Undermining destitution: countering the hostile environment

There is something particularly troubling about the destitution faced by asylum seekers, and that is that it is deliberate.  Unlike so many areas of public policy that cause pain and vulnerability, the years of destitution faced by asylum seekers is not an accident or an unintended consequence of an inequitable economic system.  It isn’t a by-product of austerity measures or an administrative cock-up.  What marks out this state of destitution is that the cruelty is meted out consciously; destitution is a targeted policy tool, used with intent by government to seek to effect change.  

To be a destitute asylum seeker in the UK is to be left without any personal means to support yourself.  You have no access to benefits and are not allowed to work or seek employment.  This means there is no money to buy food or clothing, to top up your mobile phone and speak to family, to travel to see your solicitor, or in fact for any expense, essential or otherwise.  Having had all legal means of providing for yourself taken away, you are left living a hand-to-mouth existence, dependant on others for a place to sleep and food to live. You must rely entirely on the kindness of others, or fall prey to exploitation when it fails. The day-to-day physical hardship of this is difficult to articulate: for most it means being constantly on the move from one friend to another with belongings in tow, travelling between day centres in search of whatever charitable support is on offer that day, be it a meal, cash or clothes, always as supplicant, always in need. 

This is the reality of life for those the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in the UK accompanies, serves and advocates for; their poverty is enforced by government with the intention of excluding them from participating in society as a means of achieving their ejection from it.  Destitution is one part of a raft of policy measures designed to create, in the government’s own words, “a hostile environment” that will wear down its target to the point of giving up any further attempt to remain. 

Asylum seekers face innumerable barriers to resolving their situation.  The determination system for asylum itself is notoriously arbitrary.  Countless independent investigations have pointed out the culture of disbelief towards applicants, and the poor training of those making decisions.  The UK routinely relies on discredited information about countries of origin.  Many rejections of asylum are overturned on appeal.  But legal routes have themselves become more difficult to pursue.  Cuts in legal aid mean few solicitors can afford the time for detailed work on a case that requires intensive background research.  Once rejected, any fresh claim for asylum must also be lodged in person in Liverpool; a tall order for someone rendered destitute.  Destitution and unstable housing itself of course creates a chaotic context for handling paperwork, and the anxiety it generates a near insurmountable bar to clear-headed thought necessary for coherent testimony.

If that were not enough, things are now about to get worse.  Rules governing who is allowed to rent property in the UK will be rolled out in May which will criminalise landlords who knowingly allow someone without immigration status to occupy a rental property.  Asylum seekers not in receipt of asylum benefits often lodge informally with friends and family, who are themselves more likely than not renting their accommodation from a private landlord. Even without an exchange of rent payments, such informal arrangements of shelter are caught within the purview of this legislation.  We expect to see a spike in street homelessness amongst those we serve as these measures are rolled out. 

Much has been written about the right to rent rules and the implications of turning private landlords into border control enforcement officers.  Less has been said about its implications for friendship and community.  Destitute asylum seekers rely on networks of support from members of their own diaspora communities and churches and mosques.  Those offering shelter are rarely well-off or resourced with much space. Taking in a destitute asylum seeker is in most cases an act of compassion and generosity, born out of friendship and care.  The right to rent rules seek to break the bonds of community between people that sustain life.  It is difficult to argue that legislation which outlaws such acts of human kindness between individuals can possibly be in line with the values of the Kingdom.  

The hub of our work at JRS is our day centre where we accompany destitute asylum seekers, who we call our refugee friends.  We help to meet our refugee friends’ basic needs with a hot meal cooked by volunteers, hygiene packs of essential toiletries and small cash allowances to pay for bus passes for essential appointments to a solicitor or doctor.  We also work with religious communities to host those who are homeless on a short term basis, a scheme organised in line with the requirements of the new right to rent rules. 

But more than that, in all our work, we seek to create a space where people feel at home – a space of hospitality and welcome.  We make an effort to get to know people personally.  We know them by name.  We talk about a Home Office case if people want to, but we also talk about other things, like family and interests, the weather, football or politics.  It is the reason we at JRS call the refugees we work with our friends and not our customers or clients. 

Beyond welcome, we try also to counter the way the system renders our refugee friends as passive recipients.  We actively offer opportunities for refugees to volunteer with us, enabling them to find space where they can give back their skills to others, restoring a sense of dignity and worth.  The desire to give of yourself to others is such a core part of what it is to be human, and the energy unleashed when gifts hitherto barred from being used are brought to view and appreciated is tangible.  Refugees with immigration status, those without, young professionals and elderly religious volunteer alongside one another here.  The diversity of the mix of people is for me one of the most inspiring and unique elements of JRS. 

Seeking to alleviate the impact of destitution in practical ways, meeting material needs of food and shelter denied by the system is an essential part of what we do to enable our refugee friends to survive.  But perhaps the more powerful part of our work is that which is most difficult to quantify.  Because it is in providing hospitality, friendship and meaningful participation that we neutralise the power of the “hostile environment” agenda.  It here that the work of the gospel is at its most subversive, gently undermining the policy intent to exclude, creating community and forging relationship.  It is work we commit ourselves to consciously.


Sarah Teather is the Director of JRS UK