Charities say thousands of asylum seekers are still not receiving their weekly subsistence payments after their Aspen cards – a form of debit card issued to asylum seekers so they can buy basic supplies – stopped working last month.
Among them are single mothers and youngsters who are now reliant on charities for food – while there is mounting concern for the welfare of those who are not in contact with NGOs who can feed them.
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.
But it emerged two days after the transfer took place that thousands had not received the new cards – and 17 days on many are still waiting, meaning they are not receiving their weekly allowance, which is usually £39.63 if they are in a house and £8 if they are in a full-board hotel.
In many cases, cards have been sent to the wrong addresses – sometimes to properties or hotels the individual moved from months ago. Charities say that while the Home Office has been giving out emergency cash payments to those affected, many are still waiting to receive these.
Shadow immigration minister Bambos Charalambous accused the department of “failing to respond to early warnings” from NGOs and “failing to urgently address these issues once they became a reality”.
One Nigerian woman, a single mother with a seven-month-old baby, told The Independent she was worried about her child’s health as she had run out of baby formula and is now having to breastfeed him on a limited diet.
The 32-year-old said the Home Office housing contractor issued her a £80 Tesco voucher on 28 May but that she has received nothing since.
“I have only a little food left. Last night I had a meal I had saved in the freezer. Today I will just eat bread and butter for dinner,” she said.
“I was waiting for two hours on hold to Migrant Help and no one picked up. I don’t know why this has happened. There’s been no explanation. I was only moved to this city on 5 May so I have no one to ask for help.”
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.
Meanwhile, charities are having to plug the gaps to support people unable to buy food and other basic essentials.
Another single mother, 21, who gave birth to her child on 17 May, said she had tried numerous times to call Migrant Help but been left waiting up to two hours before the line cut off.
“Charities have been bringing me food, but it’s food I don’t know how to cook. I usually make African food so this is difficult for me,” she said.
“I’m grateful for the Home Office for giving me the money before, but I need them to help me now. I’m not eating enough and I need to breastfeed. I’m begging them to help me and restore my card.”
A third woman, 30, with a five-year-old daughter, said she was given £20 by the housing contractor on 29 May but received nothing since. A local charity has been provided her with some money, but she is worried about what will happen when that money runs out.
“I don’t know how long we will need this to last for. I’m worried I won’t be able to feed my daughter. If this small charity can help me, why can’t the Home Office?” she said.
Leyla Williams, deputy director of West London Welcome, said half of the 75 asylum-seeking families and individuals supported by the small charity had been left without any money or food due to problems with the new Aspen card roll-out, describing it as a “crisis”.
“Asylum seekers we know have spent hours on hold to Migrant Help on a daily basis desperately trying to talk to someone about their missing Aspen cards. Despite their efforts, we only know six people who have received new working Aspen cards in the last few days,” she said.
“The Home Office have said they are giving everyone emergency cash payments, but we only know of three people who have received one.
“We have been supporting asylum seekers we know with cash and food to ensure they have enough to survive on, but what about all those not in touch with charities?”
Robina Qureshi, of Positive Housing in Action in Glasgow, said she believed thousands across the UK were still unable to access financial support.
“There has not been a single word of apology or explanation or regret from the Home Office. No resignations for such a serious mistake to let families, new mothers, children go hungry for weeks,” she added.
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.”
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