Thousands of asylum seekers placed in emergency hotel accommodation should have been receiving financial support during the pandemic, the Home Office has admitted after it was ordered by the High Court to conduct a review into the matter.
Immigration minister Chris Philp said individuals living in full-board asylum accommodation would now receive £8 a week to go towards clothes, non-prescription medicines and travel – in a U-turn that campaigners say has come too late.
Charities said it was “scandalous” that people had been forced to wait seven months for cash support to cover the cost of “basic essentials” such as toiletries, phone data and bus fares, and that the delay had “compounded the misery and isolation” among the asylum community.
In July, The Independent reported on warnings from NGOs that there had been a deterioration in the mental health and wellbeing of asylum seekers in hotels, as the lack of financial support was leaving them unable to buy essential supplies such as toothpaste and baby milk, and unable to use public transport.
At the start of October, around 9,500 asylum seekers were being accommodated in 91 hotels across the UK, up from around 1,200 at the end of March and around 8,000 at the end of August – an increase that is largely the result of the pause on moving people out of asylum accommodation during the pandemic.
While asylum seekers usually receive just over £5 a day, those in hotel accommodation have until now received no financial support from the Home Office, on the grounds that food and toiletries are provided.
In September, the High Court ordered the Home Office to review whether asylum seekers in hotels were having their needs met, after lawyers challenged the lawfulness of not providing any financial support.
The claimant in the case, a Pakistani national who fled his country after coming under threat from the Taliban due to his sexuality, was being given three meals per day at set times and one toilet roll, one bar of soap and a sample size of shampoo per week, and was not provided with clothing, travel, communication facilities, or certain toiletries such as toothpaste.
He was subsequently left with insufficient food, insufficient and dirty clothing, and was unable to clean his room, communicate with his lawyers or health professionals and could not afford to travel, his lawyers said.
The judge, Sir Duncan Ouseley, ordered that the man be provided with £8 in cash support to meet his “unmet needs”, and noted that this did not apply to him “because of his peculiar circumstances”, but that it should apply to all asylum seekers in full board accommodation.
He said the Home Office should review the provisions and ensure these unmet needs were provided for in cash support.
A letter from Chris Philp to refugee charities on Tuesday, seen by The Independent, states that following the Home Office’s review of the asylum support allowance, those in hotels would receive £8 per week to provide them with “sufficient assistance to cover their full essential living needs”.
Mr Philp said payments of £3 per week for clothing will be backdated to March and payments of £4.70 per week for travel needs will be backdated to July, in light of the restrictions that were in place before that.
Lisa Doyle, director of advocacy at the Refugee Council, said: “Finally, the Home Office has recognised that people seeking asylum in hotel accommodation need some way to pay for basic essentials such as toiletries, hand sanitiser, phone data and bus fares.
“It’s scandalous that they’ve had to wait seven months for a cash allowance to cover these costs, and we know that this delay has compounded the misery, isolation and hardship of people forced to live in temporary accommodation while they await a decision on their asylum claim.”
Zoe Dexter, welfare and housing manager at the Helen Bamber Foundation, said that while she welcomed the newly announced support, it was “still too low” to meet people’s needs.
She added: “We have worked with many people over the last year whose mental health deteriorated because of the conditions they were housed in, with no money whatsoever to buy medication, food, pay for the bus. Far too many people have been in this situation for far too long.”
In his letter, Mr Philp also announced that financial support for people in normal asylum housing was to increase by 3p – from £39.60 to £39.63 – which charities described as “cold-hearted”.
The latest rise means that people entitled to asylum support still receive less money per week than they did 14 years ago, when rates were set at £40.22.
Asylum seekers in the UK are barred from working while they wait for a decision on their claim, which can often take years. Government figures released in August revealed more than 70 per cent of people seeking asylum in the UK wait more than six months for a decision on their claim.
Stephen Hale, chief executive of Refugee Action, said: “This cold-hearted increase to asylum support is just the latest act by a government that shows little compassion towards people seeking asylum.
“Low asylum rates and the effect of Covid-19 on those from Bame backgrounds have created a perfect storm for people seeking asylum, who are already some of the most vulnerable members of our communities.
“The home secretary must rethink. Asylum support must meet the essential living costs of people seeking asylum during this pandemic and beyond.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We acted quickly and decisively earlier this year to look after asylum seekers’ wellbeing during the pandemic by increasing the level of asylum support to ensure essential needs are provided for.
“We are fixing our broken asylum system and introducing a new one which is firm and fair.”