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Abandoned to charity

02 November 2006


Churches are picking up the pieces from the Government’s inhumane asylum policies, argues Paul Donovan

Churches have become the main support for asylum-seekers who are thrown into destitution as a result of government policy. A growing number of asylum-seekers are being denied benefits and accommodation while they await deportation. As they are also denied the right to work, many are being forced into destitution.

They finish up like this after they have been denied asylum, exhausted the appeal process, and are waiting for deportation to the country from which they came. They may not have been able to return because the country may not be safe, they may lack travel documents, or the authorities simply have not organised the return.

A recent report from the National Audit Office found that only 17 per cent of those awaiting deportation had actually been removed from Britain. If the Home Office deems there is no safe route for return, as was the case with Iraq until August, then the asylum-seeker will receive support under section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. This support can also be accessed if an asylum-seeker agrees to go back voluntarily.

If the Home Office deems there is a safe route back to the country concerned, then all support is cut off. At present, only in the case of Somaliland does it consider there is not a safe route back.

"Most end up completely homeless, unable to work or support themselves while here: they are in a complete state of limbo," said Hannah Ward, from the Refugee Council.

The situation has been made worse since the summer because more asylum-seekers are being thrown on the streets as a result of section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration Act 2004. This withdraws Home Office support from parents with children under 18 who are awaiting deportation. Previously, families were entitled to state support until they were deported. The scheme to remove aid is now being piloted in the North and in London, before ministers decide whether to implement it nationwide.

The director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), Louise Zanre, believes that the Government is seeking to starve people out of the country by denying benefits, accommodation, and some access to health-care. "We’ve got people who have been in this situation for years: the longest-running case we have is a young man who has been reporting weekly for eight years," said Mrs Zanre. JRS deals with 30 destitute asylum-seekers each week.

In the North-East, 29 faith organisations have joined forces to distribute half a tonne of food each month to destitute asylum-seekers. Some 300 destitute people attend a drop-in centre in Swindon. In Manchester, four churches are working to provide weekly food parcels and accommodation for 300.

These are just the cases that are known about. As Mrs Zanre says, there must be thousands of destitute people who are unknown.

Nick Hildyard of the Refugee Project believes: "Deportation is more than about individual cases — it is about racism." He gave credit to those in church groups, trade unions and social movements, who have stood up in solidarity.

Some councils have complained that they are being made to do the Home Office’s dirty work, as it is they who have to decide whether to support the families or throw them on to the street. To their credit, many have resisted.

One example is Bury, part of Manchester. A family of four, the Khanalis, left their home in Iran after a violent encounter with the security police. The father of the family, Vahid Khanali, was then sentenced in his absence to six years’ imprisonment and 74 lashes. He is convinced that if he returns he will be tortured, and possibly executed, for not appearing in court. The Khanali family has now fallen victim to section 9.

Bury Council has refused to make them homeless, insisting that a functioning family with a supportive background is the best place for the two children to remain. "Taking them into care is the very last resort," said a councillor.

There will, however, be no direct financial support for the Khanalis; so voluntary groups are being asked to provide food parcels and subsistence. "I understand that Zoreh [the mother] suffers from depression, and Vahid suffers from severe back and heart problems. One can only imagine the degree of anguish presently experienced by this couple as they ponder their future," said Kevin Egan, from the local church support group.

The Sukulu family is in a similar position. A family of six, the Sikulus have lost benefits after failing to return to the Democratic Republic of Congo. There was a protest in Bolton in support of them recently, and the council has chosen not to evict them.

Church Action on Poverty (CAP) is spearheading a campaign called Living Ghosts, which aims to get the Government to allow asylum-seekers either to work during their stay or to receive benefits right up to deportation. Niall Cooper, the director of CAP, believes that by denying asylum-seekers the right to work, the Government is driving them underground.

"Working in such a situation makes them open to exploitation, as they have no employment rights. This is pre-Poor Law, where the Government is prepared to let people starve, and the MPs appear to be in complete denial about the situation." Mr Cooper also argues that many of those asylum-seekers denied the right to work have skills that are in short supply in Britain.

The Home Office admits that there are problems: "It is accepted that there are some asylum-seekers who are destitute and unable to leave immediately, due to matters beyond their control. Under these circumstances, the asylum-seekers can seek support under section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999," said a Home Office spokesman.

He said that this support was available only if the individual was deemed to have taken all reasonable steps to leave the UK; or to have been unable to leave because of a physical impediment, or because there was no viable route to return, or because an application for judicial review had been made regarding the original asylum decision. But many asylum-seekers do not fall into these categories.

The Government has stressed its desire that faith and voluntary organisations take on more work in the community. The experience in the area of asylum is a salutary one, though: a story of the voluntary sector being dumped on and left to pick up the pieces of vulnerable lives as a result of an ill-thought-out and inhumane policy.

Paul Donovan is a writer on race and migrant issues.

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