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Emma Birks is Campaigns Manager for Asylum Matters – a charity that works to improve the lives of refugees and people seeking asylum through social and political change. Just Fair is featuring this guest blog as a proud member of the Lift the Ban coalition – believing the right to work is fundamental human right.

“I have to be so careful with what I spend because if I go over even a pound, we will suffer for the week. I’m in a situation I cannot change, I feel so powerless. Somedays I wake up and have no strength to live life.” These are the words of Grace, a mother from Birmingham trying to decide if she can afford a pack of spaghetti for her and her child. 

People seeking asylum in the UK are effectively banned from working and forced to depend on immensely low levels of support from the UK Government. This amounts to £45 per person per week and £9.10 for those in full board accommodation.

The current rate of £45 equates to 58% of the amount Universal Credit awards to over 25s and works out at £6.43 a day to pay for food, clothing, toiletries, transport and other essential items. Even though support has increased incrementally over the years, in real terms the support level is lower now than in the year 2000.

The Migration Observatory has stated that “in real terms, the payment level in 2022 is 27% lower than in 2000.” See their graph below

The isolation and forced inactivity experienced by many people seeking asylum has a negative impact on their psychological well-being and is often compounded by the anxiety of providing for themselves and their families. In 2020 Asylum Matters surveyed over 180 people seeking asylum, both individuals and those in families, asking them to outline their experience of living on asylum support. The report ‘Locked into Poverty’ sets out the findings of our survey and revealed that 92% of respondents did not have enough money to buy all they need. In the current cost-of-living crisis this hardship will only be compounded and exacerbated.

The human stories behind these figures are devastating. You can read countless more stories like Grace trying to afford essentials while living on asylum support here: in The Independent, Birmingham Mail, North East Bylines and My London.

So how did we get here?

Asylum Support was originally set at 70% of the social security benefit Income Support, on the basis that asylum seekers’ accommodation and utility bills would be paid for separately. However, in 2008 the Government decided to break the link to income support payments, which led to a growing disparity between asylum and income support levels.

In December 2022 the Home Office announced an interim increase to £45 after the High Court ruled that the Home Secretary had acted unlawfully by failing in her legal duty to provide for the essential living needs of asylum seekers. The court also found the new methodology used in 2021 to be irrational and unlawful. We await the response from the Home Office on this ruling.

Asylum Matters believes that the rate of asylum support should be raised to at least 70% of mainstream benefits provided to over 25s, and that asylum-seekers and their adult dependents should be given the right to work after six months of having lodged an asylum claim or further submission and be able to apply for any job on the market. See our briefing for further information.

The system desperately needs reforming so that people are put first and are able to live lives of freedom and dignity, where their basic human rights are respected.

Background image by Ivanina Aleksandrova