Page last updated at 01:36 GMT, Thursday, 14 May 2009 02:36 UK

Asylum seeker rules 'not working'

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News home affairs

A food parcel for an asylum seeker
Food parcel: Some asylum seekers living on hand-outs

Tough policies to force failed asylum seekers to go home by removing their support are not working, according to a consortium of migrant charities.

Research suggests asylum seekers are living on British streets, surviving on hand-outs, rather than leaving.

A count in just one month identified almost 1,200 refused applicants with no support or secure housing.

Immigration minister Phil Woolas said the system governing failed asylum applicants was fair.

The research was carried out by the Asylum Support Partnership, a consortium of charities who are contracted by the UK Border Agency to support asylum seekers while their applications are considered.

Most asylum seekers who arrive in the UK are temporarily housed by the Home Office and are banned from working to prevent the system being abused for economic migration.

Everyone is entitled to apply for support at every stage of the process - our asylum process is fair and humane
Immigration minister Phil Woolas

Under long-standing rules, officials can withdraw this support from some of those who are refused asylum to encourage people who have no legal right to be in the UK to go home. Special measures exist to maintain support for families.

During October last year, asylum support workers at a string of locations around the UK recorded details of everyone who came asking for help.

They found almost 2,000 people who they said were destitute because they had no housing or access to benefits or other support. Half of these people came from Iraq, Iran, Eritrea and Zimbabwe.

Of those classed destitute, 1,178 were failed asylum seekers - and 730 of the cases had been refused for at least six months. None had to voluntarily leave the UK. About 250 of those seeking help said they had children.

Official figures show that in the last quarter of last year, which includes the period covered by the refugee survey, 610 asylum seekers departed on voluntary return schemes - and a further 260 went of their own accord.

It is impossible to show just from numbers how devastating the impact of destitution is
Donna Covey
Asylum Support Partnership

Overall, 3,900 failed asylum seekers voluntarily left the UK in 2008 - a further 7,700 were forcibly removed, usually after a period in detention.

Immigration Minister Phil Woolas said: "If someone has no right to be here they must return home. I do not believe the taxpayer should be funding those with no grounds to stay in the UK.

"Our policies ensure that no person who has sought protection need be destitute whilst they have a valid reason to be here - everyone is entitled to apply for support at every stage of the process."

But Donna Covey, chair of the Asylum Support Partnership and chief executive of the Refugee Council, says the system needs a radical overhaul.

"It is impossible to show just from numbers how devastating the impact of destitution is," she said.

"However, the sheer size of the numbers gives some indication of how serious the problem is. The fact that our survey includes families is simply shameful."

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