Coping with destitution

Guest Post by Mike Kaye, Advocacy Manager for Still Human Still Here Coalition.

The term “sofa surfing” has been used to describe the transient existence of destitute refused asylum seekers who move from one place to another looking for any sort of accommodation with family or members of the community to keep them off the streets. A new report from OXFAM and Swansea University, Coping with destitution, provides a detailed and alarming picture of what this means in practice for the individuals affected and how they survive in the UK.

Even where refused asylum seekers are housed and assisted by supportive and well motivated members of the community, this still has a devastating impact on the individual’s dignity and self esteem over time.

The effect of being entirely dependent on others simply to subsist and the fact that there is no foreseeable end to this type of existence inevitably affects the mental and physical health of refused asylum seekers.

Another worrying finding of the report is that refused asylum seekers are so concerned about being returned to their country of origin that they try and avoid all contact with officials, including health professionals and even refugee charities. This means they are often not accessing services they are entitled to (e.g. primary health care or Section 4 support) or taking advantage of the advice and support offered by voluntary sector.


The isolation and desperation of these individuals means that they are vulnerable to exploitative and even abusive relationships with the people who are supporting them. Both male and female refused asylum seekers contacted during the research had been involved in commercial sex work as a means of survival.

The evidence from the report shows that destitution will not force refused asylum seekers to return to their country of origin and should be a spur for the Government to review its current asylum support policy.

The Government’s stated policy is that nobody needs to be destitute and that asylum seekers who have been refused should leave the UK. This does not take account of the problems in the decision making process. For example, in 2010, around one in four asylum decisions made by the UK Border Agency were overturned on appeal. While the appeal process works for some asylum seekers, its effectiveness is largely dependent on finding good quality legal representatives and this is in increasingly short supply.

The second problem with the determination process is that there is a protection gap which appeared in 2002 when Exceptional Leave to Remain (ELR) was abolished. ELR used to provide protection to individuals fleeing conflict and widespread human rights violations, but who could not necessarily prove that they were being individually persecuted. ELR was given to 24% of asylum applicants in 2002, but the new categories of Humanitarian Protection and Discretionary Leave which replaced it are only given to around 10% of asylum applicants.

Left in Limbo

The consequence of this is that there are groups of asylum seekers who have been refused any form of status, but cannot be returned to their country of origin because it is not safe to do so. For example, there have been no removals to Zimbabwe in around eight years. Thousands of asylum seekers from Zimbabwe alone have been refused during this time and have been left in limbo in the UK, many surviving in ways outlined in the report.

A UNHCR official recently noted that the approach of some European countries towards people fleeing generalized violence in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia “often defies common sense”.

2011 is the 60th anniversary of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Implementing the recommendations from Coping with Destitution and eliminating destitution from the UK’s asylum system would be a fitting way to mark this anniversary.

Get Active!

Currently, Student Action for Refugees and Amnesty, as part of the Still Human, Still Here Coalition are organising student sleep outs to highlight the plight of destitute asylum seekers. You can find out how they’re going and if there’s one near you at their website.

The Still Human Still Here Coalition is currently running a campaign to win Asylum Seekers the right to work in the UK. Check their website for why they’re doing this and what you can do to help.

About jcwi

Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants is a key campaigning voice in the field of immigration, asylum and nationality law and policy. It is completely independent from government funding, remaining entirely free from government influence. View all posts by jcwi

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