A Report on Asylum Seekers and Benefits.
In the run up to the general election, asylum is once again in the headlines. The refugee council report (RC: 2004: 2) that asylum is the third most important issue in voters’ minds. Despite its importance as an issue, reliable information about asylum is difficult to come by. Media reports are sensationalist, often using a vocabulary that is derogatory or just plain incorrect. For example, the term ‘illegal asylum seeker’ is often used. Yet as a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, anyone has the right to make an asylum claim, and they have a legal right to stay while they make their claim (UN: 1951: Article 31.1). Thus, no asylum seeker is illegal while making a claim. This report will attempt to address some of these misconceptions by analysing asylum seekers in the UK, and in particular the relationship of asylum seekers to benefits and the welfare state. The perceived sapping of the welfare state by asylum seekers is one of the issues the press highlights in its coverage of asylum. This report will argue that fears over asylum seekers draining the welfare state are misplaced, and statistics from the London local authorities will be analysed to make this argument.
II. What is an Asylum Seeker?
An asylum seeker, simply put, is someone claiming the status of asylum. The 1951 UN treaty on refugees states (ibid) that an asylum seeker must only have a reasonable chance of persecution in his or her country of origin in order to be granted asylum. Asylum seekers may come from anywhere in the world. For the last two years the bulk of the asylum seekers coming to the UK have been from Afghanistan and Iraq (RC: 2004:5): but the 1951 convention states that application from all countries must be considered. What we have witnessed over the last ten years in the UK is the putting in place of a whole series of restrictions against the spirit, if not the actual wording, of the 1951 convention.
For instance, while the convention demands that applications from all countries be considered, the government has set up a ‘safe list’ of countries from which applications for asylum will not be considered (UN: 1951:Article 3, HO: 2002/267). Furthermore, as Craze notes (2002:4): “since the 1950’s, Europe has witnessed a closing of its borders. In Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in Morocco, an enormous electrified fence has been erected to try to prevent immigrants from crossing into Fortress Europe and naval ships now patrol the gulf of Gibraltar on the look out for immigrants.” When understanding the way asylum works in the UK, it is important to situate it in terms of the political shifts that have occurred Europe-wide. Such shifts have made asylum applications increasingly difficult, and have demonised and marginalized people who have a legal basis to make their claim.
III. How many Asylum Seekers come to the UK?
Asylum figures are dogged by controversy and heated debate. Yet, the recent data from the UNHCR (UNHCR: 2005) seems to suggest an opposite state of affairs to that suggested by the tabloid press. Asylum applications round the world have dropped sharply for the third year in a row, and are now at their lowest level for sixteen years. There is a 19% percent drop in asylum applications in the EU, with a 33% fall in the UK: which means there has been a decline of 66% in the last two years. For instance, in the Westminster Local Authority (Wesminster: 2005), there were 1,453 asylum seekers claiming support in April 2003. By march 2004; this had dropped to just 973. This drop was paralleled elsewhere in London, where in the same time period the number of asylum seekers seeking support fell from 42,137 to 32,245. In the UK, there are presently 40,200 asylum seekers compared to 60,050 in 2003.
In 2001, Armenia absorbed 70 refugees per 1000 inhabitants: in comparison, Britain absorbed only two (HO: 2001). Furthermore, in 2003 Britain was only ranked the ninth country in Europe for accepting applications per capita. At this juncture is must be remembered that the vast majority of asylum seekers never manage to leave the countries immediately surrounding the country they fled: African countries support far more refugees than European countries, despite having less far less resources to deal with them. Thus, the exaggeration of the press, who propose that Britain is being swamped with asylum seekers, is unfounded. The UK receives a relatively small number of asylum seekers per capita, and that number is falling rapidly. Finally, it should be remembered that the UK has a legal obligation to accept asylum seekers while they make their claim.
IV. What burden do Asylum Seekers place on the UK welfare state?
It is frequently alleged that asylum seekers only arrive in the UK because our welfare system is a ‘soft’ touch. Yet, a recent Home Office report (HORS: 2002:15) concluded that family, language and colonial history determine where asylum seekers go, not the level of welfare state provision.
