Fifty charities urge Home Office to act on ‘crisis’ in asylum support payments

Exclusive: NGOs warn Aspen card fiasco is ‘one of the worst asylum crises’ they have experienced

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Friday 11 June 2021 08:36
<p>One single mother with a seven-month-old baby said she had run out of baby formula so was having to breastfeed her child while surviving off bread and butter</p>

One single mother with a seven-month-old baby said she had run out of baby formula so was having to breastfeed her child while surviving off bread and butter

The Home Office has been urged to act as hundreds of asylum seekers have been unable to afford food and basic provisions after their financial support was cut off due to a botched contract transfer.

A letter to home secretary Priti Patel signed by more than 50 refugee and asylum organisations describes the situation as “one of the worst asylum crises we have experienced” and accuses a senior Home Office official of misleading MPs this week by claiming the matter was resolved.

Thousands of asylum seekers stopped receiving their weekly subsistence payments on 24 May after their Aspen cards – a form of debit card issued to asylum seekers so they can buy basic supplies – stopped working.

Single mothers with babies and young children have told The Independent they are going hungry as a result, or have had to rely on charities for basic food provision.

The letter, whose signatories include the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and the Scottish Refugee Council, warns that “whole families are being left without money for food” and that charities have been “plunged into a full scale crisis trying to keep up with one emergency after another”.

“This ongoing crisis needs to be fixed immediately. Small charities cannot continue to fill the gap in provision caused by maladministration by the Home Office and its contractors. Since May 25, there has been no explanation as to how this crisis arose,” the letter states.

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.

But it emerged two days after the transfer took place that large swathes of people had not received the new cards. In many cases, cards have been sent to the wrong addresses – sometimes to properties or hotels the individual moved from months ago.

Nearly three weeks on, while many have now received their Aspen cards, hundreds and possibly thousands remain without them. Charities say that while the Home Office has been giving out emergency cash payments to those affected, many are still waiting to receive these.

Migrant Help, a charity contracted by the Home Office to provide support services to asylum seekers, has been inundated with phone calls from people unable to access money, with individuals having to wait on hold for hours trying to get through to their helpline.

The Home Office has repeatedly dismissed the concerns, saying the issue is affecting “a small number of people”.

When asked about the issue by the public Accounts Committee on Monday, permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft told MPs there had been an “error” on the card that “did last for a short period of time […] but that has now been resolved”.

The charities accused the official of misleading the committee, stating that refugee organisations were “still operating in a crisis”.

Meanwhile, when immigration minister Chris Philp was asked about the issue in the House of Commons on Thursday morning, he said: “There have been some delays that are in process of being rapidly resolved.

“The cost of providing asylum support now amounts to £1bn a year so any suggestion that there is a lack of generosity or meanness of spirit is categorically and completely untrue.”

The letter lays out the scale of the problem in different parts of the country based on what charities have reported.

New Citizens Gateway in Barnet reports that across four hotels in the city, 268 asylum-seeking individuals have not received their cards, and 38 received them but them are not working.

The Welsh Refugee Council meanwhile says they have received 560 requests for support on Aspen card issues across the four dispersal areas in Wales, while Positive Action in Housing, in Glasgow, has received around 400 emergency calls for help from people unable to access money.

The Jesuit Refugee Service says it has been contacted by 15 men currently accommodated in Napier Barracks who had not received their new Aspen cards the week following the changeover, while Brighton Migrant Solidarity says around 100 asylum seekers struggled to activate the card or did not receive it.

The letter to Ms Patel demands to know how many asylum seekers are affected by the issue across the UK, whether they will receive back payments and what caused the problems.

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.

“We are aware that a small number of asylum seekers are still facing difficulties using their cards. We are supporting them with emergency cash payments and vouchers, and are issuing replacement cards where required.”

A spokesperson for Prepaid Financial Services said the company had been “working closely with the Home Office to prepare for the switch over”, adding: “The majority of service users have successfully activated and are using their cards.”

A Migrant Help spokesperson said it was “working hard” to assist those affected and apologised to those experiencing long waiting times when calling its helpine, adding that demand remained “extremely high” and that additional staff had been allocated to answering calls.

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