Glasgow's destitute asylum seekers: The people who 'don't exist'

Glasgow's asylum seekers who officially 'don't exist'

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They have been described as "invisible people" - asylum seekers who have been refused refugee status, but who have not returned home. The Home Office says it wants them "to experience an increasingly uncomfortable environment" so they will leave, but critics say that they are just being forced into destitution. Glasgow is the first city in the UK to criticise this policy officially.

"I feel humiliated. I am a human being and that should mean I'm allowed to work. I have a right to pay for my food, so why am I not allowed?" asks Ali Arshain, a 35-year-old originally from Darfur in Sudan.

Ali Arshain Two million people, including Ali Arshain, have been driven from their homes by the Darfur conflict

"I'm told that it's not safe for me to go back home and at the same time I don't deserve help and support. I don't want to beg, I don't want to steal food," he adds.

Ali speaks to me sitting on a bench on the banks of the River Clyde in Glasgow, and although it is freezing cold and pouring with rain, the weather does not seem to faze him at all.

He is very smartly dressed and in fact the only thing indicating that he passes much of the day just sitting in this spot is the rucksack on his back containing food which someone has given him.

Ali says that in Darfur he was part of the opposition Justice and Equality Movement and that he would be in danger if he returned. He has been in the UK for six years and during that time has been detained and released.

He stays overnight with anyone who can offer him a room and has to check in with the Home Office every two weeks. And he says he would rather be sent to another country than remain in this situation.

'Extreme poverty'

"Put me anywhere in the world. I will be happy as long as I am going to be safe and am allowed my human rights... Living like this is like being a child again - and I'm a grown man."

A view of Glasgow's Buchanan Street There are approximately 10,000 refugees and asylum seekers in the city of Glasgow alone

I meet 28-year-old Aras in a backroom of a church in central Glasgow which he will share overnight with around 20 other destitute asylum seekers. If they do not get a space they sleep on the street.

"I spend my days living very rough, it's horrible," he says. "What do you think my days are like spending time just sitting in a library or the street? It's very tough. You feel unsafe."

Aras is Kurdish, originally from Kirkuk in Iraq. He has been in the UK for five years and during that time has had his asylum claim rejected three times. This means he is not allowed to work, but is also not entitled to help from the state.

"I feel I am not a human being in this country because you are banned from everything," Aras tells me. "I would go back on the next plane if I could, if Iraq was safe, but unfortunately it's getting worse day by day. If I go back I will be killed."

UK government policy dictates that people like Aras "should be denied the privileges of life in the UK and experience an increasingly uncomfortable environment" which is meant to make them leave the country.

But every year thousands of rejected asylum seekers remain. Estimates for how many people are in this situation range from 100,000 to 500,000 people, though no-one knows what the true number is.

Start Quote

Matt Kerr

There are hundreds of people in our city who have nowhere to sleep and rely on charity to feed themselves”

End Quote Matt Kerrr Councillor

The government says these people should not exist and therefore has no figures for them.

Morag Gillespie, a Senior Research Fellow at Glasgow Caledonian University, has conducted a study of Glasgow's destitute asylum seekers for the Scottish Refugee Council.

"After researching poverty for 10 years this was by a considerable margin the most extreme poverty that I have come across," she told me.

'Deliberate destitution'

"I think something that people don't understand is that destitution - if you are a refused asylum seeker - means you don't have a penny, nothing. A woman might have to go to services and ask for sanitary wear every month. They have to go around churches and other groups to get a loaf of bread or some milk and that's how they live their lives for months and sometimes years.

"Destitute people disappear from statistics and as soon as people disappear from statistics people forget they are there, they become invisible, which is a tragedy."

The Immigration Minister Mark Harper declined to be interviewed for this report. In a statement the UK Border Agency (UKBA) said that "no failed asylum seeker need face destitution if they comply with the law and the decisions of our courts and go home when required and able to do so".

Glasgow has always taken more than its share of asylum seekers - it was the first city to sign up to a scheme dispersing asylum seekers around the UK.

The city council used to get money direct from government for housing them and often kept them on after they had been refused asylum status.

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Some of these cases seem to border on the absurd or the Kafkaesque”

End Quote Dr Scott Blinder Independent Migration Observatory

But private contractors are now in charge of that work, and it does not make financial sense to house anyone longer than you have to.

Glasgow City Council recently passed a motion criticising the Home Office policy of making life sufficiently uncomfortable for failed asylum seekers that they choose to leave.

The local authority is legally not able to support destitute asylum seekers but wants to. Bristol City Council has just done the same, and next month Leeds will be petitioned by campaigners to follow suit.

'Black economy'

"It has got to a point where there are hundreds of people in our city who have nowhere to sleep and rely on charity to feed themselves," Glasgow councillor Matt Kerr says.

"We as a local authority are powerless to do anything about that. UKBA appears to have had a policy of deliberate destitution for a number of years and this is the result of it."

Mr Kerr argues that this is not simply a matter of sympathy for these people, but of the wider implications that this policy has for the city.

"We understand that some people will have a decision go against them and they will have to go home. What we need to think about is how we do that," he says.

"The reality is if we make them destitute they are not going to go home, they will disappear in to the black economy and they are open to exploitation and all the horrors that can go with it. Not only is it morally reprehensible, but it is also not fulfilling their [UKBA's] purpose, which is to return someone to their country of origin."

A key problem with these cases is that the Home Office will not discuss them because technically the people concerned should have gone home, so the Home Office says they should not exist. But this is not the reality on the street.

Dr Scott Blinder, director of the independent Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, says there is a sense of absurdity when talking about the situation:

"Some of these cases seem to border on the absurd or the Kafkaesque," Dr Blinder says.

"It's what exposes the real difficulty in running this sort of system because there are always going to be cases where, for a variety of reasons, the determination is made that a person doesn't have a right to stay - but as a practical matter it is difficult to remove them."

"You could call it the reductio ad absurdum [reduction to absurdity] of the system," he says.

Meanwhile, in the back room of the Glasgow church, Aras prepares to bed down for the night.

"I want to live like a human being. I never expected life like this, but unfortunately, here I am."

Watch Catrin Nye's film in full on Newsnight on Monday 25 March 2013 at 22:30 GMT on BBC Two and then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website, and listen on the BBC Asian Network at 13:00 and 17:00 GMT.

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