People do not arrive in the UK hoping to exploit the welfare state. Furthermore, the level of welfare state provision for asylum seekers is woefully inadequate. Asylum seekers are not eligible for normal benefit services. Instead, if asylum seekers want to apply for benefits they must apply to the National Asylum Support Service (NASS). Through this service, a single adult is eligible for just ?38.96 a week, only 70% of basic income support. An Oxfam/Refugee Council report (2002: 19) concludes that many asylum seekers do not even access these funds, due to a poorly administrated system. They found that 85% of asylum seekers experience hunger during their application, and 95% cannot afford clothes and basic essentials.
In December 2003, 80,000 asylum seekers were receiving Home Office support, compared to 1.5 million UK nationals (not including people receiving pensions). Given the financial information we noted above, that means that asylum seekers account for just 0.5% of the total benefit budget. Given this information, we can see that the claims of the press are completely unfounded.
Further, under section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, in January 2003 many asylum seekers were denied basic support. This denial was made on the grounds that asylum seekers had not applied for asylum in ‘reasonable time.’ However, as we noted above, given immigration restrictions in the UK it is almost impossible to enter the country legally to make an appeal. If we refer to Appendix I: the total number of asylum seekers supported by London Authorities, we can see that during the period the bill was implemented the number asylum seekers being supported dropped steeply from 34,175 to 32,281. In June of this year, a high court decision has found such a denial of benefit in breach of the human rights of the asylum seekers, and the government has been forced to reinstate it pending an appeal by the government.
Given the extent of the discourse on asylum being a drain on the UK welfare state, it is perhaps surprising to remember the myriad benefits asylum brings. A home office report (quoted RC: 2002:1) show people born outside the UK, including asylum seekers, contribute 10% more in taxes and national insurance contributions than they cost in benefits. In 1998/9, that gives the UK economy a boost of ?2.6 billion. Asylum seekers also bring a wealth of experience into the country. A report from the department of works and pensions (DWP: 2001) shows that 53% of refugees had academic qualifications. However, since July 2002, asylum seekers are prevented from using their qualifications by government policy that makes it impossible for asylum seekers to work while their claim is being processed. The Medical Practioners Union (quoted, RC: 2001: 3), roundly condemning government policy, points out that despite the massive shortage of trained personnel for the NHS, the government still refuses to open up the health service job market to qualified asylum seekers: despite the fact that it costs only ?5,000 to retrain a foreign doctor, compared to a cost of ?250,000 to train a British doctor from scratch. Thus, while the figures on asylum numbers we analysed in section III are important, they must be placed in a context of the positive benefits asylum seekers bring to the contrary, and a debilitating government policy that prevents them doing even more.
This report has briefly analysed the current status of asylum in the UK today. Current debates on asylum are marred by a xenophobic anxiety about asylum that distorts the information we have available, and masks the legal obligations that the UK has. The government has done precious little to address these problems, and many of its policies contravene the spirit, if not the code, of the 1951 convention. This report has begun to show that asylum numbers are not anywhere near as big as they are claimed to be by the press, that the amount of support asylum seekers require from the state is nothing like as large as the press would have you believe. Finally, this report has emphasised the importance of the UK’s legal obligation to asylum seekers.
Craze, J. 2002: Fortress Europe. Europa. Vol. 1: No.3.
Departments of Works and Pensions. 2001: Report on Asylum Seekers and Employment. http://www.dwp.gov.uk/
Home Office Press Release 2002: Building a Safer Britain. 07/2002: 267.
Home Office Research Study. 2002: Understanding the decision-making of asylum seekers. Home Office Research Study 243. http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/immigration_research_pubs.html
Home Office. 2001: Asylum Statistics United Kingdom 2001. Home Office National Statistics.
Refugee Council. 2004: Tell It Like It Is: The Truth About Asylum. http://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/
Refugee Council & Oxfam. 200: Poverty and Asylum in the UK. http://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/publications/pub007.htm#poverty
UN. 1951: Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/o_c_ref.htm
UNHCR: 2005. Asylum Levels and Trends in Industralised Countries, 2004.http://www.unhcr.ch/statistics
Wesminster Local Authority. 2005: Distributions Statistics 2004-5: London Asylum Seekers. http://www.wesminster.gov.uk/
Appendix I: London Local Authority Asylum Seeker Trends