Seeking asylum is, by its nature, a process fraught with difficulties, further compounded by the fact that it is conducted in an unfamiliar language, in a system and culture which are alien and without the support networks of family and friends. The threat of destitution hangs over many asylum seekers. This is particularly the case during periods of transition, whether that be transitioning between phases of the asylum process or the transition made at the end of the process when a final decision on the asylum claim has been received. During each transition phase an asylum seeker’s entitlement to Home Office or other support is put under review, with the hope that any new support is in place before the current entitlements expire. Ironically, this includes cases where a positive decision has been received on the asylum case and the asylum seeker has been given refugee status, with full rights to employment and social security. In such cases the former asylum seeker must find accommodation, register and be in receipt of relevant benefits within a narrow 28 days’ window before asylum support is withdrawn.
However, for those individuals who have reached the end of the asylum appeals process, and who have received a negative decision on their claim, destitution is a reality which is hard to avoid. With no right to work and no entitlement to public funds, these people fall through the combined nets of Home Office and state support, disappearing from statistics and becoming reliant on short term charitable support and vulnerable to exploitation in the shadow economy. Although the number of destitute asylum seekers in Northern Ireland is unknown – due largely to the termination of state support – what is known is that these numbers are increasing, in line with overall increases in asylum applications. Charities which to date have provided the available ad hoc support are finding their resources stretched to capacity. It is feared that yet more asylum seekers will find themselves destitute when new immigration legislation covering the right to rent and changes in support arrangements for families is implemented later in 2017.
The concern among NGOs as to this escalating situation in Northern Ireland mirrors similar concerns in Great Britain where a number of NGO-led initiatives directly address this issue through providing accommodation and advice to destitute asylum seekers. This support is invaluable in that it not only relieves the distress of destitution for the individuals involved but it also serves to protect the asylum seeker from exploitation or being forced to find opportunities in the shadow economy.
A similar pragmatism is necessary in Northern Ireland. Through our proposal we will provide accommodation and advice to destitute asylum seekers. This accommodation will be made available to those asylum seekers who no longer have any entitlement to state support, who are either waiting for further state decisions on their asylum claim, or who have been denied asylum but have no clear pathway back to their country of origin. Asylum seekers from countries which the Home Office deems it unsafe to deport to, will fall into this latter category, as will those who have no official documents from their country of origin. This service will relieve asylum seekers from the acute effects of destitution and will prevent them from disappearing from statistics and the reach of support networks. As part of this initiative we will also work in close partnership with other organisations campaigning for long term solutions for destitute asylum seekers in Northern Ireland.