By Misha Nayak-Oliver

COVID-19 shows how those who are forced to rely on the financial security of ASPEN are put in a highly dangerous situation, at risk of serious health complications or death. 

Urgent attention must be afforded to the policy measures causing the destitution of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom (UK), especially the impact of the Asylum Support Enablement Card (ASPEN) provided by the UK Home Office to asylum seekers whose claims are ongoing or rejected

The UK Government is violating its international human rights obligations. 

ASPEN Cards

ASPEN was rolled-out in May 2017; prepaid Visa cards replaced previous methods of cash payments and Azure card payments, delivered independently of the income support payments made to unemployed UK (and, currently, EU) citizens. Eligibility requirements include asylum seeker status and destitution. This means, those on ASPEN often have additional needs which exceed state provision and poverty is “present among some of the most vulnerable parts of the asylum seeker population … pregnant women … newborn babies … children … LGBTI individuals … and torture survivors”.

While the Home Office maintains that support rates are adequate, essential living needs are not all covered. Qualitative research shows an increase in liability to destitution while in the asylum system. 

In March 2020, the UK’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson confirmed to the UK’s Parliament that asylum seekers will certainly receive the Home Office funding that they need and deserve during the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, in May 2020 he stated: “We will make sure that nobody in this country, let alone asylum seekers, is ill-treated. I shall certainly be investigating the matter”.

Despite this commitment, in June 2020, the Home Office announced that financial support for people seeking asylum in the UK would increase from £37.75 to £39.60 per week,  This means asylum seekers are still forced to live on the  inadequate amount of £5 a day, while the UK Government increased Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit by approximately £20 per week. At present, financial support for asylum seekers is below 40% of the allowance people over 25 receive on Universal Credit. 

In June, Just Fair joined over 250 organisations to write to the Home Secretary demanding an increase in asylum support rates. We called on the Home Office to immediately ensure that asylum support rates receive the same £20 COVID-related uplift as Universal Credit. A response was given by the UK Government, but the demand for an urgent increase to asylum support rates has not been met. 

COVID-19 and ASPEN

ASPEN cards can only be used in physical shops, and as the ASPEN card cannot be used online, asylum seekers who are having to shield due to a pre-existing medical condition, or who are quarantining due to having COVID-19 symptoms will face difficulties in accessing food or other essentials.

At a recent meeting on ‘COVID-19 and NRPF’ held by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF), of which Just Fair is the co-Secretariat, a member of the WINGS group brought up this very issue, she asked: Where does this card leave Asylum seekers who are told to self-isolate?

Asylum seekers on ASPEN cannot ‘stay at home’ or ‘stay safe’. This is a political choice, and this is not accidental.

The UK Home Office has previously stated in its enforcement strategy that “those not prioritised for removal […] should be denied the benefits and privileges of life in the UK and experience an increasingly uncomfortable environment so that they elect to leave”. 

ASPEN and International Human Rights Law

International human rights law applies to all human beings, regardless of their immigration, refugee, asylum seeker or other status.

On this basis, it is clear that the UK Government is in violation of its legally binding duty to respect the rights of asylum seekers. Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which the UK has voluntarily committed to abide by, the UK Government has an obligation to respect the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for themselves and their family, including adequate food and living conditions (Article 11(1)) and freedom from hunger (Article 11(2)). The UK Government has agreed to respect everyone’s right to enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health (Article 12(1)).

The ASPEN policy interferes with, and is therefore not an appropriate step to ensure, the realization of these rights. 

ASPEN also casts a light on related ICESCR rights violated by UK Government policy. For example, everyone is entitled to just and favourable conditions of work (Articles 6 and 7). Yet, after his mission to the UK in 2018, Philip Alston, concluded: “Asylum seekers are banned from working and limited to a derisory level of support that guarantees they will live in poverty. The [UK] Government promotes work as the singular solution to poverty, yet refuses to allow this particular group to work”. This policy is discriminatory against asylum seekers as it is forcing them to live on less than the amount needed to live on. The failure to act and to uplift asylum support rates is detrimental to economic, social and cultural rights.

The ICESCR has not been incorporated into UK law so there is no access to effective legal remedies for asylum seekers on ASPEN under this law. But this does not mean that the UK Government’s compliance with its obligations is discretionary. The rights contained in ICESCR apply to everyone, “regardless of legal status and documentation”. The Home Office’s ASPEN policy violates international human rights law. 

COVID-19 shows that the UK Government’s policy is risking the lives of asylum seekers; it is time to end ASPEN, end No Recourse to Public Funds, and Lift the Ban to give people seeking asylum the right to work.

For more information, see Just Fair’s blogs on right to access healthcare, data sharing, and ending NRPF. As a member of the London Child Poverty Alliance, Just Fair supported this letter sent to the Minister for London calling for increased support for families during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are also a proud member of the Lift the Ban coalition that is calling for the end of the ban on asylum seekers being allowed to work. See our briefing on the Right to Work of People Seeking Asylum in the UK according to International Human Rights Law for more information.

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