Using destitution as deterrence

Using destitution as deterrence - the implications of Government changes to asylum support for children 

Kamena Dorling, 10 August 2015  

In 2008, Ian Duncan Smith MP stated: ‘It appears that a British government is using forced destitution as a means of encouraging people to leave voluntarily. It is a failed policy... UK policy is still driven by the thesis, clearly falsified, that we can encourage people to leave by being nasty.’  Seven years later, his party’s policy appears as much driven by this thesis as it is austerity.  

Last month the Government laid regulations to reduce the support provided to families claiming asylum, meaning that as of today, a parent with two children would receive £116.85 a week, a 25% cut in support leaving each child just over £5 a day to live on. This is despite the growing body of evidence from those working with these families showing that levels of support were already too low to meet children’s essential living needs. In 2013, the Parliamentary Inquiry into Asylum Support for Children and Young People asserted that ‘the rates of support should never fall below 70% of income support.’ They are now just over 50% of income support. 
Last week the Government published new proposals to remove the £36.92 a week support from families whose asylum claims have been refused within 28 days, unless they are able to demonstrate why they could not leave the UK. There are around 2,900 families currently receiving this support, and the Government’s view is that this ‘sends the wrong message’ to those who might wish to come to the UK. 
Are we to assume that all these families have had a fair hearing and should simply go home? Problems in Home Office determination of asylum claims are well-documented, suggesting we should not. Nearly a third of decisions are overturned at appeal. Of the 1,193 families that the Home Office considered to have no right to remain in UK between 2012 and 2014, 242 families could not actually be returned and needed to be granted leave, resulting in the Independent Family Returns Panel questioning ‘the quality of Home Office initial decision making’. Many whose asylum claims are refused have fled violence and conflict and are often unable to leave the country immediately, as this may put their health or safety at serious risk, or if they do wish to return may be unable to obtain the necessary documentation.
Furthermore, the Home Office has recently cut funding for the Assisted Voluntary Return Scheme, so that fewer individuals looking to return will be able to obtain assistance to do so. These changes not only run contrary to the aim of ensuring all ‘illegal migrants’ return to their countries of origin, but according to Refugee Action, will cost the Home Office and taxpayer a further £8.5 million per year over the term of the current government.
Changes to the support system for those seeking refuge in the UK stem from the belief that creating a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants is an effective means of encouraging them to leave and that it is Britain’s ‘generosity’ that attracts them to the UK in the first place. There is little evidence to suggest that this strategy is effective. The fall in asylum support in 2011 actually saw an increase in the number of applications and research commissioned by the Home Office itself emphasised that the support system was not a major factor influencing the destination of those seeking asylum. The majority of those seeking asylum are from Syria, Eritrea, Sudan and Afghanistan - there is a clear correlation between the highest numbers of applicants and countries that are war torn or under political oppression. Are these people really fleeing their countries and risking their lives for £35 a week on a prepaid card? 
As Coram Children’s Legal Centre’s research and experience has shown, the hostile environment agenda is having a significant and damaging impact on the welfare of children and families in the UK. Some children are born into destitution because their parents are cut off from asylum support but are unable to leave the UK. Others face homelessness due to administrative gaps and delays. For those families who receive support, levels are too low to adequately feed and clothe their children. This all has severe implications for children’s safety, physical and mental health, and leaves some families vulnerable to exploitation and serious harm as a result. The additional hardship many families are prepared to suffer simply demonstrates the ongoing fear they have of returning to their countries of origin, enduring street homelessness and the day-to-day struggle to secure food and shelter rather than do so. 
Destitute children with no access to alternative support are undisputedly ‘in need’ and under the Children Act 1989 local authorities have duties to safeguard and promote their welfare through the provision of accommodation and other services that are assessed as necessary. They are therefore caught between two conflicting agendas: the legislation designed to safeguard children and the policy of excluding families from services as a means of migration control and limiting public expenditure. Concerns have already been raised about the thousands of migrant children forced into destitution and reliant on social services. 
Each time central government introduces these restrictions, it shifts the responsibility and cost to local government. The Government’s Impact Assessment for change to asylum support assumes that local authorities might only have to support destitute individuals and families for ‘three months while the leave to remain application is decided.’ Yet a recent University of Oxford report highlighted that more than a third of migrant families supported by local authorities while waiting for a decision on their immigration case receive this support for between one and three years. 
While designed to send a tough message, these changes will not guarantee cost-savings, nor will they guarantee that more people leave the UK. The Government itself has admitted that ‘the behavioural response to the withdrawal or restriction of support is difficult to evidence’. Instead, as the Education Select Committee warned in 2012, destitution is being used as a weapon against children because of their immigration status. Levels of support for families seeking asylum are already so low that families are struggling to provide for their children. Cutting it further will serve only to push more children into poverty, with serious repercussions for their well-being and safety, undermining both the UK’s commitment to protecting refugees and its commitment to protecting children. 

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