A life in limbo: the people forgotten by our asylum system
There are people in our communities who live in the shadows.
A small group of refused asylum seekers, ignored by an immigration system that is content to leave them destitute.
These are our ghosts, left alone with nothing at all. The precariousness of their lives, and the duration of their ordeal, a blot on all our consciences.
Who are they?
They are those refused asylum seekers who cannot, through no fault of their own, be returned home.
People whose lives are ruined by a catch-22 built into the heart of our asylum system.
They are the people who can’t stay, yet can’t go.
“I can’t go back and I can’t live here”
Walid* came to the UK from Algeria in 2000.
Having fled fighting in his homeland, the 44-year-old has been in the UK’s labyrinthine asylum system for 17 years.
He is part of a small sub-group of refused asylum seekers: those who have simultaneously no right to remain in the UK, but cannot be returned to their country of origin.
“They let me live like — between. I can’t go back and I can’t live here… If you die, nobody cares really,” he said.
After being denied asylum in the UK, Walid applied to return voluntarily to Algeria in 2015. He was unable to leave because he does not have a passport or any official documentation.
His embassy will not recognise him as Algerian or re-document him.
“I was twice to the Algerian Embassy,” he said. “But they don’t recognise me.
“I was in Europe before I came here, in France but I was out of the country 22 years. If you are 22 years out the country, you are out from the system.
“You can’t — it doesn’t find you. I think they think I’m this person that’s died.”
A life in limbo
For people in Walid’s position, life is bleak.
With no money and no right to work, they struggle to survive and rely on charities for food and clothing.
Most are homeless and constantly move around, relying on friends and night shelters for a place to sleep. For some, the only option is to sleep rough.
Walid added: “I did, I sleep some night in street really, near the river. I don’t have choice.
“When I was sleeping in the street I was — I want to die really. I don’t want to carry on, because it’s not like — it’s not easy.
“That time it was warm, yes, but this winter I can’t do it. Really, I can’t do it. You cannot sleep in the street in this weather really.”
Others rely on friends for accommodation. Samir* is in the same position as Walid — his asylum claim has been refused, yet he cannot return home because his embassy will not re-document him.
The 36-year-old has been without any form of state support since September 2015.
“Sometimes I was sleeping outside because I had nowhere to go,” he said. “Yes, I remember three, four days I slept outside… and it was wintertime.
“It’s not just me. Too many people I’ve seen are like that. They have the same situation as me, moving from here to there. Sometimes you come to a Red Cross [to] show where you go to sleep. One day here, tomorrow there… Yes, it’s not easy.”
He is conscious, as many like him are, of the lack of permanence that colours his life. “At the moment” is a phrase he uses a lot — whether talking about housing, food, or clothes.
This transience can feed other problems. Refused asylum seekers often lose documentation related to their asylum case.
“I lost my papers, everything, because I had nowhere to go,” Samir added. “I had nowhere. I take just my bag. That’s it. And then I move.”
The path to depression
Living in limbo with no control over their future has a profound impact on the mental and physical health of refused asylum seekers.
Red Cross volunteers and staff often witness how their health deteriorates over time. Our new ‘Can’t Stay, Can’t Go’ report found many refused asylum seekers have considered suicide at some point.
Grace*, from the Red Cross service in Leicester, has been working with people like Walid and Samir for a number of years.
“What frustrates me, actually, is they become worse here, which is the country where they’re supposed to be finding safety,” she said.
“They actually get so frustrated with the system that they get really depressed. One of my clients has got psychosis now.”
Very often, with no fixed address, accessing mental health services for these people can be very challenging.
In Walid’s case, he is also not in the best physical health. He has had two heart attacks since he has been in the UK. He now has stents placed in his heart and takes five tablets a day.
Walid’s GP has written to the Home Office in support of his case. Part of the letter read: “It is my opinion, with respect, that to make this man homeless would be cruel and uncaring.”
But the letter made no difference to Walid’s situation.
Walid and Samir are not the only ones in this situation. Our ‘Can’t Stay, Can’t Go’ report found people from countries such as Algeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan have been denied refugee status yet cannot return home.
In some cases people were denied status despite the Home Office agreeing that it is not possible to return them home safely.
This is the unfortunate catch-22 built into the asylum system. Their asylum claims refused, people like Walid should legally be removed from the country.
But with no country willing to accept them, or no way of getting there, they remain in the UK as outcasts.
They are effectively trapped in a land from which there is no escape. The tragedy is that many of these people have something to contribute — if only they could.
