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Friday, 11 February, 2000, 16:37 GMT
The troubled life of an asylum seeker


The case of the Stansted hostages, freed after a harrowing five-day ordeal at the hands of gunmen, has provoked a wave of outrage in some UK newspapers.

Their appeals for asylum have been countered with a chorus of "send them home" closely followed by the charge that Britain is a "soft-touch" for refugees.

But for many of those caught in the tortuous process of seeking sanctuary, Britain seems to be anything but a soft option.

They face a range of obstacles. Some, such as the language barrier, are unavoidable; others are deliberately designed to deter migrants, say campaigners.

From the moment an asylum seeker sets foot in the UK, the pressure is on. They must decide whether to announce their intention for asylum at immigration, or at some later point.

Hilton Newspapers fumed at the "luxurious" hotel rooms afforded to the Stansted hostages
It's a crucial distinction. The former are entitled to cash benefits, the latter must make do with vouchers that can be exchanged for food and other essentials.

The good news for asylum advocates, is that, come April, this distinction will be abolished. The bad news is that all asylum seekers will be forced to accept vouchers - something that the Refugee Council has called "humiliating and soul destroying".

Under the current rules asylum seekers are judged either as a good or bad risk at the time of their application. Those who are not trusted are detained in prison, while those considered a better bet are housed.

Up to as year's wait

Although the Home Office has set itself a target of two months to judge all new cases, the current backlog of about 100,000 cases means those in the queue must sometimes wait up to a year.

They are not allowed to work for the first six months, after which they must apply for the right to earn money.

Months of enforced idleness, coupled with a new policy to disperse asylum seekers beyond London and the South East, will leave many feeling isolated and depressed, say supporters.

Sign The start of another tough journey
"They're simply left to mark the time," says Deri Hughes-Roberts, an appeals case worker with the Refugee Legal Centre.

"There's very little a person can do other than standing around on street corners."

Meanwhile, money is tight. Under the incoming benefits system, adults can expect about 35 each per week in vouchers. Applicants of all ages will also receive 10 in cash.

Campaigners say vouchers - which are restricted to named stores - cause hold ups at the checkout desk and stigmatise asylum seekers in the eyes of fellow shoppers.

The dispersal initiative also means that applicants will not be able to rely on the sorts of support services - medical, legal, educational and others - that have built up in London.

Education obligation

All local authorities are obliged to provide education for migrant children, but frequently they are ill-equipped to deal with the special educational needs of traumatised youngsters who do not speak a word of English.

Scar A youth after fighting with asylum seekers at Dover funfair
Access to legal help will be haphazard under the new arrangements, says Keith Best, of the Immigration Advisory Service.

It is ironic, says Mr Best, that while those judged to have a "manifestly unfounded" case will get mandatory legal advice, "more honest" applicants will have no such right.

"They will be able to apply for legal representation and will be eligible for legal aid, but the onus is on them to do so."

The cumulative effect of these pressures are enough on their own. But often they come on top of painful memories of imprisonment, torture and abuse at home, and loved ones left behind.

And while Britain is seen as a safe haven, migrants have been the target of racist attacks. Dover, which is home to thousands of asylum seekers, has been a hotbed of racial tension in recent years, and riots have broken out on occasion.
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See also:
11 Feb 00 |  UK
Asylum row hits hostage return
25 Jan 00 |  UK
Any port in a storm
25 Jan 00 |  UK
Head to head: Is Britain a soft touch for refugees?
10 Feb 00 |  UK
Asylum: What now for the hostages and hijackers?
24 Aug 99 |  UK
Asylum laws: Before and after

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