Asylum seekers 'making sacrifices to survive' amid the cost-of-living crisis

As he left for the UK from Syria, Bashir (not his real name) made a promise to his mother: He’d pay back every penny of her life savings.

Bashir, in his 20s and a young leader for the refugee rights charity Safe Passage, is seeking asylum in the UK. Money woes are something he knows all too well.

‘I lived over half of my life in one of the bloodiest wars in the 21st century; 11 years in the war, two hours of electricity a day for each day in every year of
them,’ he tells

‘I exactly know what it looks like to choose between food and heat in -5°C cold, how it looks like to walk two kilometres twice a week as a child with a 25 litre to the nearest water well to bring water to your family.

‘We call it the cost-of-living, or rather, the battle for living.’

But coming to the UK with money, even a little, came with a price. ‘The police told me I would have no solicitor to represent my case, no place to stay in, nothing, till I spend every single cent on me, this was horrible news, but I had no say on it,’ he claims.

He struggled to book a hotel as his mother had given him her life savings in cash: ‘It was the first time I knew what a bank account was,’ he recalls. After spending all his mother’s savings and calling a Home Office emergency hotline, the department placed him in a temporary hotel ‘in the middle of nowhere’.

Bashir came to call it a ‘VIP cell’ and was unable to make the two-hour trip to the nearest town as he couldn’t foot the £7.40 bus pass.

‘You don’t know the language to complain or ask about anything, let alone the news that appears like Britain has no problems whatsoever other than the “Immigration Crisis”,’ he says.

Bashir is one of around 120,000 asylum seekers waiting on a decision for their claim.

As he’s been housed in temporary ‘contingency accommodation’ – which provides meals – he receives about £8 a week. This is meant to cover essentials like travel, clothing, communication or medicine.

But amid the cost-of-living crisis, which has seen inflation in the double-digits for months, Bashir feels like his money problems are never going to end.

‘We don’t need a cost-of-living crisis of £8 a week to feel less than enough; even with free healthcare, free food and housing, this is not what human life is all about,’ he adds.

‘You need to communicate, heal from what you went throw years of war, fight for your asylum case to get approval after years, to learn English, we don’t have the chance to do any of those with £8.’

How much money an asylum seeker receive tends to depend on the accommodation they’re placed in.

Those living in flats or houses receive as little as £5.83 per day to live off of – this places them more than 70% below the poverty line.

The Home Office last year raised the amount a person going through the asylum porocess has to live on from £39.63 to £40.85 a week – a £1.22 difference. (An average grocery shop for one person is more than £45).

‘Like all people, asylum seekers and failed asylum seekers need to budget appropriately and plan their expenditure according to the income available to them,’ a Home Office report on raising the allowance said, adding that it ‘ensures asylum seekers are not left destitute by providing appropriate support’.

‘It is unlikely they will always spend the same amount of money on the same essential items each week.’

Asylum seekers are unable to work and earn additional income like benefits while their applications are being processed.

Though the Home Office says asylum applicants should receive a decision within six months, figures show 23,000 have been waiting more than 18 months.

This backlog mean some people are having to survive just on the asylum allownace.

After one year, they can work but only from the government’s pretty specific ‘Shortage Occupation List’ – this includes scientists, actuaries and ballet dancers.

‘The situation for new migrants has never been easy,’ says Fiona Crombie, a clinical service manager at Freedom from Torture’s Glasgow centre that supports for asylum seekers. ‘They struggled to buy food and clothes before – now almost everyone relies on charities.’

Crombie says she’s seen the majority of the people she helps use their first welfare cheque on clothing. One of her clients told her how ‘a winter jacket is almost a full week’s benefit. Shoes are the same. Not luxuries’.

‘I was with a young Afghan woman who had bought herself a broach and was justifying the expense and it wasn’t expensive. Self-compassion and kindness are so important to our sense of self-worth.’

Bashir says he’s seen this all, too. Including fellow asylum seekers taking on debt (in one case, £15,000) to stay afloat amid the cost-of-living crunch.

