Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Card That Steals Dignity

In 2009 the UK government introduced a new support system for refused asylum seekers, the ‘Azure’ card. This article highlights the hardship and stigmatisation that the card creates.

Owen from Zimbabwe is 56 years old and is HIV positive. Sometimes he is so weak that he cannot go to the supermarket himself and needs to ask friends to do his shopping. His friends used to be able to do so, but since the introduction of the ‘Azure’ card they no longer can and Owen is left with no food until he is stronger again.

The ‘Azure’ Card failure

Azure Card

The ‘Azure’ card was introduced by the government in 2009, to replace a voucher-system under which refused asylum seekers could get vouchers for food and other essential goods to help them survive once their asylum claim had been refused.

Once refused, the only way to avoid destitution is to apply for and receive support under Section 4 of the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act.

Section 4 is supposed to be a short-term aid because refused asylum seekers are expected (by the UK Government) to return to their countries of origin as quickly as possible. However, some, like Owen, who has been on Section 4 for almost three years, are not able to return (for example because they are ill or there are practical barriers to returning) and most have submitted new documents and are continuing their asylum application.

Read the full report published by the Asylum Support Partnership (ASP)
Your inflexible friend: the cost of living without cash

What is the “Azure” card for?

The card works like a debit card, except that only a limited number of supermarkets accept the card and no cash can be obtained with it.

The holder’s name is visible on the card.

A single adult will get £35 put on their card each week for “food and essential toiletries only”. Even if you don’t spend all of it you can only ‘carry-over’ a maximum of £5 per week.

That means, when Owen is too weak to walk to the supermarket for a week (which is far away because the stores close to where he lives are not participating in the “Azure” card-scheme), and he thus has not spent any money, he would lose £30 and still only have £40 for the following week. The same would happen if Owen wanted to save up for a something more expensive, say, a winter coat.

What is wrong with the Azure card?

Recently, a report was published by the Asylum Support Partnership (ASP) entitled “Your inflexible friend: the cost of living without cash”, which demonstrates how inhumane the “Azure” card system is and how much hardship it causes to cardholders like Owen.

The report’s principal findings are that the card fails to achieve what it is aimed to do, which is avoiding the stigmatisation that came with the voucher-scheme. Further:

  • Card-holders have problems buying enough food to feed themselves and their children, as well as finding food that is important in their culture or religion;
  • Often card-holders cannot buy non-prescription medicine, let alone other essential products they need.
  • The card’s administration often has technical issues and solving these or checking the balance becomes difficult for many whose first language is not English.

The government argues that they only need to cover food and essential toiletries because they will not be on Section 4 for a long time. Yet as the report highlights a large number of people have been on Section 4 for over two years, including Owen.

Lastly, the reason why Owen cannot simply send his friends to the store and then pay them back in cash (they cannot use his card because it has his name on it), is that one of the government’s aims is met very effectively: prohibiting the access to cash for refused asylum seekers.

“Azure” card-holders have no cash. Having no cash means not being able to use public transportation, not being able to make telephone calls, not being able to buy at the cheap shop next door that does not participate in the scheme (even though they might be much cheaper than Sainsbury’s).

Not being able to use public transportation implies walking everywhere, from the supermarket, to friends and family, to legal advisers, to doctors, or to the UK Border Agency (UKBA) itself. It is therefore made very difficult for cardholders to do what is necessary for their asylum claim.

Children have the right to receive education no matter what the status of their parents is, but when the school is too far away to walk to they cannot attend.

Remember that refused asylum seekers are also not allowed to work in the UK. The only way to get cash is to ask friends or family, or to take on often exploitative jobs or even engage in illegal activities, such as prostitution.

Why the card should go

Asylum seekers flee from atrocities and persecution in the hope of being protected by another country (many do not even know which country until they get there) and being able to lead their lives in dignity.

By not allowing these people to work the Government is creating unnecessary costs for itself and hardships for the refused asylum seekers, many of whom are qualified professionals. By not granting Section 4 receivers any cash, and not enough money to subsist on, the government is not respecting the inherent right to dignity that we all possess as human beings.

Something needs to be done to address this inhumanity and deprivation of asylum seekers’ dignity, who feel singled-out, stigmatised, insecure and treated worse than animals.

The Refugee Council is calling on all of us to take action and e-mail the government, asking to abolish the “Azure” card, introducing a cash-support system and allowing refused asylum seekers to work – for the benefit of all.

Action to abolish the “Azure” card is part of a broader campaign to reform the asylum support system. STAR and the Refugee Council are members of the Still Human Still Here Coalition, which calls for an end to destitution.

Take action now!

Email the government

Read the full report

Still Human Still Here Campaign

Posted by STAR team on 01/12/2010 at 11:06 AM