Looking back. Looking forward. 20 years ago our asylum system was more just. We think it can be again.

To mark the 20th anniversary of Refugee Week, we look back at policy changes over the past 20 years to show that a more just system is possible. Focusing on permission to work, housing, and financial support – three of Asylum Matters’ key policy areas – we look at what has changed over the past 20 years, and how that shapes our campaigns for change.

Permission to work

20 years ago and until 2002, asylum seekers who had been waiting more that 6 months for a decision on their claim could apply for permission to work. Today, people seeking asylum are effectively prohibited from working. The 2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act removed the Right to Work, and in 2005 the Government introduced changes such that only after waiting 12 months for a decision could an asylum seeker apply for permission to work. In 2010, an additional caveat was added restricting this to undertaking work specified on the government’s shortage occupation list, creating the situation that remains to this day. The list specifies particular professional roles that asylum seekers may apply to work in, such as radioactive waste management, sonography,
visual effects animation, or skilled classical ballet dancers who meet international standards.

Therefore, in practice, most asylum seekers do not have the right to work in the UK and so have no choice but to rely on state support – if they qualify for it – consisting of asylum accommodation on a no-choice basis and just over £5 a day to cover all basic necessities. This forced inactivity is detrimental to self-esteem and mental health, increases the difficulty of integration for those who are eventually permitted to stay, and places an entirely unnecessary cost on the public purse.

How are we campaigning to change this?

Building on previous campaigns calling for permission to work,, we are once again campaigning for a change to policy. Today, we feel the time is ripe to push for a change in policy that would restore the right to work for people seeking asylum if they have been waiting for a decision on their claim for more than 6 months. Asylum Matters – together with Refugee Action and other partners – is preparing to launch a campaign for permission to work. If you’re interested in getting involved in this campaign, please contact Joe at [email protected]

Housing

20 years ago asylum seekers could choose where they lived and received housing directly from local authorities, who had powers over provision. This allowed people seeking asylum to choose to live near friends and relatives or in areas where they felt a sense of cultural kinship or could be near to places of worship – all of which can play an important role in providing the social support networks people need to rebuild their lives. Meanwhile, local authorities had a statutory responsibility to offer assistance to asylum seekers and a duty to provide accommodation and benefits to asylum seekers whilst they awaited the outcome of their application for asylum. This did, however, mean that certain areas supported higher numbers of asylum seekers while others had none or few.

Today, housing is provided on a mostly no-choice basis to asylum seekers who are dispersed across the country, often consisting of ‘hard to let’ properties in deprived areas where housing is cheapest. Local authorities continued to play a role in housing asylum seekers until 2012, when this was contracted exclusively to three private providers nationally – Serco, G4S and Clearsprings. This arrangement dramatically reduced local authorities’ influence over housing conditions and their ability to promote community cohesion. The asylum accommodation contract is currently being re-tendered, and is being offered for a 10 year period, most likely outsourced to the private sector again.

Across the country, groups have campaigned for better conditions in asylum accommodation and for greater powers to local authorities in upholding standards, including successful campaigns in Yorkshire and Humberside to stop asylum seekers being forced to share bedrooms. There has been in depth documentation of the issues facing those in private asylum accommodation including investigative journalism and a Home Affairs Select Committee Report recommending widespread changes.

How are we campaigning to change this?

Today, we are working with local partners to raise concerns about standards of accommodation and the treatment of residents, as and when they emerge. We are campaigning for greater parliamentary scrutiny over asylum accommodation and we’re also working to support local authorities in exercising their powers over local housing provision and conditions.

Support Levels

20 years ago, while awaiting the outcome of their claim, asylum seekers could receive mainstream income support. In 1999, asylum support was separated from mainstream benefits under the National Asylum Support Service (NASS), set at 70% of income support levels and replaced by vouchers rather than cash. The voucher system was repealed for the majority of asylum seekers as a result of campaigning efforts in 2001, but low levels of support continued. In 2014, refugee charities took the Home Secretary to court over asylum support rates and the High Court ruled that the decision underpinning support levels was unlawful, leading the Home Office to reassess their calculations. However, today’s cash support is much lower still, currently set at £37.75 per person, per week, or just over £5 a day for food, sanitation and clothing. This is equivalent to just 52% of mainstream income support for a single adult. This means individuals and families missing meals, going without winter clothes and experiencing social isolation, unable to travel even to access free support. Living so far below the poverty line particularly impacts child development and educational attainment.

How are we campaigning to change this?

Today, we work with a coalition of organisations and MPs to lobby for a return to fairer rates of asylum support, and to highlight the impact of low support. You can find our briefing here

Change is possible!

While governments have changed asylum policy over the past 20 years, so too have campaigners, advocates and politicians, calling for dignity for people seeking sanctuary!

Photographer: Tobias Madden

“When we look at policy 20 years ago, people in the asylum system could generally expect to have their basic needs met, allowing them to begin the difficult task of rebuilding their lives in the UK and stating their case for refugee protection. The right to work, the ability to choose to live close to vital support networks and having access to enough support to meet essential living needs can feel like distant dreams today. But the fact that people seeking asylum once had these rights gives me hope as a campaigner, as I can see that not only is another way possible, but that path has already been paved. Government and society once stood by policies that were more humane and just and we can return to that situation.”
“We know that refugees will continue to arrive in the UK and we have a choice to make. Will the next 20 years see us further deny and alienate those who seek our protection? Or will we choose to welcome the small number of refugees who reach our shores, and support them to integrate into society and contribute to building a better world?”

Katie McSherry, Campaign Project Manager North East

Stay in touch! We provide regular policy and sector updates. Follow us on Twitter @AsylumMatters