- LGBT+ immigration charity UKLGIG says government policy is putting asylum seekers in a desperate position and risking all of our health.
The Covid-19 pandemic is revealing how our dysfunctional asylum and immigration system is failing to support people in need.
The system prevents people from accessing health services and puts LGBT+ people at risk of harassment and loneliness at the best of times. Now, people’s safety and lives are being put at risk.
Stories of people needing asylum often get widespread attention when the government wants to remove someone from the country.
But we don’t speak enough about how difficult the asylum process is, and the experiences of those who have to go through it with very little support.
74% below the poverty line
When it comes to seeking asylum, the UK Home Office often demands an unreasonable amount of proof before accepting that someone is LGBT+.
Lockdown rules make it even more difficult for people to gather the evidence the Home Office requires of them.
While people wait for a decision on their asylum claim, the Home Office normally bans them from working and will provide less than £38 a week in subsistence payments to cover living costs, including food, clothing and bus fares.
That leaves people 74% below the poverty line. This amount is not enough at the best of times, and during a pandemic it makes it impossible to stay safe.
It means people can only afford to buy a little at a time and are having to put themselves at risk by going out more often.
Usually asylum seekers rely on free WiFi in public spaces as they cannot afford mobile data. Now, without that free WiFI, people can’t access services, information and support.
LGBTQI+ people seeking asylum are already extremely isolated, and the present situation is exacerbating that. UKLGIG has been providing phone credit since the lockdown started just so people can at least use messaging apps to stay in touch.
Patel thinks there is no evidence people are struggling
Last month, UKLGIG, along with 60 other charities signed a joint letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel, urging her to raise asylum subsistence payments by £20 per week in line with the recent increase to Universal Credit.
It took the Home Office three weeks to send a reply. Even then they only say they are ‘currently reviewing policies and processes in relation to the Covid-19 outbreak to ensure people continue to access essential systems whilst maintaining adherence to social distancing guidance’.
The Home Affairs Select Committee asked Patel whether she would consider increasing asylum support rates last week. She replied she has seen no evidence that people are struggling to meet their basic needs with the current rates.
Clearly the Home Office is unwilling to acknowledge the reality of their policies and the desperate circumstances in which they are putting people.
People are having to share beds
The issues around support for people in the asylum system don’t end with the woefully inadequate subsistence payments – we’re now hearing people are having to share beds with strangers in their accommodation.
Most accommodation for people seeking asylum is shared, with people forced to live with others who they don’t know. This often results in housemates harassing or abusing LGBT+ people.
Taking that even further and expecting people to share beds is an affront to people’s dignity. It is not only a risk to their safety but is the antithesis of social distancing.
The Hostile Environment is risking everyone’s health
And that’s not the only concern.
Many LGBT+ people claiming asylum or with uncertain immigration status feel unable to seek National Health Service care. They worry about healthcare charges and fear the NHS will share their personal data with the Home Office.
Even though COVID-19 is exempt from NHS charges, it can still charge them for pre-existing medical conditions.
The UK’s official ‘Hostile Environment’ to immigrants has made people afraid of accessing essential services. You can’t overturn such fears overnight. This is particularly worrying in a pandemic, where lack of healthcare has serious public health implications.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve seen the government take a number of positive actions in recent weeks.
They are no longer evicting people who have won refugee status after 28 days. And they are maintaining their subsistence payments until they are receiving mainstream benefits.
The Home Office can equally make other changes to help people in the asylum and immigration system stay safe and well both during this pandemic and beyond.
Let’s get rid of the Hostile Environment. Let’s stop people living in poverty. And let’s create a fairer and more welcoming system with dignity and protection at its heart.
Leila Zadeh is executive director of UK Lesbian & Gay Immigration Group.