Asylum means protection and shelter. People who arrive in Britain to claim asylum have fled conflict, violence and persecution. Like all of us, they want to live in safety and protect their families. Our asylum system should be about fairness and compassion, but it’s letting down some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
One of our frontline service managers told me recently that she thought the system “devastates people”, she said: “You can literally see it on their body, it is etched onto their face and the way they hold themselves.
“When you work with people over a period of time, you can see what it takes out of them and how they deteriorate. The isolation and mental distress, waiting in limbo, having your case doggedly disbelieved by an authority you went to for help, which you thought was fair and that you could trust.”
New figures from the Office for National Statistics, released last week, highlight some of the failings in the system. In 2017, the number of asylum applications fell by 14% to 26,350. But despite less pressure on the system, more than half (54%) of people applying for asylum are waiting longer than the Government’s six-month target for a decision on their claim. This is up by three quarters (74%) on the previous year.
Rose* is a survivor of female genital mutilation and trafficking, who is supported by our team in Bradford. She was forced into prostitution when she was brought to the UK. She escaped her traffickers, but says she feels like a captive again as she waits for a decision on her asylum claim – a process that has taken more than two years.
“I thought that once I went to the Home Office that things would be better, I wouldn’t have to be scared. But you cannot work and you cannot provide for yourself,” she says. “My greatest hope is that I will get a positive decision and be able to work for my family and put my mind to good use, contribute to society.”
The latest ONS figures also show that too many people seeking asylum do not get a fair decision on their first claim. One in three appeals against refused asylum applications were overturned last year. For some nationalities, the proportion of decisions overturned at appeal were much higher, for example 70% for people from Yemen, 61% for Libyans and 54% for people from Somalia.
People can wait years for a decision on their asylum claim, either initially or through the appeals process. During this time, they receive a small amount of support, which in February increased by just 80p to £37.75 per week.
It’s hard to imagine that such a negligible rise will improve the lives of individuals already struggling to feed and clothe their families. This small allowance has remained unchanged since 2015, when the Government set the rate at £5.28 per day for everyone claiming asylum, regardless of their age or vulnerability.
Ana volunteers for Refugee Action in Manchester and is part of our campaign group, RAS Voice, which is working locally to improve decision-making on asylum claims. She waited five years for an initial decision on her claim and knows what it’s like to survive on just over £5 a day for a long time.
“Every single day, I answer questions and make excuses to my children for not being able to create for them the life they deserve. I explain there is no difference between ‘normal people’ (as my daughter says) and people seeking asylum,” she says.
Insufficient financial support, lengthy delays, poor decision-making and routinely detaining people indefinitely, including women and torture survivors, are all symptoms of a system that disempowers, dehumanises and damages those who need it.
This system isn’t working for anybody, certainly not taxpayers or those who rely on it to make life-changing decisions. Over the next three years, Refugee Action will work with others to expose the harsh realities of the current environment and through our campaign – Stand Up For Asylum – work to secure fundamental changes so that people are met with compassion, get fair decisions on their applications, have enough support to feed and clothe themselves and their families, and are able to rebuild their lives successfully.
*Rose’s name has been changed to protect her identity. For more information and to read our vision for fair and effective asylum system visit www.refugee-action.org.uk/standupforasylum.