‘If I’d known what to ask for, I wouldn’t have gone hungry’
This article is part of a series from Shine A Light featuring reports from the frontline of Britain’s immigration and asylum system. See also Money talks and Theresa May’s tough line on immigration punishes British children. Illustrations by Carrie Mackinnon. All rights reserved.
‘That period when you’re waiting for your papers, when you don’t know what’s going to happen, it takes a bit of your life away,’ says Kia, a refugee from Uganda, as we chat on the phone.
Kia applied for asylum in June 2012. She finds it difficult to talk about what she describes as a ‘terrible time’, following the trauma of fleeing her country in the first place. ‘I am not the type of person who’s going to cry out for help,’ Kia tells me. ‘I should have.’
I found Kia through Baobab, a busy drop-in for undocumented, asylum seeking and refugee women in south Birmingham, four miles from the city centre.
Last year, almost 40,000 people sought asylum in Britain (39,389 to be precise). The government aims to decide cases within six months. During the wait, asylum seekers can live in asylum housing or with friends or family, and they get £36.95 a week.
If asylum is refused, they can appeal this decision in court until the appeal process has been ‘exhausted’ or they can submit a new claim for asylum. For Kia and many others this process may take months or years.
If asylum is granted, a brutal countdown starts. People have 28 days before payments stop and they are moved out of their homes. The UK Home Office calls it the “move on” period.
Here’s what new refugees have to accomplish:
- Read and understand a five-page Discontinuation of Asylum Support letter that is sent with a wad of other official letters in a large, brown-paper envelope.
- Chase up their Biometric Residence Card — that’s compulsory identification for every new refugee living in the UK.
- Get a National Insurance number.
- Make a decision about where to live in the UK.
That’s only part of it. There’s:
- Obtain proof of address and an identity card to open a bank account.
- Apply for benefits.
- Apply for social housing if it’s an option.
- find a private landlord willing to take on a refugee, get hold of references, money for a deposit and the first month’s rent.
- find a computer with wifi and a printer to apply for an integration loan.
- travel to new accommodation with belongings.
Imagine doing all that in a foreign language. Without money. With no support network. Pregnant. With small children. A disability. Trauma. Mental health difficulties. Old age. Age-disputed.
Fail the 28 day challenge and what happens next?
‘By the time your papers come through, if they come through, your brain is not functioning properly,’ Kia explains softly.
‘That’s when you need help to come to you. But I couldn’t look for help, I didn’t trust even my own words. I think that’s what they call losing your confidence.’
‘I can’t complain’
By the time Kia got refugee status in March 2016, she was severely depressed.
She’d been in Britain for almost four years applying for asylum. Her first application was refused and she spent time in a detention centre before her appeal was successful.
On the day Kia’s 28 day ‘move-on’ period was up, an employee from private housing contractor G4S came to her shared house to get her key.
Her last Home Office payment of £10 arrived ten days before her financial support was stopped. When she packed her suitcase and walked to the nearest bus stop on 23 March, Kia had just £6 in her purse. She was still waiting for her National Insurance number and hadn’t applied for benefits.
Kia counted out £4 for a daysaver and took a bus to Birmingham’s Neighbourhood Office to ask for help.
She arrived at 9.30am when the office doors opened. The housing officer couldn’t see her right away so Kia took her suitcase and sat in the waiting room. There were three other people there, says Kia, also waiting to be allocated a place to live. Lunchtime came and went. Too scared to use her last £2, Kia didn’t eat or drink anything all day.
More than eight hours later, the housing officer finally saw her. He asked her questions about her health then told her there was no accommodation available. He scribbled down an address for a B&B and told Kia to go there.
‘I’m in tears, it’s late, it’s wet and freezing cold. I don’t know where I’m going,’ Kia recalls.
She got the bus as far as she could and her friend booked her a taxi for the last leg of her journey.
Too scared to use her last £2, Kia didn’t eat or drink anything all day
When she arrived at the run-down B&B, located near a motorway, Kia gave the receptionist a letter that the housing officer had handed her. She had a shower but nothing to eat.
‘It was a nice room. I can’t complain,’ she says.
Every morning there was cornflakes and juice.
In three weeks, Kia ate three times, when a friend came to visit and brought food.
‘I’m a bit to blame because I should have acted,’ Kia sighs. ‘But when you can’t express yourself, you can’t explain what you’re going through. I should have started chasing this Job Seekers Allowance thing during those 28 days. If I had known what to do, what to ask for, I wouldn’t have gone hungry.’
One woman applied for Job Seekers Allowance on the day her asylum support was terminated. She had accommodation but no money for three weeks. She told the Women in Exile project researchers that she wished the Home Office would take back her papers so she could stay as an asylum seeker.
Another woman self-harmed and was hospitalized after being housed far away from her support network. Their stories appeared in Still Human Still Here’s report in May 2016.
