quarter of 2021 – the latest data available – this amounts to around 2,889 asylum-seeking households.

Shadow immigration minister Bambos Charalambous told The Independent Labour has raised the issue with ministers, but that they had “failed” to act, adding: “They must urgently get a grip of this and address the unacceptable, dangerous delays.”

Families, including single mothers with babies and young children, have told The Independent in recent weeks that they are going hungry as a result, or have had to rely on charities for basic food provision.

One woman, who didn’t want to be named, is still waiting for an Aspen card and said she was struggling to feed and care for her family, to the point where she and her partner were sometimes having to skip meals.

The mother-of-two has been living with her partner and two children, aged one and seven, in a self-catering hotel in London since May.

The 32-year-old told The Independent the Home Office contractor managing the accommodation had started giving the family £20 – £5 per person – in cash each day due to the delay.

But this amounts to less than the £39.63 per week that they are supposed to each receive, and sometimes they cannot access it until the end of the day.

“Sometimes when we go to get the money in the morning they say they don’t have any, ‘Come back in the evening.’ What if you have nothing at all to eat in the morning, and you have to wait until the evening to get food?” said the woman.

“We have skipped meals sometimes because of this, but we always make sure they kids have eaten. We always make sure there’s something left over in case. It feels degrading to go ask for money every day.”

The woman is being supported by charity West London Welcome and goes to a local food bank each week, but the family is still struggling.

“Sometimes £20 a day is not enough. If I want to buy something like shoes for the kids, it’s really hard. The hotel is supposed to provide nappies and baby wipes, but sometimes they don’t have any, so I have to buy them,” she said.

“I try to pretend I’m okay in front of the kids, but at night I don’t sleep well. I’m always thinking, what else should I do? I cannot work. What if the charities stop being able to help? What would we do?

“It can be hard to not fall into depression sometimes, but I have kids to take care of.”

Duncan Lewis Solicitors told The Independent the law firm was preparing a wider legal challenge over the delays.

Lily Parrott, a trainee solicitor at the firm, said: “A significant number of asylum seekers are still experiencing issues with their Aspen cards, even more than a month after the contract change took place.

“This is extremely worrying and we believe shows a failure to administer a functioning Aspen card system, with the result that the human rights of asylum seekers are being breached, continuously and egregiously.”

Leyla Williams, deputy director at West London Welcome, said it was wrong that many asylum seekers were still reliant on charities and “sporadic” emergency cash handouts from the Home Office and its subcontractors “to survive”.

She added: “We’re calling for an immediate, independently-conducted investigation into the causes of the Aspen card crisis - and we’re still waiting for a formal apology from the Home Office to the thousands of asylum-seeking people they left near-destitute.”

Emma Birks, campaigns manager at the charity Asylum Matters, said: "It’s beggars belief that a whole month after the botched Aspen transition, thousands of people are still without a functioning card.

“The government effectively bans people seeking asylum from working, so the Aspen card is the vital means for families to access essential funds. As a matter of urgency, the Home Office must put this right and start to learn the lessons from yet another contract failure.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The vast majority of supported asylum seekers were able to activate their new Aspen cards prior to the service going live, or have managed to active them since.

“Whilst the card provision is working, we are aware that a small number of asylum seekers are still facing difficulties activating and using their cards. In addition to assisting people to activate their cards, we are supporting them with emergency cash payments and vouchers, and are issuing replacement cards where required.

“Migrant Help remain available to respond to queries from asylum seekers and anyone experiencing issues can contact the 24/7 hotline and service.”

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