For people in Samir’s situation, one of the hardest things to come to terms with is the feeling that life is passing you by.
“I am not young,” he said. “Life is going very quick. I came into this country, I was 31 years. Now I am 36. Yes, it’s five years now here in England.
“I was asking the Home Office to just give me permission to work. If they don’t want to give me permission to stay — just give me permission to work.
“I pay my rent, I pay for everything… But I have no permission to work. I can’t.
“If I want to sort my life, I need to find my job. Without a job, you cannot sort your life, do you know what I mean? You cannot. When you have a job… it makes you happier because you pay the rent, you do this, you do that.”
Asylum support for people trapped in this situation is negligible and very difficult to access.
Currently, refused asylum seekers who are taking all reasonable steps to leave the UK can apply for Section 4 support, which consists of accommodation and £36 a week via the Azure payment card.
In practice, however, it is very difficult for someone who is destitute to prove they are taking these so-called reasonable steps: they often struggle to pay for travel to an embassy, or make the necessary phone calls.
Families with children, who have been refused asylum, are currently eligible for accommodation and £36 a week for each member of the family — known as Section 95 support. This provision was, however, repealed in the Immigration Act 2016.
Ahead of the Immigration Act coming into force, the Red Cross is calling for the Home Office to provide clear, realistic and practical guidelines for single adults who apply for asylum support on the grounds of being unable to leave the UK.
We are also calling for pregnant women and families with children to continue receiving Section 95 support, regardless of their immigration status.
Statelessness: a last resort
One unappealing option remains open to Walid: statelessness. This is when someone’s country of origin refuses to recognise their citizenship.
A successful Stateless application can result in a person being granted leave to remain in the UK for an initial 30 months.
Subsequent periods of leave can be granted and, after five years, they can make an application for indefinite leave to remain in the country.
But a statelessness application is often seen as a last resort.
“Stateless application — I don’t want to have to do that,” said Walid. “It’s the last thing I was thinking about. If nothing happen I going to do this stateless application.”
Walid is waiting for legal advice from Liverpool Law Clinic on his options. However the process is far from straightforward.
With the exception of Scotland, legal aid is generally not available in the UK for applications for leave to remain as a stateless person, despite such applications often being factually and legally complex.
The form is currently available only in English.
The burden of proof also rests with the applicant. They must prove a negative: that he or she is not considered a national of any state. In practice this is very difficult to achieve.
While an application is pending, the individual has no right to work and, currently, has access to only basic support.
“I’m not an animal”
The implications of their situations weigh heavy on the minds of many refused asylum seekers.
For years on end they struggle with the anxiety and powerlessness induced by the waiting, and the hoping, for a letter with some positive news.
Walid longs for a normal life and an end to his ordeal.
“I can’t stay surviving like this,” he said. “I need to wake up, to get married like anyone, to get place where I can sleep, to get a job… My future is zero. I don’t have future.
“But I don’t want to give up. I have to keep going.
“I don’t want to be rich; big money, nice house, nice life. No, I don’t want to be rich or nice life. I need just a normal life. Basic — basic life. Give me my status and let me to do something.”
The Red Cross is one of a number of charities working with destitute refugees in the UK.
Fifty eight towns and cities host Red Cross services providing practical support such as food parcels, clothing and small amounts of emergency cash to vulnerable people.
Our caseworkers are also there to build up a relationship of trust with many vulnerable people over time. They support them with referrals to other charities, legal referrals, GP registration, finding accommodation and more.
Their goal is to restore what little dignity they can to people whose spirits are all too often sapped by a life spent in limbo. In Walid’s case, that can come from something as simple as going into a coffee shop.
“Sometimes I keep some money to have a coffee in the morning in Caffè Nero, Costa, to feel like I’m still living,” he said.
“I mean I’m not an animal. They think I’m an animal. No, I’m human like anyone.”
Can’t Stay, Can’t Go
Our ‘Can’t Stay, Can’t Go’ report is based on in-depth interviews with 15 refused asylum seekers who cannot return to their country of origin.
We also spoke to six Red Cross staff members who work closely with this group.
The Red Cross is arguing that granting discretionary leave to remain, including a right to work, to fully refused asylum seekers who have been taking steps to leave the UK for more than 12 months, would prevent people from being left destitute and vulnerable to exploitation.
We continue to believe that no one should be left destitute if they remain in the UK due to factors beyond their control.
- Can’t Stay, Can’t Go: read the full report.
- * All names have been changed to preserve anonymity. Models were used for the photos that accompany this post.
- Photography © Simon Reeves/British Red Cross.