Hidden from sight: refugees and poverty

This week (18 – 24 June) is Refugee Week in the UK and so we thought it would be appropriate to do a short post on poverty amongst refugees and asylum seeking children and their families.

Earlier this year, The Children’s Society released a report into destitution amongst young refugees and asylum seekers called ‘I don’t feel human’. It notes that:

Having fled danger in their country of birth, they have to expose themselves to potential danger and harm in this country because they are excluded from support and adequate accommodation. They remain hidden from view and have to survive with minimal resources. Alarmingly their predicament is not an unintended consequence. Forced destitution has been a deliberate policy, introduced by the previous government to try and reduce what were seen to be ‘incentives’ for those coming to the UK to claim asylum. In its 2007 report, the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights noted that:

‘We have been pesuaded by the evidence that the government has indeed been practicing a deliberate policy of destitution of this highly vulnerable group [asylum seekers]. We believe that all deliberate use of inhumane treatment is unacceptable. We have seen instances in all cases where the government’s treatment of asylum seekers and refused asylum seekers falls below the requirements of the common law of humanity and international human rights law.’

Despite this criticism, the current government continues to withdraw and withhold support to refused asylum seekers as a way to expedite their return to their country of origin. This leaves many thousands of people, including children and young people, who cannot return to their country of origin, destitute for prolonged periods of time, sometimes several years, and without access to even the most basic welfare support. This particularly affects young children in the crucial early years of their life and damages the life chances of older children as they transition into adulthood. The experiences of destitute children and young people raise serious welfare concerns.

This is shocking and the report also notes that discussion around asylum seeking and refugee children has largely been absent from the child poverty debate. Indeed, children seeking asylum are not mentioned at all in the government strategy and discussion about refugees is limited to the following two sentences:

Language barriers or low/unrecognised qualifications can make finding work difficult for refugees. This, combined with the disruption and likely trauma suffered, can make work seem out of reach for a number of these families.

Much of the focus of the Children’s Society report is on asylum seekers who are either waiting for their claim to be heard or have had it refused and the destitution that they face during this time. There is less focus on how refugees fare once a claim for asylum has been upheld and this is also true more generally, from what I can gather. A report by the Scottish Poverty Information Unit in 2010 noted that:

There is a body of research across the UK that provides evidence of the experiences of poverty amongst asylum seekers (for example, see Mulvey 2009a; Hamilton and Harris, 2009; Doyle, 2008; Malfait, 2008). However, the situation of refugees is much more difficult to glean from existing research, so much so that, in their report on economic inequality in the UK, Hills et al could say little about refugee poverty, except to anticipate on the basis of qualitative studies that some asylum seekers and refugees “may be highly disadvantaged” (2010: 5). The ‘invisibility’ of refugees in administrative data collection systems arises in part because attainment of refugee status brings with it the status of ‘ordinary resident’. This means that individuals are not obliged to declare their refugee status (Aspinall and Watters, 2010: 134).

So, the HBAI figures released last week make no reference to the number of refugees who are living in poverty. They are, to all extents, invisible from current discussions and considerations. JRF do some excellent work around poverty and ethnicity, but this is not the same as looking at issues affecting refugees.

What we do know is that refugees will face similar problems as many other people trying to find work at the current time. There are not many jobs around, there is lots of competition for them, many are low-paid and insecure and many of them are concentrated in certain areas. Added to this, however, refugees face additional barriers including those highlighted above, but also through the discriminatory practices of employers and through potentially having less social and cultural capital to draw on to find work and access resources.

At a time when the government is very keen to help turn around the lives of the ‘most disadvantaged families’, one could argue that many refugees fall into that category. However, one could also argue that there is far more political capital to be made from ‘tackling’ problem families than there is from helping families of refugees…..

Best wishes,

Steve

Many thanks to Georgina Fletcher and the Regional Refugee Forum North East for much of the information above. Their website http://www.refugeevoices.org.uk/ is worth a visit and includes the transcribed testimonies of the impact on children and young people whose parents are not allowed to work

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