We’ve got used to seeing the UK government’s approach to asylum seekers when they arrive in the UK in the news over the past couple of years. From the upsetting description of conditions in processing centres to plans to send “illegitimate” claimants to Rwanda upon entry, there hasn’t been much positive news to report. However, the support claimants are legally entitled to once they are in the UK and waiting for their claim to be processed is often given less attention.
Most asylum seekers in the UK are not allowed to work. This is an unusual policy, with many other countries including most large economies in Europe allowing work from day one, or after a short period of time. From challenging integration, degrading a sense of wellbeing and even preventing the government from filling the skills gap or gaining from taxable income, there are many reasons this policy doesn’t work. (We’ve been part of the campaign to Lift the Ban on asylum seekers working for five years – take a look in more detail here: explore the Lift the Ban campaign).
Whilst the government continue to prevent most asylum seekers from working, their agreement of the UN refugee convention means they are committed to preventing the destitution of asylum seekers while their claims are being processed. This is where Section 95 makes its entry.
Section 95 is the formal title for the allowance the government provides to each asylum seeker while their claim is being processed, designed to cover the cost of essentials and prevent destitution. Accommodation, healthcare and education for under-18s are all provided as standard by the government. Everything else: food, sanitation, travel, clothing, socializing, is covered by a weekly payment. Generally, the government support is £40.85 per week, per person claiming asylum. There are further one-off payments and add-ons for those pregnant or who recently gave birth, and for children ages 1-3.
The current level of support was set by an extensive report in 2021. The preamble to this report feels potentially positive, showing a good engagement with much of the research done by NGOs. Within the report itself, a surprising amount of detailed research, evidence and justification goes into setting the number, making it look like a thoughtful and considerate allocation. But any close inspection of it shows this is far from the case, with the research of NGO’s hastily dismissed, and the calculations made motivated by ideology rather than reality.
The Home Office sets its own calculations for the costs of essentials, rather than using external data. However, these calculations consistently come in lower than ONS data on the same categories. The Home Office research does quote ONS data, using the figures the poorest 10% of the UK population live on, many of whom are in poverty. However, the amount allocated to asylum seekers is then reduced by more than 25% through Home Office figures. This means the Home Office believes an asylum seeker can avoid destitution with 25% less money than the poorest UK citizens, despite 1.5 million people in the UK being destitute themselves.
The £40.85 figure is also woefully out of date with inflation. If the figure is adjusted with CPI inflation, as the Home Office suggested it should be at the time of costing, then as of October 2022 it would be £45.10. This is before considering inflationary pressures are bearing down harder and faster on those with less income. If the Home Office were to use the ONS data they reference in the 2021 report and adjust it by Octobers CPI inflation, the figure would be £56.88, almost 40% above what asylum seekers are currently receiving. But even this figure would not be enough to guarantee prevention of poverty and destitution for asylum seekers.
|Sections of support||Home office calculation||ONS data / 1.3||% difference to ONS data|
|Food and non-alcoholic drinks||£26.49||£26.76||1.1% less|
|Toiletries/Healthcare/Household Cleaning||£1.52||£3.69||58.9% less|
|Clothing and Footwear||£2.90||£6.38||54.5% less|
|Total adjusted for inflation for Feb 2020 (1.7%)||£39.60||£49.94||20.7% less|
|Total if figures were adjusted for October 2022 inflation||£45.10 (compared to actual provision of £40.85)||£56.88||£40.85 is 28.2% less|
Let’s take a look at some examples of how this calculation isn’t working.
ONS data is presented using the costs of living for the average UK household size, not for individuals. At the time of the report, ONS data was averaging the UK house at 1.3 people. However, section 95 is designed per person, not per household. To resolve this, the Home Office divided ONS data by 1.3, to get a future for an individual. While they calculate their own figures for most sections of essential costs, their figure for food was derived entirely from this (with a small adjustment made to remove the costs of takeaway). The issue with this calculation is that costs do not go up linearly when you add one more person. Cooking for four, for example, is not four times as expensive as cooking for one. So, while a family of four living on £163.40 pounds is very hard, an individual living on a quarter of this would struggle even more to make ends meet.
The allowance is calculated with costs for an entire year divided by 52, to come to a weekly sum. While this allows for a neat calculation, it doesn’t account for the upfront cost of more expensive essentials rather than weekly purchases. For example, whilst accounted for in the costings, winter clothes, uniforms, a phone or top-up, or emergency travel need to be paid upfront. Even if people are able to find products within the price ranges the Home Office suggest, they will simply not have had the time to save the weekly amount towards these items to afford them. For some, the best-case scenario is sacrificing other essentials such as food in order to pay.
The process behind costing each individual item deemed essential is also problematic. Every item listed on the expenses was found in a store, either through an in person visit or online. But to find the cheapest deals, a Home Office shopping list would require someone to visit 8 different stores – and even then, there is no guarantee the deals the Home Office found were nationwide, or store specific. The chances of all of these being within walkable distance are very unlikely, leaving many forced to pay for travel between shops.
