Every day we hear about children and families living in poverty in Britain. Yesterday was the final day of evidence at the Parliamentary inquiry on support of children and families seeking asylum. The inquiry is the first formal review of the asylum support system since 2009 and has revealed evidence of systemic poverty, deprivation, and negative impacts on the lives of children.
The specific support in question is for children and families who arrive in the UK, fleeing persecution, who have applied for asylum, and are now waiting for the UK Border Agency to take action on their cases. Sometimes this takes six months, more often it takes two to thirteen years. The chief inspector recently revealed that the asylum backlog, which the previous head of the UKBA promised to clear up, was in fact still sitting in a back office with 150 boxes of unopened post. People are waiting years for UKBA officials to open this post, consider their applications, and decide if they will be granted protection. During this time they are given minimal accommodation, £35 each week for food, are prohibited from working and unable to study.
What the Inquiry heard - and what people working with asylum seekers have always known - is that £5 per day is not enough to live a healthy life in modern Britain. They heard evidence of housing accommodation in disrepair assigned to families with children. At The Forum, we often meet asylum seekers who struggle with £35 per week because they have to account for food, clothes, and transportation costs. One young unaccompanied boy asked us this week how he was supposed to choose between buying food or a warmer jumper for the cold weather.
This support system, which results in isolation, poor mental and physical health, is a deliberate government policy based on the myth of a 'benefits pull factor'. Check out the maternity payments policy from the UKBA on additional support for pregnant women and recent mothers who are seeking asylum. It reads like some twisted practical joke. Maternity payments for parents seeking asylum are currently at £3 more per week while pregnant, £5 more per week once the baby is born until age one, and £3 per week until the baby is three years old. You don't have to have children to know that it is impossible to provide for a baby on this meagre additional payment.
It would be interesting to know who in the UKBA actually calculated this amount? It would be even more interesting to know if they have children and how much they spend on nappies.
Not surprisingly, there are other examples of families and children being failed by the system. The inquiry has heard testimony from mothers who struggle to provide food and clothes for their children. Families are bearing the stress as well. The Forum submitted evidence about one father who was housed in Cardiff while his ex-wife and children live in London, effectively removing him from their family life. Another father was told by a local council that he would have to sleep rough while his wife and children stayed in the women's only hostel. The Forum recently published a report on 'Safeguarding Refugee Youth', highlighting the problems with support when unaccompanied asylum seeking children turn 18.
Even when asylum seekers have the right to services like primary health care, prevailing attitudes and misinformation impact their access to treatment. For example, one of our clients, who is an asylum seeker, gave birth to premature twins and was told by an NHS compliance officer in the hospital that she had to pay for the blood tests for her three month old twins or they would not show her the results of the test. The situation was resolved only because our advocate went with her to the hospital and stood up to the NHS compliance officer.
The asylum support system is especially difficult to access for parents with disability. The death of Child EG in Westminster shows these gaping holes in support with tragic consequences. In this case, the mother, moved to London to escape an abusive husband in Birmingham, appears to have struggled to maintain her health and the health of her children upon leaving NASS accommodation. The mother was seen by nine health professionals and was still left without support and without help in caring for her two children. Later, a rare brain infection rendered her unconscious and her nine-month-old son starved to death and two days later she passed away as well.
This tragedy was barely covered by the mainstream media and it is reflection of wider lack of accountability for this appalling treatment of the most vulnerable people in our society. This inquiry is the first step in correcting the government's disgraceful policy and it is an opportunity for all of us to demand real reform in the treatment of asylum seeker in the UK.