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Refugees left destitute due to bureaucratic incompetence

Refugees left destitute due to bureaucratic incompetence

Baroness Lister | British Red Cross

4 min read

Ahead of today's third reading of the Immigration Bill, Baroness Lister calls for the Home Office and DWP must work together to prevent refugees granted asylum from destitution due to ‘move-on’ issues.


People believe that with refugee status, they can begin to rebuild their lives but instead are left without any support at a particularly vulnerable time—not a grace period but a form of purgatory

There are many problems in our asylum system that have been debated during the passage of the Immigration Bill 2015. People seeking asylum are banned from working, forcing them to be reliant on government support even when their applications are long delayed. People refused asylum, but through no fault of their own are unable to return home and are left languishing with few legal rights. Those fortunate enough to receive refugee status and who the Home Office believe require protection in the UK can be left penniless and destitute when their asylum support expires.

It is this last point – a problem that people have campaigned on for nearly a decade but where nothing has changed – that I chose to pursue when the Bill came to the House of Lords this year. Thankfully, the Home Office have finally listened.

The current problem is the refugee ‘move-on’ period – the 28 days where a new refugee receives Home Office support before they must find a home, get a job or claim mainstream benefits. Moving to the latter usually takes longer than 28 days, leading to destitution for refugees who have no support from the state. In 2015 the British Red Cross supported over 13,000 refugees & asylum seekers (including dependants) who were destitute – nearly a quarter of those asked were destitute because of ‘move-on’ issues.

It is not just the material impact (which is severe) but the psychological impact of destitution that should concern us too. People believe that with refugee status, they can begin to rebuild their lives but instead are left without any support at a particularly vulnerable time—not a grace period but a form of purgatory. Just imagine how you’d feel when the moment you’d prayed for arrived, only to find that life had actually been made more difficult than it was already.

This is a problem that has for far too long created unnecessary hardship and heartache for those granted refugee status. It is not the product of deliberate government policy, but a very unfortunate consequence of an inability of two government departments – the Home Office and the Department for Work and Pensions - to sort it out.

Put yourself in the shoes of a refugee: in a country that is unfamiliar, with a language you probably don’t understand and bureaucracy you have never experienced. Newly granted refugees will receive an untranslated bundle of paperwork. Not knowing where to start, they are expected to be able to get to a Job Centre Plus (often lacking the money for a bus fare), vigorously assert their rights under regulations they are unaware of, then chase officials in a language they may not speak. Even when a refugee makes an expeditious claim, there is no guarantee that they will receive a payment within 28 days. Indeed, it can often take considerably longer than that from the date of the claim.

This is not a party-political issue. No political party would support a policy that deliberately leaves refugees destitute in this way. Yet none of them has done anything about it when in government. So, with support from the British Red Cross and from around the House, I put forward an amendment to the Immigration Bill, extending the move-on period from 28 days to 40, giving refugees a longer period of Home Office support while they transition to mainstream benefits and look for work.   

Thankfully, we now have some movement. Following recommendations from the Work and Pensions Select Committee and my amendment to the Immigration Bill, the Government have committed to a swift evaluation of the time it takes a refugee to navigate the system and make the transition to work or mainstream benefits.  The Minister gave me a commitment in Parliament to extend the time period if that is what the evidence supports – and right now, that is what all of the evidence does suggest. The Government are also working with the British Red Cross to amend the information that is sent to new refugees.

We are in the midst of a global refugee crisis; the Government is certainly not short of advice and suggestions, which are all too easy to ignore when they contradict their own priorities. But it is possible, with powerful, evidence-based arguments, to address even the most entrenched bureaucratic problems that affect refugees back in the UK. As the Minister noted during these debates, I will not give up, and I’m certain many of my colleagues feel the same.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett is a Labour peer

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