Asylum seekers deserve better

Steve Symonds warns that the new Asylum and Immigration Bill will add to the injustices committed against asylum seekers.

Once again, asylum seekers are to be singled out for different treatment as regards welfare provision. The current Asylum and Immigration Bill will take asylum seekers out of the normal system completely, in that benefits and local authority assistance will be denied. A vouchers system for food and other essentials is proposed.

Already the welfare system treats asylum seekers less favourably. Income support granted to an asylum seeker, for instance, is paid at a reduced rate.

Also, anyone delaying a claim for asylum until after passing through passport control is now automatically refused benefit. All of this reinforces the general message that asylum seekers are not welcome.

More than this, it may serve to promote a culture within organisations like the Benefits Agency that is unduly distrustful and seemingly prejudiced.

In November 1998, "Mr M" arrived in this country from Afghanistan. He claimed asylum – his fear of persecution arising out of his experience working for a humanitarian organisation in that country.

Having been forced to leave behind his wife and children, Mr M was unsurprisingly suffering from, in the words of his general practitioner, "depression, anxiety and several stress-related symptoms".

Certainly he was not well. He knew one other person in this country, and this friend allowed him to share a studio flat for a short period. Eventually, however, Mr M moved on.

He secured a flat for himself by borrowing some money from his friend to pay an advance of rent. He then claimed income support. The Benefits Agency refused.

At first the agency failed to say why. However, after Mr M appealed, the explanation was forthcoming.

There are rules regarding capital for income support claims. If you are an asylum-seeker with any sum of money, you will be refused benefit until this money is spent. If you spend the money unreasonably and in a way calculated to dispose of it in order to claim, you will be treated as if you still had the money. Mr M, it was said, had spent the borrowed money in such a way.

Of itself that might be thought to be fairly unreasonable. But those at the agency who reached this conclusion did so because Mr M had worked for a pro-humanitarian organisation in Afghanistan, demonstrating, to them, that he would be familiar with the rules for claiming benefit in this country: an absurd conclusion.

It has had some fairly unpleasant results for Mr M, who has remained without money for several months. He has resorted to scrounging abandoned fruit and vegetable from local markets. His health has deteriorated.

His appeal, as is quite normal, did not come up for hearing for about six months. By this time Mr M was confined to bed and could not attend.

The tribunal declined to take the unusual step of briefly considering the papers to make an assessment as to whether the decision to refuse income support could possibly stand. Instead, they adjourned so that Mr M could attend in the future.

It would be wrong to deny that some people, whether asylum seekers or others, deliberately set out to take advantage of the welfare system. However, that ought not to be the presumption.

Many more people do have genuine needs and claims. That is what the system is there for.

Mr M's claim for asylum was granted at the beginning of June, but he is still without any money. It is dispiriting that further singling out of asylum seekers will be likely to lead to further mistreatment of those in a similar position to Mr M.

Steve Symonds is a volunteer on the management committee of the Free Representation Unit.