Jane is Incredible and talented. And UK asylum rules are forcing her to beg
By removing financial support from people seeking refugee status, the government is condemning women and children to destitution and danger
There is a woman I know called Jane. Jane is incredible; she has survived rape and torture in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she brings up two children completely without help, she has a beautiful speaking voice and a talent for writing poetry. If I say she is a refugee you would say she was one of the lucky ones; not on a boat in the Mediterranean, not at a border in central Europe.
Yes, she is here in London. But lucky? Not really. Jane is struggling with many unresolved problems – including the fact that still, more than 10 years after first arriving in the UK, she has not been accepted as a refugee. She has already been refused and deported once, a few years ago. When she was sent back to DRC she experienced further persecution, and fled here again. She knows she could be refused and deported again at any time.
She also has no money. The housing provided by the Home Office is one room where she and her two children sleep in the same bed, infested with cockroaches and freezing cold. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work, and because Jane’s first asylum claim was refused, she has to live on something called an Azure card. It is topped up by the Home Office each week and she can use it in specified outlets for essential food and toiletries.
That sounds benign, but day by day, this system poses unresolvable problems. She has no money for transport but her five-year-old child is enrolled in a school that is two bus-rides away from where she lives. She has to report to the Home Office every month; she has recently been called to an asylum interview in Liverpool. She has no money for the school uniform her son needs, or for the photographs of him that the Home Office has requested, or for a childminder to take the kids when she had to go into hospital – the list goes on. We live in a society that is oiled by money – without it, every step becomes a hurdle.
So what Jane has to do, day by day and week by week, is beg. She goes around from charity to charity to get a bit of money for buses, for train fares, for a school tie. Sometimes she finds that the Azure card is not working, due to problems on the Home Office system, and then she begs for food too. In this situation I have seen how Jane trembles with helpless anxiety, and how her fear is passed on to her children.
But in a way Jane is one of the lucky ones, or at least she has been so far. Because one of the little discussed aspects of the new immigration bill that is passing through parliament is a proposal to limit even this kind of support.
The bill proposes that more people in Jane’s position – yes, even women with children – may be left totally destitute, with no safety net.
Funnily enough, this is not a new proposal. In 2005 there was a pilot of a similar policy change that withdrew support from people who had been refused asylum, including women with children. I once met a woman, Elena, who was affected by this pilot. She had gone straight from the hospital with her newborn baby to social services, where she asked if they could support her while she found evidence for a fresh asylum claim. They told her that they could not help her. But as they still had a statutory duty to protect her child, they said that they would take her child into care. That clearly made some convoluted logic; if you make a mother homeless she can’t look after her child, so you have to take away the child.
Elena did what most mothers would have done – she got up, left the social worker’s office, and walked away, holding her precious son as tightly as she could. For five years she lived underground, out of touch with the Home Office, sleeping on people’s sofas, on park benches, in church halls with her little boy. Once she was sexually assaulted but was too afraid to tell the police. That’s what happens if you tell women you can’t support them and their children. You condemn them to homelessness, destitution and danger.
The government is bringing in this new proposal in order to try to encourage people who have been refused asylum to leave the country. But right now too many women who have strong asylum claims are refused refugee status, and taking away their support will not encourage them to make arrangements to return to DRC or Afghanistan, or wherever they first found themselves in danger. What it will do is ensure that some very vulnerable people are made more vulnerable, and left unable to care for themselves or their kids.
At the moment, when we talk about refugees, we tend to talk about those who have not made it here, and it is right that we step up to our duties in the international crisis that is unfolding. But some of our leaders seem to think that those who have struggled to our shores are less deserving of support than those in refugee camps elsewhere. This is not necessarily the case. I have met many women and children who are survivors of rape and torture who have struggled to this country, desperate for a safe haven, and they too need some protection, some dignity, some hope.
• Jane and Elena’s names have been changed to protect their identities - theguardian