Homeless, penniless, stateless and destitute


An independent advocacy service could be a first step in a new preventative approach to tackling the destitution facing by asylum seekers in Scotland

19th June 2017 by Robert Armour 0 Comments

Ibrahim Fahim has been in Scotland for one year during which the 37-year-old has lived hand-to-mouth, sleeping on the floors of friends’ homes or the occasional overnight stay at emergency accommodation provided by charities.

He came to Glasgow via Kent on a long circuitous route through Europe. After fleeing his homeland of Syria, he says he faced certain death at the hands of government forces after being wrongly targeted as an anti-Assad rebel. 

Ibrahim knows he can’t return, though the UK government takes a different view refusing to grant him leave to stay. As such he has no means to support himself.

“I don’t want charity but it is either that or death,” he says. “This is my life. I don’t have my family and I will never be allowed to earn a living. I face this life or death in Syria. I don’t know which is better.”

Ibrahim hopes for peace to break out in the middle-east country sometime soon. But even then he believes his card has been marked. “The government will take reprisals so I don’t know if it will ever be safe to return,” he says. “Thousands have been killed for supporting the rebels. I don’t think I’ll ever be safe.”

For Ibrahim and hundreds like him, Scotland isn’t the safe haven they first envisaged. Refused asylum, hundreds of refugees face a life on Scotland’s streets, destitute and unable to return home. Like Ibrahim, for many refugees going back to their home country is not a choice, and being destitute is preferable to being imprisoned, tortured or killed.

Inevitably charities are left to provide shelter and food for this growing population of desperate, displaced people who can’t return home.

In Glasgow city centre, where the bulk of Scotland’s refugees are located, the British Red Cross has a dedicated facility assisting people who have been dispersed to the city by the Home Office.

In addition to work supporting family reunions and offering practical support to pregnant women and young people, its main function is supporting those who face destitution as a result of an increasingly complex support system.

The scale is daunting – nearly 500 destitute refugees and asylum applicants in Scotland were supported by the British Red Cross’s refugee centre in the first three months of 2017, and the numbers of people supported has increased by 150% in the last three years.

Jillian McBride refugee services operations manager for the charity said: “While more people are asking for support, the system is bureaucratic and full of delays that add to the poor health of those making claims for asylum.

“For those applicants who seek protection in Scotland claims for asylum must be made in person in Croydon with appeals made in Liverpool. The cost of travelling to England isn’t met by the government which adds to financial pressures.”

Many of the destitute clients that the project assists are entitled to some form of Home Office support, but due to the challenges of engaging in the system and in providing the high levels of evidence required, they struggle to access assistance and remain destitute and at risk of poor physical and mental health.

Timing is critical and destitution makes it much harder for people to re-engage with the asylum process not only on the practical level of travelling to appointments but fundamentally in how absolute poverty can damage a person’s self-esteem and confidence.

The Scottish Parliament’s Equality and Human Rights Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into destitution among immigrants in Scotland. 

In its initial evidence gathering stage it found that supporting destitute refugees is at the very least complex. As well as the most pressing needs of shelter, food and money, people from different cultures have very different needs, they may have language or cultural barriers that prevent them from accessing services others take for granted. 

As such the present system isn’t adequately serving this population of destitute immigrants in Scotland. The committee’s convener Christine McKelvie MP said: “The current approach isn’t working and it isn’t sustainable. There are policy changes flowing from the Immigration Act 2016 which, if implemented in Scotland, could increase the number of people who become destitute.

“If we haven’t got the approach right now then there is a real risk the impact of any changes could be overwhelming, not just to the Glasgow area, which has thus far shouldered the responsibility, but to Scotland as a whole.”

She adds: “Our report won’t change what has happened to them, but we can address how they are treated in Scotland going forward – by refocusing what is in our control – our compassionate response to destitution.

“We know we can’t solve destitution outright, but we can make progress minimising its effects to give people the best chance of finding their new life, whether this is in Scotland or back in their home country when they're able.”

Among the recommendations made by the committee is for a Scottish advocacy service coordinated by local government and the third sector, which could provide a preventative approach to destitution.

This is something the British Red Cross and other charities have been calling for.

Jill McBride said: “Such a service would ensure that clients have the independent support needed to fully understand their complex set of rights, entitlements and responsibilities and to assist with applications for financial assistance as soon as someone has an entitlement, potentially avoiding destitution completely for some.

