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Sink or survive: lost hope triggered by destitution within the asylum system

This opinion piece is over 2 years old

Tandy Nicole says the government needs to introduce measures to tackle destitution faced by people in the asylum system

If you want to know about what life is like in the asylum system it is important to speak to the people who have lived experience of that reality, or you risk making assumptions, missing key details, or looking for hasty solutions to complex problems. 

It seems everyone has a view but all too often it’s the experiences and opinions of the people seeking asylum themselves that we neglect. 

I have been taking part in a project that challenges that approach and instead seeks to tap into the insight of people who have come to this country in search of sanctuary.  By doing that, people like me, who are forced to claim asylum for their own protection, can use their voices to share their experiences and work together to uncover ways to improve the situation for people seeking asylum. 

Working with the British Red Cross and Refugee Survival Trust, I have contributed as a peer researcher to a new report – How will we survive? Steps to preventing destitution in the asylum system – which makes a number of recommendations for how people in the asylum system can be better protected from falling into destitution.  

One of these recommendations, which is very important to me as a qualified mental health nurse, is the call to increase access to mental health services for people seeking asylum. I think it is really important to acknowledge that the mental health needs of refugees and people seeking asylum are significantly different from the rest of the population in the UK, many of whom suffer from complex trauma, because of their experiences in their countries of origin, on their journey to the UK and also during their time in the UK asylum system. This is evident to me not only from my personal interactions with people, but also from a number of interviews I conducted where people displayed signs of depression, anxiety and PTSD and talked about self-harm and suicide as a result of the uncertainty they face and the financial hardship they endure on a daily basis. With my professional expertise, I strongly believe that most individuals require pharmacological and/or psychosocial intervention such as trauma-focused CBT, family therapy and coping therapy to name a few.

There are many challenges that people seeking asylum in the UK face and the impact of these on mental wellbeing cannot be underestimated. Imagine what it is like to be parted from your family and your home; how difficult it is not to be able to work and support yourself, where you have to survive on £5 a day and are forced to rely on charities and foodbanks to meet your essential needs.

One of the hardest things to deal with - and which has to be the issue that probably has one of the biggest impacts on mental health - is that you have to repeatedly defend your asylum claim to Home Office officials who often don’t believe you and don’t offer the compassion that you need at one of the most difficult times in your life. It is therefore, at times like these, that people should be provided with additional wellbeing and emotional support in preparation for, while attending, and following court hearings and Home Office interviews. For many of the people I spoke to, these processes can be very distressing and re-traumatising and can often lead to people becoming confused and unable to provide coherent testimonies.

Another recommendation, which links closely to supporting people’s mental health is our proposal to offer peer support to people early on in their journey, provided by someone who has already been through the process themselves and understands the journey to come. So that people are not alone, and have the support of someone who understands the experiences involved in seeking asylum: the trauma, the uncertainty, the discrimination, the endured financial hardship and the regular threat of destitution. 

We are the right people to provide this type of support. During our own time in the asylum system we have worked hard to learn about what our rights are, where to go for essential services and how to access support from charities and community groups. We have also put  a lot of time into developing social connections and support networks that are so important to building our resilience to the challenges of the UK asylum system.

So, if we can help people along their journey right from the start by ensuring they are not alone, we can also help to reduce the stress and anxiety people experience and enable them to develop their knowledge as quickly as possible. This will help people integrate into the community, overcome language barriers, build confidence and instil them with hope for the future. 

That’s why we’d like to see the Scottish Government implement a peer support model that allows people seeking asylum to access advice, guidance and support from peers who know what they are going through as they navigate the complex asylum system. In addition to this, we are also calling on the Home Office to provide an initial cash grant to people entering the asylum support system so they have enough financial support to buy the essentials needed to start their lives here in the UK. These steps, along with the other recommendations we lay out, would make a huge difference to people’s lives and, while our report has not unearthed all the answers to the many difficult challenges before us, we feel like we are starting to have conversations with the right people. 

Tandy Nicole worked as a peer researcher on the How Will We Survive? report