The researchers wrote: ‘Women who access the project’s mental health services and are granted refugee status frequently experience a deterioration in their mental health as a direct result of the pressure caused by having to transit between support systems within the 28-day deadline.’
The government set the 28-day period in 2002. But all the available evidence suggests it should be much longer. That’s research evidence from the Refugee Council, the Red Cross, and, most recently, by the all-party parliamentary group on refugees. They suggest the period should be at least 40 days, preferably 50.
I asked the Home Office if they had any plans to change the deadline.
A spokesperson said: ‘There is no change to this time period and it is still under review.’
Another woman self-harmed and was hospitalized after being housed far away from her support network.
What help is there?
In 2008, a government-funded scheme called the Refugee Integration and Employment Service gave new refugees support for 12 months to get welfare benefits, find housing and start education or employment.
But Theresa May, then the Conservative Home Secretary, took an axe to the Border Agency’s budget and that support disappeared in 2011.
What replaced it?
UK Refugee Welcome – People to People Solidarity is a network on Facebook that connects volunteers around the country with asylum seekers and refugees who need practical help or advice.
The Red Cross support around 6,000 refugees and asylum seekers each year who are destitute — one in five of whom have refugee status — by giving them food, clothes, small amounts of money and advice.
Refugees at Home is a charity that connects people who have a spare room with refugees who need one.
The group formed in February 2016 because of the ’28-day trap and other blackspots for those newly granted protection’, says co-organizer Rachel Mantell. In little over a year, the team have supported more than 300 people and facilitated a total of 19,000 nights of hosting.
Volunteers, groups and stretched refugee organisations do what they can. It’s not enough.
A two-tier system
Things are somewhat better for the 5,706 Syrian refugees who have arrived in the UK so far on the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme. These refugees get dedicated caseworkers to help them adjust to their new lives.
I asked the Home Office if they have plans to restart the integration programme for refugees not on the resettlement scheme.
The Home Office replied: ‘Asylum seekers who are granted refugee or other status in the UK can apply for integration loans. These can be used, for example, to pay a rent deposit, for essential domestic items or for work equipment or training.’
Oh yes, the integration loan of between £100 and £500, that people are told about in the weighty correspondence they get from the Home Office, along with their Discontinuation of Asylum Support letter and information sheets on opening a basic bank account, applying for benefits, travel documents, healthcare and leave to remain.
When they apply for a loan applicants must submit their Biometric Residence Permit card, just when they need proof of identity the most.
Theresa May’s hostile environment
Parvin and Ali, an Iranian couple, were granted refugee status in November 2016. Unlike Kia, they received their papers just seven months after arriving in the UK. They were living in a small town near Leeds and were welcomed into their local church. But they missed their community.
Renting in London is a nightmare for anyone who’s not rich or already living there for years but, after 28 days of indecision, Parvin and Ali moved there to be close to Iranian friends. They stayed in their friends’ small flat for a month before they found somewhere of their own.
Parvin proudly shows me around their small apartment above a takeaway. They have no chairs, no table, no bed. They sleep and eat on the floor.
Ali tells me how difficult it was to find. ‘First we need to speak English and have a bank account that is at least six months old, with a good statement.’
The landlord didn’t accept the couple’s documents so the tenancy is in their friend’s name — and only because she had rented a house from this particular landlord before. She also lent them the money for their deposit.
Kia had no-one to ask.
They have no chairs, no table, no bed. They sleep and eat on the floor.
Why do refugees find it so difficult to rent privately? Rachel blames the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, devised while Theresa May was Home Secretary and enshrined in law in the Immigration Act 2016.
It requires private landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants. Many landlords now refuse to rent to refugees because of the risk of prosecution and because ‘the rhetoric around refugees is so negative’, Rachel explains.
‘If we didn’t have any friends, what should we do?’ asks Ali.
A place to call home
After three weeks in the B&B, Kia was moved to a hotel closer to the city centre last April and shortly after that, to a hostel where she was given a support worker.
Thanks to a pre-paid card given to her after arriving at the hostel, she was able to buy food and other basics again. Kia finally received her National Insurance Number in June and her first benefit payment in July – five months after her asylum support stopped.
She stayed in the hostel for nine months while bidding weekly on council accommodation, which was a painful process.
‘They turned down my first application and I went to Sarah [Kia’s advocate with Baobab drop-in] and told her. The council said they were going to review my case. They asked me so many questions, everything about my medication. Then they dug into my asylum case – my case was private. This was very annoying, but I didn’t have a choice.’
Eventually, a council housing officer secured Kia privately rented accommodation.
Kia moved into an apartment earlier this year, on 8 February. Almost eleven months after her claim for asylum was accepted.
Kia, Parvin and Ali are still moving on, months after the 28-day deadline.
‘From a detention centre, behind locked doors, to now, finally, a place that I call home.’
*The names of refugees interviewed have been changed
Illustrations by Carrie Mackinnon. All rights reserved.