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The death of Mercy Baguma calls for radical changes to the UK’s asylum system

On 22nd August, Mercy Baguma, a 34 year old asylum seeker, was found dead in her flat in Glasgow with her malnourished baby son crying next to her. While the cause of Mercy’s death is currently under investigation – with no confirmation as of yet that this was due to starvation – the harrowing circumstances surrounding this tragedy have sparked renewed pressure to end a key component of the government’s hostile environment policy – the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) condition.

Mercy had recently become jobless – in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic – after her leave to remain in the UK expired. She was reportedly undergoing the process of claiming asylum however asylum seekers in the UK are unable to undertake paid work while their claim is being processed and must rely on a meagre weekly allowance of £37.75. This payment is intended to cover all daily essentials – from food to toiletries and clothing. As a result, Mercy is believed to have been living in extreme poverty in the weeks leading up to her death and had sought help from Scottish charity Positive Action, confiding in them that she didn’t “have enough money to look after herself or her child”.

She had similarly received the support of African Challenge Scotland in July, as the organisation published a video via their social media of Mercy gratefully accepting a much-needed food parcel. While it has not yet been confirmed that the cause of Mercy’s death was due to her destitute circumstances, her tragic case speaks to an urgent need for the government to eradicate needless hurdles and such scant support for those seeking asylum.

The UK’s asylum system has long provoked criticism and calls for change from immigration lawyers, migrant charities and campaigners alike. Destitution among asylum seekers is rife and this devastatingly comes as no surprise given the restrictions and delays often endured by these individuals throughout the asylum process.

Countless reports published by researchers, think[1]tanks and organisations have demonstrated a desperate need for reforms to the asylum system, with so many vulnerable individuals falling through the cracks. This is largely as a result of the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) condition which prohibits asylum seekers from accessing statutory homelessness assistance and most welfare benefits, including Universal Credit and child tax credits, as well as presenting significant barriers when it comes to accessing free healthcare and housing.

A report carried out in 2017 by Refugee Action found that, despite the Home Office having a duty to ensure that those who require support while waiting on a decision for their asylum claim do not fall into destitution and homelessness, many who seek support from the charity are living on the street or haven’t eaten properly for weeks. Barriers to accessing asylum support play a significant role in this, with many wrongly denied assistance or being made to wait unnecessarily long periods of time before receiving financial support.

The charity found that less than half of applications for emergency support that they assisted with were granted on initial application – however, after appealing these refusals, 92% were granted, often with no change in the applicant’s material situation. This demonstrates quite how frequently those who are actually eligible for support are initially refused until challenged: what happens to those who are unaware that they can challenge such refusals or who cannot access legal support?

To add insult to injury, leading politicians seem entirely unaware of the far-reaching repercussions of their own policies. In May, Prime Minister Boris Johnson made clear just how little he truly understands his government’s No Recourse to Public Funds condition, after insisting during a committee meeting that ‘people who have worked hard for this country and who live and work here should have support of one kind or another’.

He was corrected by Labour MP Stephen Timms who informed him that, as a matter of fact, thousands of those who have been granted leave to remain in the UK are subjected to the NRPF condition, preventing them from accessing key financial support both in normal circumstances and throughout the duration of the pandemic.

This same level of ignorance was only further displayed by the Minister for Work and Pensions, Therese Coffey, in an interview with SkyNews commentator Kay Burley following Mercy Baguma’s death. Despite being explicitly encouraged to offer her condolences and sympathise with Mercy’s tragic case, Coffey repeatedly insisted that ‘there are ways’ for those in circumstances such as Mercy’s to ‘access that help.’

Only, this demonstrably isn’t the case. The government assistance referred to by Coffey is that which is referenced within Refugee Action’s 2017 research, which found that applications for emergency (section 98) support were incorrectly refused on a regular basis.

To suggest that those in destitute circumstances will receive urgent support simply upon completing an application is wilfully misleading.

Such rhetoric feeds into the widespread misconception that asylum seekers in the UK somehow have an easy ride, with far-right groups such as Britain First recently storming hotels which are temporarily housing refugees awaiting permanent accommodation during the pandemic. The misrepresentation of asylum support by leading politicians inevitably contributes to the myth that those seeking asylum are provided with an abundance of assistance and need only complete an application form in order to receive this.

The reality, however, paints a different picture, with asylum seekers going months with non-payment of funds, facing barriers to health care, housing and employment, and having no entitlement to benefits. How can we expect the public to recognise the fundamental inhumanity at the core of the asylum system when the Prime Minister himself demonstrates a critical lack of awareness towards the difficulties faced by migrants and asylum seekers in the UK and the Minister of the Department for Work and Pensions refuses to acknowledge that delays and unnecessary refusals of assistance sees many asylum seekers plunged into destitution?

This misinformed narrative must end and measures must be taken to ensure that asylum seekers are provided with the urgent support they so desperately require.

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