Victoria Canning, The Open University
When austerity erodes essential public services, it is easy to create categories of ‘should haves’ and ‘should have nots’. Alongside other migrant groups, people seeking asylum are increasingly seen as burdensome, to the detriment of their rights, dignity and civil liberties.
The gradual erosion of welfare has long been a cilice forced onto those most dependent on financial support. Decisions made under the guise of austerity have taken that a step further, slicing through the very mantel of public services, not only those receiving benefits or care, but those giving them. Legal aid cuts have reduced the capacity for lawyers to provide free guidance, whilst the strain of cuts to the NHS renders healthcare staff stretched, stressed and well beyond safe working environments.
Alongside the creeping criminalisation of migration, the language of austerity has provided ample justification for reducing asylum rights in the UK. In times of particular financial hardship, it becomes ever easier for the state and the public to call for measures reducing support to people who are seen as ‘non-citizens’. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, the cascading austerity cuts have been hard felt by people seeking asylum. Since 2010, individuals and families seeking asylum have faced reductions in legal aid, and now face ever more significant barriers accessing services for mental health problems, sexual violence counselling, or post-torture support. Since refugee groups often have disproportionately violent histories, these services are absolutely vital.
Austerity has, in reality, encouraged an environment that facilitates neglect and increased violence against people seeking asylum, amongst other migrant and non-white populations. When I started researching the British asylum system in 2008, at the beginning of the ‘crisis’, I could not have imagined that the social or economic landscape for people seeking asylum could get much worse. I found that the lack of access to interpreters impacted on the health of pregnant women and their children, sexual violence services were thinly stretched, and local foodbanks in Mosques and churches were commonplace. Support was minimal, but it was at least existent in some capacity.
Now, at the height of austerity and scores of interviews and thousands of hours of activist participation later, it is plain to see how the social, legal and economic conditions have rapidly evaporated. To echo the sentiments of a community mental health worker:
Five, six, seven years ago Liverpool had so many organisations supporting asylum seekers and probably that’s because there was a lot of funding available from government or local authorities or even trust funders. Over the last two, three years things have changed, there isn’t a lot of money around, so a few other organisations have had to shut down their doors, they’ve had to streamline their services.
‘Streamlining their services’ suggests making services more focussed. In reality, it has basically meant that fewer specialised organisations exist, with central and local cuts – some of the most severe across the UK – adding further weight onto the few shoulders that are still available to carry it. This is a key issue for women fleeing domestic violence who otherwise face the reality of daily abuse. As a councillor in the North-West of England put it:
In terms of women’s issues as refugee and asylum seekers they were just expected to be absorbed into the existing organisations but what people didn’t realise that the existing organisations were only working to a minimum capacity because of their funding. Now with austerity and the European Brexit and stuff like that, that’s beginning to look even worse, if you can imagine it to be any worse.
As I argue in The Violence of Austerity, and as advocacy and pressure groups such as Sisters Uncut and Safety 4 Sisters can attest, cuts to specialist services have the capacity to effectively facilitate deaths. If women cannot escape cycles of violence, gain access to refuges and receive emotional support – if they are depressed or feeling suicidal – some women will die. Such deaths are foreseeable when financial support is all but eradicated. Ignoring their potential has been a decision central to the agenda of austerity, not a by-product of it.
Deflecting responsibility on to those who least deserve it?
In a recent interview in Merseyside, a case worker for a refugee women’s service told me she felt that, ‘there has been definitely a concerted drive to divert attention away from the fact that there’s been less money provided, and put attention on stuff like, “Well who else could be using the services who doesn’t have as much right to the service as you?”’. In other words, rather than looking at those responsible for austerity, we are encouraged to look at those around us as potential threats to dwindling resources.
The reality of life in asylum has, however, long been more than arduous. Currently, people seeking asylum in Britain receive £36.95 per week in cash (£5.28 per day), but those who are awaiting asylum appeals receive £35.39 per week on a prepayment card. Considering that people seeking asylum received around £5 per day in 2008, at the beginning of the so-called ‘economic crisis’, and that inflation has increased on average 2.6 per cent each year since then, the end result of the infliction of such poverty is clearly foreseeable. Evidencing the harmful effects of this meagre entitlement, in 2014 Refugee Action found that:
Half of asylum-seekers surveyed couldn’t buy enough food to feed themselves or their families. [Our] research also found that 43 per cent of asylum-seekers miss a meal because they can’t afford to eat while a shocking 88 per cent don’t have enough money to buy clothes.
Over the past few months, I have spoken with women seeking asylum who are literally choosing between food and legal support payments. Cuts to support workers are devastating for people who can’t read English or who gain no advice, because it literally means not being able to access food or healthcare – even if they have the right to do so.
If there is one point to take away from a collection as hard hitting as The Violence of Austerity, it is that the decisions made in the aftermath of the so-called financial crisis were exactly that – decisions, made by some of the very people responsible for ensuring welfare and protection. They were not made by people seeking sanctuary – people requesting protection – who will likely feel the social and economic impacts of austerity for years to come.
Victoria Canning is a contributing author in ‘The Violence of Austerity’ where she writes on‘‘Multiple forms of violence in the asylum system’. The book is available to buy from Pluto Press: