With lockdown measures lifting and the UK’s Covid-19 vaccine being rolled out at an impressive speed, a return to some semblance of normality seems within reach, if virus variants allow. But while a return to normal life has been eagerly anticipated by many, for others it has a very different meaning.
The government has been quick to return to its usual callous approach to asylum
Coinciding with a decline in Covid-19 fatalities came a pitiless announcement from the Home Office at the end of April, stating it would be resuming the evictions of refused asylum seekers with immediate effect. Prior to the pandemic, this was a regular occurrence. Those whose asylum claims had been refused by the Home Office would typically be given just 21 days to leave the UK after being notified of the decision. But when coronavirus hit early last year, the government begrudgingly put a hold on asylum seeker evictions, recognising that evicting refused asylum seekers would pose a significant threat not only to the individual themselves but to public health.
Now that the UK finally seems to have Covid-19 cases under control, the government has been quick to return to its usual callous approach to asylum. In recent years, criticisms from a number of leading asylum and refugee charities across the UK have done little to stop the government from placing those seeking refuge in dire situations. Despite the government having a legal duty to support any asylum seeker at risk of destitution or who cannot leave the UK – including those whose claims have been refused – this has seldom been the reality for countless vulnerable asylum seekers. Instead, those at immediate risk of destitution are frequently evicted from their temporary accommodation and ordered to leave the UK if their claim has been refused.
This has devastating consequences. A 2017 report by Refugee Action notes that many of the asylum seekers the organisation works with are living on the street and/or haven’t eaten properly in weeks. For many people seeking asylum, government support is crucial in preventing them from becoming destitute, since asylum seekers in the UK are prohibited from working while their claim is being processed. Yet, despite being entitled to this support, many often face significant delays in receiving their allowance of just £39.63 per week – a figure expected to cover everything from clothing to toiletries.
The matter can be even worse for those whose asylum claims have been refused by the Home Office. Those at risk of destitution are entitled to Section 4 support if their claim is refused. This provides them with £35.39 per week and accommodation. However many are rarely able to access this support, with Refugee Action revealing that applications for emergency support are incorrectly refused by the government on a regular basis; 92 per cent of initial refusals are granted upon appeal, often with no change in the applicant’s material situation. It is the most vulnerable asylum seekers who bear the repercussions of these decisions, as they are made to battle imminent evictions and subsequent homelessness.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that a government with a notoriously hostile approach to immigration would be keen to reinstate such measures, but at a time when the future still remains so uncertain and Covid-19 is still wreaking havoc across the globe, it feels particularly inhumane to knowingly place people at risk of homelessness.
MPs and activists are campaigning against the government’s decision to resume asylum seeker evictions, arguing that a return to normality should not mean a return to the UK’s hostile asylum system. Public Health England has repeatedly expressed concerns regarding the increased Covid risk that homelessness can create.
A Scottish community recently made headlines on Eid al-Fitr as residents protested against an immigration raid that tried to evict and detain their neighbours – two Muslim men reported to have fled from war-torn countries. Hundreds gathered to block immigration officials from leaving with the individuals. This powerful display of solidarity is what we have long needed. We must not continue to turn a blind eye to the injustices being faced by asylum seekers.
The pandemic should act as a catalyst for systemic change. The measures taken to protect public health during the pandemic – such as the move to provide accommodation to those who are homeless and those whose asylum claims have been refused – have demonstrated that this support is possible when it is prioritised. We must not return to a version of the norm wherein hostile policies actively place vulnerable people at risk of destitution. n
Image: A demonstration in Glasgow to protest against the detention of two men by Immigration Detention officers (Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Alamy)