When I speak to Fuligdi on the phone, she sounds harassed. The chaotic noises in the background are from a cooker that’s on the go, and a screaming child. Fuligdi is receiving psychotherapy after fleeing torture in Sri Lanka.
She lives alone in a council flat in Liverpool with her young daughter. As an asylum seeker, Fuligdi is not allowed to work, and is therefore given an allowance of roughly £37 per week from the Home Office. Before coronavirus, things were tight, but now they’re near impossible.
She says, “The local shops have increased their prices – what used to be £1 now costs £2. Nappies always sell out and the ones in the smaller shops are too expensive for us.”
Being an asylum seeker in Britain is hard but the coronavirus lockdown has made life even tougher. There are approximately 44,000 asylum seekers, including torture survivors like Fuligdi, living in the UK on £5 a day.
As the coronavirus outbreak has hiked the price of food and essentials, charities that support asylum seekers are suddenly witnessing people in Britain today having to choose between food and hand sanitizer.
Last month, Freedom from Torture, along with 60 other charities wrote a joint letter to Priti Patel, urging her to raise the asylum allowance by £20 per week, in line with the uplift to Universal Credit. More than 16,000 people signed a petition demanding that asylum seekers be protected too. But the response from the Home Office has been eye-wateringly dismissive.
Three weeks is a long time to wait when you’re hungry and forced to make impossible decisions about your family. That’s how long it took the Home Office to respond to our letter with its autoreply – a paragraph to say that it is “currently reviewing policies and processes in relation to Covid-19 outbreak to ensure people continue to access essential systems whilst maintaining adherence to social distancing guidance”. It could have been written by a bot.
The Home Office has been the subject of long-standing criticisms, including for its inhumane treatment of asylum seekers and habit of deflecting responsibility, but this response is woefully inadequate.
Sadly, this avoidance of scrutiny and culture of dismissal is a pattern we have seen from the current Home Secretary since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. At an unprecedented time of national crisis, Priti Patel has been notably absent, refusing to appear before a Home Affairs select committee inquiry to discuss Home Office preparedness for the pandemic, even prompting a “where is Priti Patel” hashtag on Twitter.
Her invisibility is emblematic of wider issues within the department. Under her charge, officials have refused to engage with repeated warnings from civil society that detaining people in detention centres is a serious risk to public health. These centres are more dangerous now than ever, and evidence from Detention Action indicates that torture survivors are still being incarcerated, risking a mental and physical health catastrophe.
Furthermore, the Home Office has been shy with its data. Last year, it responded to our Freedom of Information request with the numbers of detainees who had self-harmed, been admitted to hospital and were on suicide watch in immigration centres in the UK. This year, after submitting the same request, identically worded, we were summarily informed they did not hold this data or the work involved in extracting it would cost more than £600. The department has a duty of accountability and to protect vulnerable people in its care. Sharing accurate and robust information is an important measure of that.
It is alarming that this pattern of avoiding scrutiny should follow so soon after Wendy Williams’ Lessons Learned report which criticised the Home Office for failing to learn from its mistakes and fixing systemic issues that led to a crisis situation.
There were seeds of hope when former Home Secretary Amber Rudd acknowledged that her department often “lost sight of the individual”, and her successor, Sajid Javid, committed to “putting things right”. And while there has been appetite for change among Home Office officials, our current Home Secretary seems to have donned a cloak of invisibility at time when leadership is needed the most.
As Coronavirus and lockdown continues, asylum seekers continue to live with the prospect of destitution and serious health issues. These people, many of whom have compromised immune systems linked to past abuse, are amongst the most at risk in our community. Their precarious living conditions further reduce their chances of survival.
If the Home Secretary is serious about protecting people in these unprecedented times, then she must learn lessons of the recent past and act now. Being missing in action is a dereliction of duty, and ultimately it is asylum seekers like Fuligdi who will pay a dear price for it.
Sonya Sceats is chief executive of Freedom from Torture
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