Monday, June 14, 1999 Published at 17:59 GMT 18:59 UK
UK asylum system 'degrading'
Asylum seekers protest at the Immigration and Asylum Bill
The government plans to extend the food voucher scheme to all asylum seekers under its Immigration and Asylum Bill. A key opponent is Neil Gerrard, chairman of the all-party group on refugees. BBC News Online spoke to refugees and asylum workers in his constituency.
X fled to the UK from northern Kosovo eight months ago.
He said at the time he was grateful to escape the Serbs, but now he is depressed.
He has been ground down by the food voucher system which allows him no cash, even for public transport and denies him any independence.
He is sharing a room with another refugee in Leyton, having first stayed at a bed and breakfast in Chingford.
It took two to three weeks before he was assessed for food vouchers.
In Waltham Forest, all food vouchers, which come in £5 and £10 forms, can only be used at one Tesco store in Leyton.
X is lucky. He only has to walk one and a half miles to Tesco.
He says he feels ashamed at having to use vouchers.
"Because they are in £5 and £10 form, you have to use them all at once or you will lose money.
"If your shopping comes to £4.50, you have to hold up the queue and go and look for more food.
"It makes me feel embarrassed."
He speaks good English and acts as an interpreter for others and says it is much more difficult for people who do not know the language or the currency to find their way around Tesco.
He cannot afford vegetables or fruit on the vouchers.
Speaking about the proposed government changes, he said: "It is very difficult for a single person to survive on vouchers. For a family it will be devastating.
"It is very difficult to feel integrated in British society because of this system, although people are friendly.
"I would like to have the minimum of what British society has got."
Because he has no cash, he was forced to beg money off friends to be able to contact other members of his family who fled to Albania.
He did not know if they were dead or alive for five months.
He spends most of his days walking around and meeting his friends.
His room has some cooking facilities, but no crockery or cooking implements.
He says the food vouchers do not usually cover this or things like odor eaters.
He gets his clothes and bedding from charities.
"In the beginning, it was okay in Britain because I had escaped from Kosovo. Now I do not feel so good. Everything takes time.
"Because I cannot pay for anything I have to depend on my landlord, for example, for a £15 shower attachment.
"If I had cash, I could save for a shower attachment."
The voucher system
Food vouchers, which replace Income Support, currently apply to refugees who do not apply for asylum immediately after arriving in the UK.
They mainly cover toiletries, food and household cleaning items and their average value is £30 a week.
The government proposes to extend them to all asylum seekers.
Because of opposition from some Labour backbenchers, it is proposing to provide a small amount of cash - about £10 a week per person - and says it will speed up the process for considering asylum for families.
But X does not think the £10 a week - which will be deducted from food vouchers - will make much difference to him since he has a short way to the supermarket and it costs £1.20 return on the bus.
And many refugee workers believe the system of food vouchers itself is wrong.
Afzal Mirza, coordinator of the Refugee Advice Centre in Leyton, said: "This system punishes refugees with them being presumed guilty before their case has been heard."
He says running the voucher system is bureaucratic and expensive and cannot save the government much money since it is only worth 70% of Income Support.
The government argues that the voucher package is equivalent to 90% of Income Support.
Mr Mirza does not believe the legislation will deter asylum seekers and says their number has always gone up after legislation has been brought in to curb it.
He puts the increase over the last few years down to changes in the international political arena, such as the break-up of the Soviet Union, and says the UK has not been hit particularly hard.
"It is not a national problem, but an international one and the government needs to look at it in a broader way," he said.
Refugees come to the centre after they have entered the country and contacted an asylum lawyer.
In some cases, for example when a refugee has spent a night in one local authority area and then moved to another, cash-pressed councils argue that they are not their responsibility.
They are then given a date for assessment. This can take two weeks, during which they have no money for food.
The advice centre provides food parcels for this kind of emergency.
After assessment by social services and housing, they receive a paper saying they do not qualify for Income Support or housing benefit.
They are then given vouchers and their accommodation is paid for.
Z is a 60-year-old Russian doctor. She came to the UK eight months ago with her 30-year-old son.
He died four months ago of pneumonia and, because she was on food vouchers, she did not have any money to visit his grave in Chingford, several miles from her Leyton home.
Fortunately, a charity has leant her the weekly bus fare, but she cannot afford a headstone for him.
Because she is registered in Westminster, she spends her vouchers at a local cash and carry shop, rather than Tesco.
She says it is "very, very expensive" and she does not eat much.
She has no money to repair her shoes and cannot buy stockings or clothes.
She has a detached retina which means she has to walk to the local hospital on a weekly basis.
If she gets sick, she cannot just buy medicine from a local shop, but has to go to a doctor with an interpreter.
"The system is absolutely degrading and totally unfair," said Mr Mirza.
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