Raham Moghaddam, 20, an asylum seeker who came to the UK in June 2022 from Iran, has seen it as well. He lives in temporary lodging near Newcastle Upon Tyne – he already feels isolated enough as it is, with a bus to town costing half his weekly allowance.

‘You have to use your cell phone; you have to use the internet, but SIM cards are so expensive,’ he says.

‘If you want to top up it’s hard to do that with £8 a week. You have to pay for a meal sometimes, you have to buy a bus ticket.

‘But you need a SIM card to connect with your family back at home. You need the internet to improve your English. I use YouTube when I can to improve my English.

A skilled rope access technician in Iran, as Raham is still in his first year since applying for asylum, he can’t work. He’s also lost 12kg in weight as the food isn’t the best in his accommodation.

‘I feel angry about the government and those ignorant people because if we don’t have permission to work then how should we live without benefits? If the government let us work, we could be more useful because we would then be paying taxes.’

Raham volunteers at weekly drop-in sessions to help other migrants organised by Action Foundation, a charity based in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Yvonne Cheung, who manages the drop-ins, says she’s noticing more and more asylum seekers having to make difficult decisions.

‘We’ve had parents coming in because they’re unable to afford baby formula and clothes for their little ones, it’s absolutely heartbreaking,’ Cheung says, something an increasing number of parents are dealing with as they turn to ‘baby banks’.

Duncan McAuley, CEO of Action Foundation adds: ‘What we are going to see is people going hungry, people not going to their doctor’s appointment because they can’t afford the bus fare; people not turning up to their English language classes which we provide for free, simply because they can’t afford to get there.’

Eritrean born and raised in Saudi Arabia, Omer, 38, applied for asylum in 2019 but ended up on the streets when his case was denied a year later.

The day the Refugee Council, a support group he now volunteers for, handed him a £30 food voucher while he was homeless he cried. ‘At the time, that money felt like three million pounds,’ he says.

This is a feeling of relief that Omer struggles to recapture these days. He lives in a ‘rat-infested’ flat with four other asylum seekers, sharing a single fridge, as he awaits the result of his appeal.

‘Everything has gone up by 50%, sometimes 100%,’ he says. This price hike also includes groceries, which Omer already struggles with as he has Type 1 diabetes – he’s been advised to eat organic food, which tends to be more costly.

‘It’s very difficult,’ he says. ‘You can’t just measure it financially – there are other needs, emotional needs, so asylum seekers feels they exist.’

‘I came here to seek a good life, a life for a human being, but I found myself treated as a criminal,’ he says, recalling the decades-long stigma of being an asylum seeker. Think ‘welfare scroungers’ (even though they’re not all migrants can access them) or, as Home Secretary Suella Braverman put it, ‘invaders’.

A Home Office spokesperson previously said: ‘Asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute are provided with support whilst we consider their claim for international protection. This includes free, furnished accommodation and utilities as well as a weekly allowance for food, clothing, transport and goods.

‘Asylum seekers can work if their claim has been outstanding for 12 months or more, through no fault of their own, and are able to work in a role on the Shortage Occupation List.’

Things don’t get better for migrants even if they’re granted status, Bijan (not his real name), a survivor of torture from Iran in his 20s, says.

He received about £40 a week when he was an asylum seeker. Since being granted refugee status, he now gets around £320 a month in benefits.

He’s now moving out to a flat but he worries he won’t have enough cash to pay for energy or to furnish his home.

‘I’m really struggling financially. I have to make a lot of sacrifices to survive. I have to eat less than I need to buy a pair of shoes or a jacket for winter, I have to walk on foot for miles because I cannot afford the bus ticket,’ he says.

‘With all these sacrifices I’m still unable to buy the food that I need,’ Bijan says. A yoghurt from Lidl he used to buy that was 70p has more than doubled.

‘It might not sound like a lot, but for every item, every time you shop it makes a difference. My income is the same so I am using my savings to pay for daily things.

‘I was hoping for my life to change if I get my refugee status granted, I thought I would be better off, but things didn’t change much.’

‘Now, my refugee status has no meaning now,’ Bijan adds, ‘it feels like I came back to the starting point again.’

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