The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

Why I’ll be sleeping rough: STAR/Amnesty International’s Sleepout campaign

Sophie Guinard tells us her reasons for supporting this year’s STAR/Amnesty Sleepout campaign

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On the 7th of March, the annual STAR/Amnesty Sleepout campaign will be held on the Students’ Union steps to raise awareness of destitution amongst asylum seekers in the UK.  For the third year running, Manchester students, activist groups and performers alike will be ‘sleeping rough’ in order to highlight this pressing issue.  Although difficult to quantify the extent of the problem, some estimate the number of refused asylum seekers living in the UK to be 500,000, of which the vast majority are not allowed access to state support.

For these people, day-to-day life is a struggle, and individuals whose past experiences have already often been incredibly difficult often do not have anywhere to live and are in many cases forced to undertake illegal work, including begging and prostitution. All of this just to survive. Among those forced to live on the streets are particularly vulnerable groups, such as children. The Children’s Society recently reported a startling rise in young homeless asylum seekers that sought help from them.

The causes of destitution are often multi-factorial; but the process of seeking asylum in the UK has many flaws. Many argue that it is counter-effective and inhumane. In 2011, 77% of asylum seekers were refused protection in the UK as a first decision but in 26% of cases, those who appealed against a refusal gained refugee status.

Asylum seekers are given fewer rights to housing, healthcare and food than people on the lowest band of benefits. Many asylum seekers are forced to rely on just above £5 a day. Some of these are people who have been refused ‘leave to remain in the UK’ but who are, at present, not able to return to their country of origin on specific grounds; i.e. usually if it is either deemed too dangerous or if the physical health of the individual is too poor to allow their return.

The allowance they do get from the government takes the form of vouchers; an Azure Card which can be used to pay for food, clothes, toiletries and phone charges, but not for transport or any other expenses. The card can only be used in certain stores and contains funds equivalent to only 52% of the standard Income Support. The money, for the most part, is not cumulative. That is; saving more in one week doesn’t entitle that person to having more funds in the following week. A maximum of £5 is able to be carried across from one week to the next. As no asylum seeker (either refused or waiting on a claim) is permitted to work, this support from the government represents their only income. But £5 a day really does not go very far. A survey conducted in 2007 by Refugee Action found that many destitute asylum seekers with whom they have contact would qualify for this support, yet do not have it. A number of reasons have been given for this; predominantly the fears that people in these situations have of being deported back to a country in which considerable risks still exist.

The reality of the situation is that this support is meant to hinder more than it is to help refused asylum seekers, and this leads to people needing to find alternative means of survival. In 2007, the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights judged that ‘the government has indeed been practicing a deliberate policy of destitution of this highly vulnerable group [asylum seekers]. We believe that all deliberate use of inhumane treatment is unacceptable.’ However, little has been done to address the issues highlighted by the report.

Despite the introduction of a New Asylum Model (NAM) in 2007 that aimed to speed up the decision-making process on asylum statuses and to deport people who had been refused, Refugee Action found that a high proportion of those seeking help from asylum seeker charities had gone through this “improved” system, and that forty percent of these were still living destitute. The NAM system also has failed to reduce the length of time to make initial decisions.  According to Amnesty, last year there were 3,000 asylum seekers in the UK who had been waiting over 6 months for a decision. This is despite promises made by the government to make key changes in this area.

Destitution is an atrocity that shouldn’t occur in the UK, and the Sleepout next Thursday aims to stress that. There were around 120 people attending last year’s Sleepout, with a third of people sleeping out overnight.  Even MPs have taken part in past events. This year, the event promises to be another great demonstration, with free food, activities, guest speakers a number of acts, including Harmony Gospel choir, Tiny waves, She choir and Nubian twist. The event starts at 8pm, and for those brave enough to sleep out, don’t forget a sleeping bag!

If you are planning on sleeping out on Thursday 7th and are able to get sponsored for your bravery, a sponsorship page has been set up which friends can donate to. All proceeds will go to the Boaz Trust, a Manchester-based organisation committed to helping destitute asylum seekers.

Sponsorship page: http://www.charitygiving.co.uk/STAR