The Blog

Hungry and Homeless - Asylum Seekers Deserve Better Support

Syrian refugee brothers waiting to be transported to pre-registration centre in Röszke, Hungary. UNHCR/ Zsuzsanna Gal

Europe hasn't seen a refugee crisis like this since the 1940s. Hundreds of thousands escaping persecution and tyranny are risking their lives to get to safety, just as they did 70 years ago, and the impassioned pleas of the British public have forced David Cameron to allow thousands of Syrians to come to the UK. But what will happen to the people he once described as 'swarms' when they arrive?

Britain has so far agreed to take in 20,000 people living in refugee camps on the borders of Syria by 2020 and grant them Humanitarian Protection for five years, giving them the right to work and have access to public funds. However, those trying to enter the country by other means such as by lorry are not so fortunate, with the PM making it clear that those already in Europe are not welcome here.

If an asylum seeker does make it over the border, an application must be made with the Home Office's 'Asylum Intake Unit' in Croydon within three days of arrival. If you miss any appointments or apply too late, you risk deportation. The system is so draconian that a heavily pregnant woman was forced to travel overnight from Scotland for a morning appointment in Croydon, despite protests from the Scottish Refugee Council, and she subsequently went into labour on the steps of the Unit.

Asylum seekers can't work or receive mainstream benefits. If they are completely destitute, they may be entitled to temporary accommodation and about £5.28 per day to cover all living expenses, including food, clothes and toiletries. They're the lucky ones. If a friend has given you a floor to sleep on, you won't be entitled to any help and you'll have to rely on the goodwill of others for your next meal. According to a recent study , many asylum seekers are extremely malnourished and

...face a daily struggle to survive, living lives comparable to pre-Welfare State deprivation.

Being in a new country, having nowhere to live, no money, no food and no chance of getting a legal job is hardly what anybody can call a good life, and yet that is the reality for many people seeking asylum in Britain today. It's no wonder that some turn to working illegally for unscrupulous employers or begging on the streets.

The irony is that many of those who find themselves seeking asylum in the UK could actually contribute to our economy. Doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers - these are just some of the people claiming asylum. Although young asylum seekers can go to school, they can't obtain loans to pay for university fees even if they have top grades. When such people are told they can't work or learn here, we all lose out.

The situation improves greatly once you have refugee status, but it could be many years before the Home Office makes a decision. In the meantime, you'll be waiting in limbo trying to carve a life out whilst not being sure if and when you'll be told to pack your bags and leave.

Images from the last fortnight have moved all of us, and the public outcry has led to the Government changing its policy. However, the moral duty for us doesn't stop as soon as somebody gets here. We need to support them, give them the dignity of existence that they deserve, and allow them to contribute actively to our society.

We've welcomed refugees for centuries, and they have made Britain their home. From the Huguenots in the 18th century to Jews in the 1930s and Ugandan Asians in the 1970s, all have brought wealth and diversity to our nation in ways we could never have imagined. Rita Ora, Sigmund Freud, MIA and countless Nobel Prize winners including Malala Yousafzai - all came to the UK as refugees.

Britain should be a land of opportunity for everyone who lives here, and our capacity for compassion must extend beyond basic survival. Giving asylum to those who desperately need it shouldn't be the end of the journey. It should be the beginning of a new life, one in which people are treated with the humanity that befits them, including the ability to work.

We were a beacon to displaced people throughout the Second World War. We have the chance to be that beacon once more, a chance to discharge our moral duty to protect those fleeing persecution and give them the life that they deserve. The Government should urgently reconsider the level of support it offers to asylum seekers. Who knows? One day, they may return the favour in ways we can't even begin to imagine yet.