Transition from asylum support to mainstream welfare

Lisa Scullion presented a paper at the conference Ethics and social welfare in hard times (Londen. 1,2 September 2016). The topic of her paper: Conditionality and welfare; exploring marginalized voices. We asked Scullion for a summary of her paper and thank her for providing it.

Sanctuary to sanction? The transition from asylum support to mainstream welfare in the UK

Following the arrival of increasing numbers of ‘spontaneous’ asylum seekers during the 1990s/2000s, the issue of asylum became a major concern in the UK. A ‘moral panic’ appeared to ensue during that time, followed swiftly by a raft of legislation enacted by successive UK Governments aimed at ‘managing’ migration to the UK. The result has been the creation of a system that regulates the in-migration of people through the use of complex and divergent rights to residence, work and welfare dependent upon socio-legal status.

The treatment of those who are seeking asylum has been the focus of much debate, and rightly so. However, while acknowledging the importance of these debates, I would also like to take this opportunity to draw attention to the experiences of those who make it past our border. More specifically, I want to talk about the ‘conditionality’ that underpins not only our asylum system, but also the mainstream welfare system that people experience as refugees.

Conditionality and asylum seekers

When we look at some of legislation enacted in the UK, we can see how ‘conditions’ underpin many of the measures. For example, the 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act attempted to create two categories: those who applied at ‘port of entry’, who were regarded as ‘genuine’, and were thus entitled to benefits, and those who applied ‘in country’.  ‘In country’ applicants were likely to be deemed ‘bogus’, and would be entitled to nothing – the basis of the argument being that ‘genuine’ asylum seekers would declare themselves as soon as they reached the UK. Thus, how you were treated within the UK was conditional upon how quickly you had declared your intentions, despite evidence that people often delayed coming forward to the relevant authorities due to fear and suspicion of those in authority because of experiences in their home country.  In relation to employment, access to the labour market in the UK was conditional upon length of residence – with work permits only being issued once people had been resident for six months.

Conditionality continued with the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act, which established the UK’s National Asylum Support System (NASS). NASS saw the creation of a separate system for asylum seekers, which including providing support conditional on accepting dispersal to any area of the UK on a no choice basis. At this time, the government also felt that cash benefits were operating as too much of a ‘pull’ factor. Asylum seekers were therefore to receive vouchers, which could only be spent at designated supermarkets.  The introduction of such a system managed to reduce the already low level of support available, whilst simultaneously increasing the stigma associated with claiming assistance, as the use of vouchers clearly set asylum seekers apart from other UK residents. In 2002, the right to work after six months was withdrawn, with asylum seekers now having to wait until they are granted refugee status – however long that takes. And so it goes … with the 2004 Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act, the 2006 Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act, the 2007 UK Borders Act, the 2009 Borders Citizenship and Immigration Act, the 2014 Immigration Act and the 2015/16 Immigration Bill … all cementing a system whereby the ‘rights’ of those seeking asylum are dependent on meeting increasingly restrictive conditions.

But what happens when someone is granted refugee status and moves from this asylum system into our mainstream welfare system? One would assume that the granting of status provides a relief from the limbo and restriction of the asylum system?

Out of the frying pan and into the fire?

For the last three years I have been part of a team on a five year ESRC funded project called Welfare Conditionality: Sanctions, Support and Behaviour Change (www.welfareconditionality.ac.uk). This project is exploring the efficacy and ethicality of welfare conditionality across a range of policy areas, through interviews and focus groups with policy makers and practitioners, but also, importantly, qualitative longitudinal interviews with welfare service users who experience our conditional systems. Within our sample of welfare service users, we have interviewed a number of people with refugee status who have provided unique insights into the issues they face when moving from asylum support to mainstream welfare.

So, what have people been telling us? Firstly, the timescale involved in making the transition from asylum support to mainstream welfare is very problematic. More specifically, people are expected to leave their asylum accommodation within 28 days, which often isn’t long enough to find alternative accommodation and some of our participants had experienced homelessness or were currently living in insecure or temporary accommodation. With regards to accessing financial support, this timescale was particularly problematic considering the complexity of our mainstream social security systems, and some refugees had experienced ‘administrative destitution’, whereby delays in processing their claims had left them without any money. One person explained to me that, regardless of how long you have been within the asylum support system (which could be months or years), once you are granted refugee status you are very quickly ‘on your own’. As he pointed out: “We don’t have any organisation or any rules to help us to move from asylum seeker to refugee… this transition is very complicated”. When talking about the transition, people often made comparisons between the two systems. For some, surprisingly, they felt they were ‘better off’ in the asylum system. For these individuals, while the mainstream system provided a higher level of financial, this was sometimes cancelled out by the fact that they now had more to pay for. For others, when comparing the two systems, they felt they had simply replaced one ‘conditional’ system for another, likening reporting at the Jobcentre to reporting at the immigration office. As one man told me: “you have to come and show your activities of looking for a job, so that you can continue getting this money, right? It’s the same as when I was an asylum seeker; you had to report, report to the immigration office”.

Secondly, it was apparent that people were often not prepared for the reality at the ‘sharp end’ of our mainstream welfare system, particularly in relation to the increased sanctions regime that now forms a major part of the system. People raised a number of concerns around experiencing sanctions or the threat of sanctions as they navigated the system. Some had missed appointments due to language barriers, some had difficulty understand the complex rules of the system, while others felt that the expectations now placed on them in terms of finding work were completely unreasonable and unrealistic. As one participant highlighted: “I was new to the country I didn’t know all the systems, how it went, so it was very difficult. One day I missed my appointment to sign and when I went the next day they sanctioned me for a month”. The irony of this is of course that for the duration of their asylum claim they had not been allowed to work.

Finally, many of the people we spoke to felt that the system, and the advisors within the system, did not necessarily understand their individual needs and experiences as refugees, and how their experiences of trauma during the process of forced migration and their concern for loved ones left behind, can impact on their ability to meet the conditions set by our mainstream system. As one person explained to me: “Sometimes I forget, I have many things in my head. When for example I think’ where is my wife? Where is my child?.’ In my head, I forget the rules of the Jobcentre or the rules of the UKBA. So I think sometimes it’s very, very hard”.

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About the author: Lisa Scullion

Dr Lisa Scullion is Reader in Social Policy and Associate Director of the Sustainable Housing & Urban Studies Unit (SHUSU) at the University of Salford. Over the last 10 years, Lisa has led and delivered research assessing the needs and experiences of a range of socially excluded/vulnerable communities. She currently leads the University of Salford’s involvement in a five year ESRC funded project called "Welfare Conditionality: Sanctions, Support and Behaviour Change"(www.welfareconditionality.ac.uk).