“This type of approach provides a clear route for clients to get assistance. It would limit the length of time the client is destitute and reduce the negative impact that it can have on the client, their family and indeed other public services that are left responding to the escalating needs.”

Such a service will mean that the Scottish Government, local government and the third sector are able to invest and respond in a coordinated approach.

There will also ultimately be benefits for health care, social services and the public purse in the long term. For those seeking international protection, it will mean Scotland can fulfil its human rights obligations, giving vulnerable adults and children more dignity and ensuring that international human rights can be accessed on a more level playing field.

Until this is etablished, campaigners say the existing asylum support system will provides increasing challenges, with thousands each year cut off from Home Office support.

One of the issues in Glasgow is that there is a night shelter for male asylum seekers, but none for women. There is a need for accommodation both for single women and women with children.

Geysa Salih, a British Red Cross casework coordinator, has worked at the charity’s Glasgow new mum’s project since 2013. 

The project makes sure the women are aware of what they are entitled to, and provides help throughout the application process.  

One of Geysa’s clients had recently given birth to twins – they came a month early due to stress. The mother’s maternity grant had not arrived.  

“It’s impossible to provide for these two babies without this money,” said Geysa.  

“It affects them emotionally every day. Chasing the money is too much work for us as well.  

“It’s hard to be honest. We can never give them an idea of when their money might get paid. We can’t give them any hope.”

The UK government continues to treat aylum seekers as political pawns and as long as this continues asylum seekers will always have to rely on long-term support from charities.  

"The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection and those seeking refuge have access to a range of advice and support in the UK," a Home Office spokesman told TFN. 

"But those who do not need our help should leave the country rather than being supported by UK taxpayers."

"It's a terrible situation...I don’t know what will happen next"

Homeless, penniless, stateless and destitute

Grace and Meera live in Glasgow and have been supported by the British Red Cross’s new mums' project.   

Grace’s marriage broke down leaving her to care for her two children while she was expecting her third. As her baby’s due date approached, Grace still hadn’t received the maternity grant she was en​titled to, so the British Red Cross applied to another local charity to get Grace a buggy and clothes for the baby and even gave her money to go to the hospital in a taxi, when she went into labour.   

Grace had a baby boy in March. She says: “I have no relative so Helen a British Red Cross volunteer, stayed with me until I was ready to deliver. She also comes to look at the baby from time to time – to make sure we’re okay. 

“My maternity grant didn’t come on time. I applied in January – but it didn’t come until after the baby was born in March.   

“You need to get clothes, shoes, a buggy – there’s a lot to think about with a baby. A lot to worry about.”  

And added to the worries that go with having a new baby, Grace is also waiting to hear the outcome of her asylum case.  

“It’s a terrible situation. My blood pressure increased. I don’t know what will happen next.  

“If I am granted leave to remain then I’ll go to school. I will do my MBA, I want to give back to the system here and for my children to have choice.  

“Thank god they are doing well in school – I’m just happy about that. They have lots of Scottish friends and they’ve already got little Scottish accents – they already have that advantage.”  

“Without the British Red Cross I’d have been stuck. If you are left expecting, waiting, you can’t plan.”  

Although Grace’s maternity grant arrived shortly after her baby was born, another mum, Meera, still hasn’t received hers six weeks after the birth of hers. 

Meera, who comes from a Hindu family in India, came to the UK in 2010 as a student, with her husband.   

In 2010 Meera converted to Islam, her husband’s religion, which put a strain on her relationship with her family back home and, in 2015, prompted her and her husband to apply for asylum. They believe their lives would be in danger if they returned to India because their relationship crossed caste and religious lines. 

Meera gave birth to her second child at the beginning of April but state support for the baby has still not kicked in.    

She says: “I have post-natal depression, I’m not able to manage anything anymore. It makes looking after the baby more difficult. Going out into the community is very difficult. Not like it used to be.   

“I’ve been hurt by my family. But I’ve also been hurt by the Home Office.“I’m not able to support my family. I can’t study anymore. I’ve not been allowed to work since 2015.   

“My pregnancy was not good. The stress [of the family’s asylum case] caused some bleeding. It was very painful.   

“It was my second C-Section. I am living on the third floor. It’s very hard to get out. Even to go to the doctor is difficult.   

“The British Red Cross really helped me. They talked to people on my behalf. My case worker is really good.   

“They gave me lots of baby clothes, baby stuff. It’s really useful. What the Home Office give is not enough."