Page last updated at 08:51 GMT, Thursday, 14 May 2009 09:51 UK

Asylum seekers 'living off hand-outs'

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News home affairs

A food parcel for an asylum seeker
Rejected asylum seekers like Mary receive food parcels like this every week

A shopping bag is handed over the front desk to Mary, a Ugandan woman wearing a bright yellow headscarf. She smiles, says thank you, and takes it, along with £3.70 in cash.

In the bag there's sugar, tinned sweetcorn, tinned tomatoes, tuna, biscuits, shower gel, tea leaves, spaghetti, rice, cooking oil, breakfast cereal washing powder - and one roll of toilet paper.

Next week she will be back for the same hand-out from the Rainbow Haven community centre in Gorton, Manchester, with no means of supporting herself in the meantime.

The centre is a place for asylum seekers to meet up and get a hot meal, but it is also the frontline of what refugee agencies say is an increasingly difficult battle against destitution.

And 40-year-old Mary is one of the people they see week in, week out.

"I have to make it last for a week. But it's sometimes four days," she says.

"If I get some milk, cooking oil, sugar and spaghetti and tea bags, that's when I'm happy."

The £3.70 cash hand-out goes on bus fares.

Mary does not qualify for any benefits, because she is effectively an illegal immigrant.

In 2005 she exhausted her legal avenues for her asylum claim.

Mary had arrived from Uganda saying she had been targeted because of her brother-in-law's political activity.

Weekly payments

Under long-standing rules designed to crack down on unfounded claims, immigration officials at the UK Border Agency will typically only support asylum applicants with housing and a small weekly benefit while their case is being looked at.

Rainbow Haven centre, Manchester
I'm here with nothing because I've decided that I want life
Mary, from Uganda

If someone's claim is judged to be unfounded, and they do not take immediate steps to leave the UK, this support is usually withdrawn in an attempt to encourage them to leave.

Separate rules apply to children because of general legal duties to protect them.

In many cases, failed asylum seekers are fast-tracked on to flights out of the UK.

In Mary's case, she was given three week's notice to leave her accommodation and her £38 weekly payment was stopped.

But when her eviction came, she did not head for the Ugandan High Commission to organise her return home.

She slept rough in Manchester's Piccadilly Station.

"I used to go in the call box pretending to call somebody," she says.

"I'd stay there, then when I was tired I would go to the bus stop and sit there, pretending to be waiting for someone. I'd then go back in the call box."

After two days of this, Mary made contact with volunteers in Manchester who help asylum seekers.

Four years on, her position has not changed - she is in unofficial accommodation and survives on the kindness of strangers.

But, to all intents and purposes, she has disappeared.

Despite an obligation to report regularly to a UK Border Agency office, she does not attend.

She stopped going because she did not have the money for the bus fare - and then concluded that officials should be the last people she should see if she wants to stay.

"They [in Uganda] tortured me, they raped me," she tells me.

"But the Home Office says these things never happened to me. I'm scared. I'm here with nothing because I've decided that I want life. I was lucky first time around - I got out. If I go back, I don't know what would happen."

Destitution tally

This is the heart of the issue in research by the Asylum Support Partnership, the consortium of charities contracted to the Home Office to provide some services to people in the asylum system.

1,972 destitute asylum seekers found
952 destitute for more than six months
731 refused applicants destitute for more than six months
995 destitute people from four nations
Source: Asylum Support Partnership

The partnership says its research questions whether the withdrawal of support is working at any level.

In October last year its advice workers kept a tally of destitution cases coming into offices around the UK.

They deemed 1,972 people as destitute - meaning they did not have adequate accommodation and could not meet the cost of other essential living needs.

Some 730 of these people said they had been refused asylum and had been living without support for at least six months.

Half of all the destitution cases they saw were from just four countries - Iraq, Iran, Eritrea and Zimbabwe. Some 250 of all the visitors said they had children.

2008 TOTAL:
3,900 voluntary returns in 2008
7,700 forced removals
SEPT - DEC 2008:
610 voluntary returns
260 others left of their own accord
Source: National Statistics

Most of these people had not applied for payments available in exceptional circumstances - and the government says that nobody who has sought refugee protection need be destitute whilst they have a valid reason to be in the UK.

It says taxpayers should not be funding those with no grounds to stay.

But the partnership argues that does not mean refused asylum seekers return home.

It argues that the anecdotal reports from local soup kitchens, often run quietly and unseen by church groups, have now been backed up by the October tally.

Critically, argue case workers, rejected asylum seekers who have been resourceful enough to travel halfway around the world will try to find ways to support themselves.

The withdrawal of support means many rejected asylum seekers will ultimately end up in the hidden economy of illegal immigrants, they say.

Case worker Mike Dolan says he and his colleagues at Refugee Action in Manchester see people at "two ends of the spectrum".

"We see people who have received the letter saying they are about to be made homeless in the next 14 days," he says.

"But we have also seen people who got that letter four years ago and have been destitute ever since.

"How do I advise someone in that situation? You don't have any options in the eyes of the Home Office other than heading off to your embassy and organising your return.

"The reality is that people do not leave. Forcing people into destitution does not force them to leave voluntarily. A small number take that option.

"People don't choose to drift into the illegal economy - it's something they find themselves in."

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