What can you buy for a fiver a day? A coffee and a sandwich, perhaps a newspaper or a packet of mints, and it's gone. But for an asylum seeker, a fiver has to cover food, clothing, toiletries, travel, stationery, stamps, phone calls (essential to contact legal representatives and the Home Office) - all the expenses of living apart from accommodation.
From 5 October 2009, support for destitute asylum seekers over 25 has been slashed from £42.16 to £35.15 per week, representing just over half of income support - the level of income the government has set as a basic safety net.
Since the Home Office took over responsibility for supporting asylum seekers in the late 1990s, its support has been grudging, mean-spirited and clearly designed to deter rather than welcome.
The level of support was set at 70 per cent of income support if destitution could be proved, but initially was 'in kind' - paid through vouchers redeemable in supermarkets, which were enticed to join the scheme with promises that they could keep the change. A campaign supported by the Transport and General Workers Union led to the abolition of vouchers, but they have crept back into use for 'section 4' support of refused asylum seekers who can show that they are unable to leave the country. After more campaigning, the vouchers are to be replaced by smart cards.
Compulsory 'dispersal' of asylum seekers out of London and the south east for the past decade has led to increased isolation and vulnerability to mental illness and racist attacks. At the same time, a policy that allowed asylum seekers to work was reversed, creating unnecessary dependency and contributing to popular racist myths of 'asylum scroungers'.
The extreme reluctance of the Home Office to allow asylum seekers to work stems from its institutional perception of asylum seekers as disguised economic migrants seeking to jump the queue to work in the UK. This myth is fostered by its own conduct in excluding so many from even below-subsistence support - such as those who fail to claim asylum within three days of arrival - that they are driven to work undocumented.
Refused asylum seekers too are excluded from all support, unless they can show that they cannot be returned home, and it is this group - including Zimbabweans, Somalis, Iraqis, Iranians, Eritreans and Afghans - who have suffered the most hardship. Research by Refugee Action in 2007 estimated that 20,000 asylum-seeking households were destitute. On average those interviewed had been destitute for 21 months, and 60 per cent of respondents had slept on the street on at least one occasion.
In 2007 the parliamentary joint committee on human rights condemned the asylum support system in devastating terms, observing that 'by refusing permission for most asylum seekers to work and operating a system of support which results in widespread destitution, the treatment of asylum seekers in a number of cases [is] inhuman and degrading.'
Its report referred to 'countless examples of Home Office inefficiencies in processing support claims, with severe consequences for desperate, vulnerable people who have no other means to support themselves ... The institutional failure to address operational inefficiencies and to protect asylum seekers from destitution amounts in many cases to a failure to protect them from inhuman and degrading treatment.'
The report condemned the inadequate housing often provided, and described the voucher scheme for refused asylum seekers as 'inhumane and inefficient. It stigmatises refused asylum seekers and does not adequately provide for basic living needs.' The committee concluded that 'the government has been practising a deliberate policy of destitution ... The policy of enforced destitution must cease.'
But the government refused to implement the committee's recommendation that asylum seekers and some groups of refused asylum seekers who could not return home be allowed to work, and has appealed a High Court ruling to that effect. It is no surprise, then, that a 2009 follow-up to a 2006 survey into destitution among asylum seekers in Leeds found continuing high levels of 'serious and prolonged' destitution (Still Destitute: a worsening problem for refused asylum seekers, JRCT, 2009).
In its treatment of some of the most vulnerable people in our society, the government shows contempt for the basic principles of human solidarity and compassion.