The allowance does include a travel budget of approximately £4.65 a week. At best, this would allow one day-pass on public transport, or two single tickets. If travel beyond walking distance is required to purchase affordable essentials from multiple shops, asylum seekers will need to find the public transport details, hope that there is only one bus company in the local area which allows them to access a daily pass for less than £4.65 and complete all the shopping within one day. Unfortunately, this would use up the travel budget for the week, meaning that shopping, medical appointments, support meetings, Home Office appointments, legal support, language lessons, visiting family and friends, and any entertainment not walking distance all must be done in the same day. Despite this, the Home Office does “not consider [that] travel and communication are essential needs in themselves” (page 6 of report).
Approximately £3.60 is given to communication, which includes costings for stationery, a basic phone with a £10 top up monthly for the UK, and £2.50 a month for international calls (which would give someone an hour to call family back home, at best). The budget makes no provision for internet or a Wi-Fi- enabled device, meaning that messaging services such as WhatsApp, online news, navigation, translation and so much more are kept at arm’s length. There might be some opportunity to access the internet at local libraries, for example – but if you’re more than walking distance away, this goes into the mix of how to use the one-day travel pass. The Home Office’s defence is that there are many ways of communicating, including ‘by post or fax’. These seem like untenable options, especially when the budget makes no allocation for them. When so much of our communication, education and information now exist online, restricting this is significantly disruptive to anyone, especially someone in a new country with little support.
I could go on and on – in fact every calculation in the report is lower than realistic. I haven’t even mentioned the approach to clothing – expecting the cheapest possible options to last a year of use, or for children to not grow at all in 12 months is optimistic to say the least. There are small peculiarities, from deciding that a person needs just 6 millilitres of washing up liquid a day. Then there are more concerning ones, such as calculating the costs of products for black hair, but then specifically not including it in the final figures, or deciding £1.00 per month is sufficient to cover menstrual products. And throughout are claims that “participation in activities associated with interpersonal relationships and social, cultural and religious life, do not always incur a cost”, and so the Home Office provides no budget for this at all.
Whilst some asylum seekers can access other limited funds whilst their claim is processing, far too many rely on the £40.85 put on to their ASPEN debit card. It is simply not enough. It was not enough when the report was published, and the rampant inflation, which is higher on lower cost goods and essentials than anything else, it is even more insufficient today.
The bar for what this support should provide is set low. It seeks only to prevent destitution, and therefore isolates people from almost every element of a fulfilling life. The report is so clearly concerned with creating the lowest cost possible, that it frequently forgets to have any consideration for reality or humanity. Given the current snail-pace processing of claims, many are left in this impoverished limbo for years. Wellbeing and welfare are neglected in these calculations, and the risk of poverty often puts individuals that are already vulnerable at an even higher risk of exploitation. Without enough money to afford reasonable living for themselves or family, it is not uncommon for asylum seekers to be targeted by the thriving modern slavery sector of the British economy. Both adults and children can end up in exploitative, abusive, illegal employment, with little ability to report, or leave such situations if they wanted to.
For the Home office to consider it manageable and even recommended that anyone can live on an income 40% below the poorest people in the UK and avoid destitution says a lot about their consideration of people seeking asylum. This, compounded by their refusal to allow people to work whilst their claim is being processed, only perpetuates the idea that asylum seekers are a burden on society. An approach to financial support which respected dignity and value, and allowed people to contribute through work, has the potential to radically shift this. It is the design of the system itself which creates the problem government claims to want to fix, but instead of changing, they are doubling down.
There are countless reasons to advocate for a different approach to asylum. These include the well-researched, evidenced arguments that a more supportive and welcoming approach is good economically, and socially. Different approaches help to fill a growing skill gap, puts money into the economy and taxes into public services. They allow those who do seek asylum to develop better understanding of the country’s language and culture. They tackle xenophobia and racism far more effectively, practically challenging people’s conscious or unconscious bigotry, instead of feeding it.
But, for those of us reasoning from a Christian perspective, all of these real and relevant arguments should be secondary. Behind the overly academic and costed approach to the argument there is a desperately heart-breaking human reality. I challenge you to watch this documentary on the experience of those seeking asylum in Europe, and still have any time for the derogatory characterisation many – including the government- are putting forward.
We shouldn’t be focused on conversations around sovereignty, borders, or nationality. Nor should we be caught up in the financial or economic arguments. Fundamentally, what should concern is it the human element of seeking asylum. Does the process treat people with kindness, dignity, and respect? Does it start from a perspective that sees each human as uniquely precious, valuable and divinely loved? Does the way we are treating asylum seekers show tender Christ-like traits of humility, gentleness and counter cultural engagement? Does it also show the fiery Christ-like traits of anger at injustice, rage at passivity and fury at inequality? Are we using this opportunity to reach out to the most vulnerable and most marginalised, those who have been treated with the least respect and value, and show them decadent generosity, welcome, and respect?
Some of us will find ourselves in situations where we can exercise this approach through relationships with people seeking asylum here. But all of us can stand in outrage against the current approaches and campaign for a better system. Whether this is writing to your MP, engaging with local and national campaigns like Lift the Ban, or lovingly challenging people who pedal cynical views of those seeking asylum, we can all take action. Action to provide glimmers of hope, love and kindness in a system so ruthlessly devoid.
*This comparison is difficult, as the ONS data shows a much higher total spend, but mainly on personal transport maintenance and purchase, whereas the Home Office data is using only public transport. However, an individual only using public transport would likely need to spend much more.