Zoe Williams, The Guardian, Wednesday 30 January 2013 20.30 GMT
The first person I met on section 4 asylum support lived in Stockton-on-Tees, with her daughter who was nearly two. I hadn’t heard of the Azure card, or any of the mean-minded hassles that went along with it – that your benefits, such as they are, come in vouchers rather than cash, so you can’t get a bus or make a phone call, can’t post a letter or buy a pint of milk from your corner shop. You have to be housed three miles from a shop that takes your Azure card; that can mean a six-mile walk every time you want to buy something.
She lived in a hostel, where her baby was constantly ill, and so were all the other babies, and an ambulance pulled up outside at least once a week. Her English was so fluent, and her qualifications so varied, and her manner so dispassionate and composed, that it was easy to forget she was an actual case study. It was more like talking theoretically about a really inhumane system; we were just two regular joes tapping at an aquarium, wondering if the octopus looked stressed.
The fact that she and her daughter were a case study was brought home rather forcefully last week, when she was evicted, rendered homeless and without support, by the UK Border Agency. The given reason was that she hadn’t returned a form (she’d returned it twice). It seemed to me more likely that this was a punishment for the fact that she’d spoken to two newspapers and given evidence to a parliamentary inquiry (which published its findings today).
But who could prove anything? She couldn’t even prove she’d posted her form – she had no money to register postage. A kerfuffle ensued: Sarah Teather, who led the inquiry, contacted the asylum seeker’s MP; a journalist on the Independent called the UK Border Agency; a petition went up on the campaign site Change.org. The eviction was retracted. She remains on section 4, and has no way of knowing what her next misdemeanour will be, in the eyes of the Border Agency. You’d call it Kafka-esque, except for the deficiency of that nightmare – Josef K, of course, didn’t have a two-year-old to worry about.
The findings of that inquiry are chilling to read. A family slept for months on the floor of a mosque. A woman had twins prematurely, lost one and had to walk to and from the hospital to keep appointments for the other, carrying the baby and an oxygen cylinder. A woman gave birth while her benefits were delayed, and had to carry her newborn home in her arms, because she didn’t have buggy or any money for a bus. Another woman died of a brain condition brought on by being HIV positive, and her baby starved to death.
None of this reflects very well on any government – indeed, on any society – but sometimes the razzle-dazzle of grotesque tragedy drowns out an obvious question: what is the point of section 4? Why would anyone devise a system so fraught with needless difficulty, in which hardship is so inevitable that it must be deliberate?
While their claims are pending, asylum seekers are on section 95, which was set at 70% of income support (since utilities are covered, as part of housing), and is paid in cash. If their claim is refused, but they can’t be repatriated because the country is too dangerous (I know, it sounds illogical – but the criteria for asylum are far stricter than “my country is too dangerous to live in”), they go on to section 4, which is lower and paid on a card.
There’s no rationale behind it – you don’t need less money when your claim has been refused, it’s not as though you’re suddenly allowed to work – unless it functions as a deterrent, or as a spur to return home. It never does. Asylum seekers don’t window- shop for the best place to flee to – that decision is usually made for them, by the agent – once here, whatever the deprivations, it’s usually not as bad as being tortured or killed.
If it doesn’t deter people, does it at least save money? Probably not. It isn’t cheap, having a whole department to administrate a benefits system used by relatively few people with all sorts of abstruse rules (they can’t buy condoms, on an Azure card – why not? So they’ll get pregnant, and everything will become that much harder, and the hardship will provide even more incentive to return to a war zone … hang on …). Teather has asked the public accounts committee to report on costs.
If it doesn’t save money, the purpose is either vindictive – a genuine malice borne by the home secretary towards foreigners in need – or it’s political, Theresa May backing up her tough, tough talk about how human rights are rubbish because someone she heard about at the Ukip Conference of Made Up Case Studies couldn’t be deported because he had a cat.
Asylum is a private fiefdom of the Home Office. May doesn’t have to report to parliament on the conditions of asylum seekers, and whether their benefits are uprated or frozen. As a result she’s said nothing, and for 2012-13 they’ve de facto been frozen. Part of me thinks it doesn’t matter whether her purpose is malicious or manipulative, and you could send yourself mad trying to climb inside the minds of these people. But another part of me thinks that if there is no point at all to section 4 which a reasonable person would admit to, that does matter.