MPs and peers hear startling stories of life on asylum support
Former children's minister Sarah Teather MP chaired the first evidence session of the parliamentary inquiry into asylum support for children and young people earlier this week. On Tuesday, MPs and peers gathered in the House of Commons to hear evidence from organisations working with asylum-seeking families and researchers specialising in the field of migration, poverty and health.
The panel heard from representatives from the British Red Cross and the Still Human Still Here coalition, as well as Professor Heaven Crawley from Swansea University and Dr Jenny Phillimore of the University of Birmingham.
Experts raised concerns about the levels of support provided to asylum-seeking children and families, saying that essential living needs are not being met.
When you live on asylum support 'every penny has a value'
Two mothers gave testimony about their experiences of bringing their children up in the asylum support system. One mother told the panel how uncertain life had been for her and her six-year old son when they were moved four times, living for weeks without any financial support.
The mothers told the panel how they struggle to make ends meet. Some families living on what is known as section 4 support receive a payment card instead of cash. This means that they cannot buy anything that requires cash: Shopping in a charity shop for clothes, a bus pass to go to a doctor’s appointment or do the weekly shop.
Families are limited to buying goods in specific shops where items can be overpriced and unaffordable. Also, they can’t carry money over from one week to the next to save up for more expensive items.
Many families are on section 4 support for years, yet experts explained that even though this type of support was not originally designed for children or for people to be on for long periods.
Living on asylum support impacts on families’ health and well-being
Because parents are not allowed to work, it is easy for feelings of hopelessness to set in, which can affect children. One witness explained how she tries hard to hide any stress or worry from her child because, she said: 'the child experiences everything I experience. If I’m sad, he sees that and understands'.
Experts highlighted serious concerns about the health of asylum-seeking families, especially pregnant women who are dispersed to accommodation that can be dirty, damp and cramped.
One expert spoke of babies coming down with rashes and chest infections, and raised concerns about shockingly high infant mortality rates among asylum-seeking families in Birmingham – one of the dispersal areas to which asylum seekers are transferred – sometimes when heavily pregnant.
What needs to change?
When asked what they would like to see change about the current system, one mother asked, 'Can it just be fair?'
The witnesses highlighted the lack of information about where to get support or find facilities when they are sent to a new area. They also suggested the panel look at the levels of financial support required to make sure children get what they need.
Experts suggested that levels of support must take account of existing minimum income standards in order to raise a child decently, regardless of when or where a child is born. Overwhelmingly the panel heard that section 4 support should be abolished for children and families completely.
Further evidence sessions will be held at the House of Commons on Tuesday 27 November in Committee Room 17 (10am – noon) and on Wednesday 19 December in Committee Room 13 (12.30 – 2.30pm) when the panel will hear from the minister of state for child poverty, David Laws MP.