“It was demoralising,” says Shams, a 42-year-old asylum seeker in Darlington, describing how it felt when he was unable to pay for his grocery shop at the check-out on Monday. “I had to put back the meat and some vegetables. I had to just get tinned food and the cheaper things,” he adds, dejectedly.
Before the lockdown, Shams, who has been waiting on a decision on his asylum claim since November 2017, shopped in a large supermarket some miles from his home, but now he’s had to start buying groceries more locally, where they are considerably more expensive. This has proven difficult with the £37 in weekly support he receives from the Home Office. “I have to go to different shops to work out where is cheapest,” he says. “I have to pick up the things going out of date. You can’t have fresh things, like a bag of onions. You have to get frozen food.”
Home secretary Priti Patel claimed during a parliamentary hearing last week that the Home Office’s policies and measures on asylum support during the lockdown were working, and that the department was “absolutely” making sure people were supported. When asked by the Home Affairs Select Committee whether she would consider increasing asylum support rates by £20 a week, in line with universal credit, she said she had seen no evidence that asylum seekers were struggling to meet their basic needs with the current rates.
Charities and lawyers say her words contradict reality. Around 44,000 asylum seekers are currently living in the UK on just over £5 a day – or £37 a week – and concern is mounting that, due to a decline in face-to-face charity support and limitations on where they can shop during the lockdown, many are having to make impossible choices, choosing between basic needs such as buying nappies for their young children, eating an evening meal or buying mobile data to speak to loved ones.
Four asylum seekers have together threatened the Home Office with a legal challenge over support rates during the lockdown, with their lawyers arguing that failure to increase their support during this time constitutes a breach of human rights law. Duncan Lewis Solicitors have issued a pre-action letter to the department arguing that it must fill the “support gap” opened up by the current conditions, by temporarily increasing the standard support rates to a level that “ensures purchasing power at least equivalent to that in the pre-pandemic period”.
One claimant in the legal challenge, known only as A, told The Independent she and her husband were having to skip meals in order that the their daughters, aged eight and three, could eat. The Nigerian national, who lives with her family in a two bedroom bedsit in which they share the kitchen with another family of four, suffers from diabetes and her youngest daughter has severe asthma. She knows they should be shielding but she travels for one hour by bus to Lidl every Monday in order to maximise their money.
The family is usually provided with vouchers worth £44 every two months from a drop-in at West London Synagogue, but this is no longer available as the synagogue is closed due to the lockdown. Her eldest daughter was told that she would receive vouchers in lieu of free school meals, but A says the school has now said she does not qualify.
“Me and my husband don’t eat in the mornings,” she says. “When my daughter was going to school she ate breakfast and lunch there, but now she’s at home. She’s asking for food a lot. We were managing before, but now the money is not enough for us. For dinner we are eating plain rice and then we go straight to bed. I feel tired all the time. It’s stressing us out. We feel so sad but there’s nothing we can do.”
Another asylum seeker, 19-year-old Ali, who has lived in temporary accommodation in London since he claimed asylum in October 2018, says he is finding it “very difficult” to feed himself properly during the pandemic, as he is having to shop in local stores where food is more expensive, and he has also lost support from local charities that are no longer operating.
“I buy rice, bread and pasta. There’s not enough money for anything like yoghurt or fruit or salad. I can’t even buy apples,” says Ali. “I can’t buy spices. I can’t make Iranian curries now. My diet now is not healthy, it’s just bread, pasta and rice. Before, there were some food banks and charities, I was volunteering, they were supporting me with food, but now they’re not there. My diet is much worse. It’s very depressing.”
The Iranian national, who is studying English and maths in college, says he is also concerned that he will fall behind on his course because he is often unable to access the online classes. He says charities and friends pay for his monthly mobile data package, which provides him with 4GB, but it runs out before the end of each month.
“Before, I could use college wifi to speak to my parents, friends, back home in other countries, but now the college is closed. I have to be online for my course, but how can I be in the class? My phone hasn’t got much data or memory. I’m struggling to do college work. Sometimes I just can’t do it. £37 a week is not enough,” he says.
Toufique Hossain, director of public law at Duncan Lewis Solicitors, said the evidence was “overwhelming” that vulnerable asylum seekers were living in “desperate” circumstances and that current levels of support were “insufficient”, adding: “Priti Patel can no longer hide behind her ignorance. This existential shortfall was pointed out to her during the recent select committee hearings and her answer betrayed that once more she was not across her brief.
“Now that the home secretary has seen the evidence from refugee charities and the information contained in our pre-action correspondence shining a bright light on the desperate measures being adopted by asylum seekers to survive in this period, we hope she will change course, urgently.”
Stephen Hale, chief executive at Refugee Action, which is supporting the legal challenge, said: “Many people seeking asylum have been left devastated by coronavirus because they’re forced to live on a scandalously low weekly allowance to pay for essential living costs. This forces people into poverty during normal times but in a pandemic it makes it impossible to stay safe. At the most critical moment in decades, support is now less than it was 18 years ago.
“The Home Office must raise rates by £20 a week, in line with universal credit, so people seeking asylum are not left exposed and can properly support themselves during this crisis.”
Alex Fraser, UK director of refugee support and restoring family links at British Red Cross, echoed his remarks, saying: “People seeking asylum must make impossible choices each day, whether to buy nappies for their child or food, and this is even more difficult right now given many people are reliant on their local shops which are more expensive than the big supermarkets.
“At the British Red Cross, we’re also concerned about the impact these financial burdens are having on mental and social wellbeing, as again people are forced to choose between topping up their phone credit to speak to their friends and families or whether to buy food or cleaning products to stay safe.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We won’t comment on legal proceedings, but we have already said we are reviewing the level of the cash allowance given to asylum seekers as we do every year.”
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