The hostile environment comes of age – Why Labour must stand up for asylum seekers, Pamela Fitzpatrick


“The pandemic did not create poverty nor racism. But it has cast a blinding light on the intolerable levels of both in our society.”

Pamela Fitzpatrick

The hostile environment is not a new concept.  Twenty-one years ago a Labour Government under Tony Blair introduced legislation to radically overhaul the system of support to asylum seekers.  The Tory Government from 1994 had started to impose restrictions on access to welfare benefits. But it was the New Labour Government of 1997 that imposed the most draconian of attacks on asylum seekers. 

In the past, approximately 90% of asylum seekers lived in London.  They could lawfully work to support themselves and could claim social security benefits such as income support if they became unemployed or sick paid albeit at a reduced rate of 90% of the standard rate of benefit.  

From April 2000 asylum seekers were removed from being able to access social security benefits, council housing and were also restricted from accessing support from social services.   Instead, a new system was established and support in the form of vouchers was available on condition that the asylum seeker was dispersed away from the South East of England.  Accommodation was provided on a no choice basis to designated areas of the UK, mainly Glasgow, the North East and North West of England and the Midlands. The vouchers were eventually abolished but Asylum seekers are still prevented from having cash and instead receive their payments via a pre-paid card.

New Labour adopted a rhetoric that the majority of asylum seekers were bogus and presented a threat.  It created a sense of crisis which together with the media encouraged hostility within the general population not just to asylum seekers but to all migrants. The Labour Government justified its harsh treatment on the basis that most asylum seekers were not genuine, instead they were attracted by our generous welfare benefits system or were simply economic migrants.   The reality is that the UK has only ever hosted a tiny proportion of the worlds refugees and most asylum seekers would have no knowledge of the UK benefit system.

Although focused on asylum seekers other migrants were to subsequently be targeted with policies that made life in the UK more difficult.

For example in 2004 the hostile environment was extended to EU nationals with the introduction of the Right to Reside test.  The test was designed to exclude EU nationals who were not economically active from accessing state benefits and council housing.  The problem is that there is a very high error rate in decision making and as a result thousands of EU nationals have been wrongly refused benefit and forced into homelessness. 

It’s taken a pandemic to bring public awareness of the poverty level of benefits.  The huge expansion of foodbank use, children going hungry and the rise of people having to choose between eating or heating was well documented but largely ignored.   But the lockdown meant that many who had never previously encountered the benefit system suddenly had to rely on it.  A public outcry at the poverty levels of benefit forced the Government into introducing an uplift to Universal Credit of £20 per week in April 2020 bringing the monthly standard rate for a couple aged over 25 to £594.04.  This is rightly considered too low an amount to survive on.  Yet the rate of asylum support is set at the grand sum of £39.63 per week.  The rate has increased by just £3.09 since its introduction 21 years ago.  The amount is supposed to be sufficient for food clothing and social activity. But it fails to reflect that asylum seekers incur frequent travel costs directly related to their asylum claim.

The forced dispersal of asylum seekers remains a problem.  Asylum accommodation tends to be concentrated within dispersal areas, and parts of dispersal areas, where there is cheap and more readily available accommodation. The unequal distribution of asylum seekers within dispersal areas has been a longstanding concern for local authorities. For example, evidence submitted to the Home Affairs Committee’s 2018 inquiry from the leader of Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council stated that, at that time, “10% of the UK’s asylum seekers are in just 40 wards in Yorkshire and the Humber.

Asylum seekers generally arrive in the UK with nothing. Indeed asylum support is only paid to asylum seekers who are considered destitute.  Most will have experienced severe trauma and brutality and many will have witnessed the murder of a relative.  Most are in need of a welcome reception and support to rebuild their lives. The level of support provided to asylum seekers is something we should all be ashamed of.  That it was instigated by a Labour Government is one of the more shameful episodes in our history.

The pandemic did not create poverty nor racism. But it has cast a blinding light on the intolerable levels of both in our society.  It has exposed the impact of policies which have forced people to live at poverty levels and the resulting resulted in a structural inequality which in many cases has been life threatening.  The outrage is palpable and rightly so.  But asylum seekers remain forgotten.  Now is the time that Labour must put right the wrongs of the past and bring asylum seekers back within the mainstream welfare state.  If not Labour, who will?

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