Destitute: asylum seekers pushed on to the street by an official letter
Monday August 18, 2003
Cross-legged on the pavement, Joseph, 28, a Palestinian with mental health problems, was guarding a pink blanket and a packet of custard creams. As the morning's street sweeping machine went roaring through the residential street in Brixton, south London, polishing the curb, he sat amid open bin bags and cigarette butts.
His anxiety pills, prescribed by a doctor in Margate, Kent, had run out. He felt everyone was looking at him.
"I can't think properly. I forget my name, I get insomnia, I'm anxious, nervous, depressed, and I hear voices," he mumbled through chipped teeth. He had not eaten all day, but would not leave his blanket for a boiled egg and bread offered by a refugee charity.
People had been trying to steal his covers, or asking him to move so they could park their car. In the early hours, strange women would approach, asking him for foil. "For drugs, I think. I can't handle it."
Joseph, in the same clothes for a week, felt he presented an odd picture. But not as odd as the 35 others who bedded down with him each night in a neat row down the street on a carpet of cardboard boxes and multicoloured raffia beach mats.
They were from countries including Liberia, Guinea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and Somalia. Muslim women in hijabs were seen lying on the pavement between rushing to use the toilet in a local pub, fighting their way through baffled drinkers.
One woman nursed a hugely swollen foot from a bomb wound. Others were in tears with stomach infections or were begging for sanitary towels.
In the past two weeks, huddles of asylum seekers have begun visibly sleeping rough in central and south London, and in gardens and car parks in Croydon. It is not a question of a random night spent on a park bench. They have had letters from the government denying them support, in effect leaving them on the street, where they have been setting up permanent "homes" - gathering cardboard boxes.
It is the beginning of what refugee charities and homeless organisations predict could be hundreds of asylum seekers sleeping rough within a few months as the government implements its policy of denying state support, including food and shelter, to asylum seekers who it believes failed to claim refugee status as soon as they arrived in Britain.
The Refugee Council and other refugee charities feel the policy is unfairly hitting genuine asylum seekers who registered the day after arriving in Britain. But the visible problem for the government is homelessness.
Currently, the total number of rough sleepers across Britain is estimated to be 532. Tony Blair, who made a big show of clearing the streets, hit his reduction targets last year. But Shelter, the charity for the homeless, warns the number will now rise dramatically. Once denied support, these asylum seekers face having nowhere to live while their applications to remain in Britain are being decided.
The Refugee Council and similar organisations are unable to house asylum seekers who have been denied support. They feed them what they can but have to lock them out at night. Homeless shelters cannot provide beds without housing benefit. Asylum seekers cannot work and have no means of finding money to pay for beds. Refugee groups lose track of them as they disappear into cities.
"Our hands are tied," said Margaret Lawly, acting chief executive of the Refugee Council. Ben Jackson, Shelter's director of external affairs, said: "This is a complete contradiction of the government's attempt to tackle homelessness."
Two weeks ago the high court heard the story of an Ethiopian, a Somali and a Malaysian left malnourished and destitute on the streets.
Judges ruled that the implementation of the government's policy - section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act - amounted to inhumane and degrading treatment in breach of the European human rights convention. The Home Office is appealing against the judgment and a hearing is expected at the end of the month.
Until this year, all destitute asylum seekers could apply to the national asylum support service for shelter and food while their claims to stay in the UK were processed.
Now the government denies food, shelter and money to destitute asylum seekers if it decides they did not apply for asy lum "as soon as reasonably practicable" after arriving in the UK. There is no right of appeal.
The Home Office says: "The change in the law is designed to address the real abuse of the system by people who are in the UK for weeks or years, such as students or visitors, who then claim asylum as a way of staying in the UK at the taxpayers' expense."
It adds: "Families, pregnant women and those with care needs will always be supported."
Meanwhile, as a backlog of cases begins to be cleared this month, thousands are receiving letters denying support. Some are absorbed into families and communities. Charities believe others are being pushed toward London.
According to Migrant Helpline, a refugee charity in Kent, asylum seekers in Dover, who would stir controversy if they slept rough locally, are often given one-way tickets to Croydon and told to take all their belongings with them to hear if they will get support. If they are denied support, they are stranded there, homeless.
Northern cities such as Liverpool and Leeds are also expected to see rough sleepers. One young Ugandan rape victim recently made her home in a phone box in Liverpool's Lime Street station.
A Home Office spokeswoman said: "If this new policy is successful, the number of people sleeping rough should not increase." She denied asylum seekers were being moved to Croydon before being made homeless, saying: "People can receive decisions by post; they do not necessarily have to attend an office."
Meanwhile, Abebech (not her real name), an Ethiopian woman nursing torture wounds, prepared for another week on a Brixton pavement.
One weekend, faced with nowhere to go to the toilet while the pub was shut, she simply drank almost nothing. Already suffering from an intestinal infection, she ended up on a drip in an accident and emergency ward, being rehydrated. "What can I do?" she asked. "As a young woman, it's not good to sleep on the street, but I have no choice."