accessibility & help

Asylum destitution on the rise - British Red Cross

3 February 2017

Thousands of refugees and asylum seekers are being left destitute in Britain, requiring more and more help such as food parcels and clothing, according to British Red Cross figures.

The charity came to the aid of 14,909 people, including dependants, without adequate access to food, housing or healthcare last year, an increase of nearly 10% on the 13,660 seen in 2015.

The largest numbers were from some of the worst conflict areas in the world or countries known for political persecution, including Sudan, Syria, and Eritrea. They included men, women and children aged from one to 92.

Mike Adamson, Chief Executive of the British Red Cross said: “These figures point to a steady increase in the number of people who flee war and violence only to risk being left destitute and reliant on charities for basic necessities, including the ability to feed and clothe their children.”

At least 21% of those seen had refugee status, and thus a legal right to protection and to remain in the UK. 46% were asylum seekers awaiting a decision on their initial application to remain in the UK, who are entitled to housing and approximately £36 a week to cover basic living costs (known as Section 95 support).

Figures also show a marked increase in the level of support provided to each person, with the number of ‘actions’ taken by the charity up 17.4% in 2016 from 56,158 to 65,979.

Destitute refugees and asylum seekers are found across the UK, with the Red Cross seeing people most frequently in Leicester, London and Cardiff.

“It’s clear that our asylum system can leave anyone destitute, from families with young children to older people, including individuals who the Home Office has deemed in need of international protection,” Adamson continued.

“No one should be left homeless after fleeing the devastating conflict in Syria or persecution in Eritrea. Instead of creating a more hostile system which puts even more people at risk of living hand to mouth, we want to work with the government to address this largely hidden and silent crisis.”

The Red Cross has warned that government plans under the Immigration Act to remove Section 95 support for refused asylum seeking families could leave even more in poverty, including families who are unable to leave the UK through no fault of their own – for example, due to a lack of identification documents proving their nationality or because they have no viable or secure place to return.

It is also calling for the ‘move-on’ period (that is, the number of days until asylum support is terminated following a person being granted refugee status) to be extended. New refugees frequently become destitute upon being granted leave to remain in the UK, at which point there is currently 28 days before asylum support, including housing, comes to an end.

Research by the Red Cross has found that the process of finding work, applying for benefits and somewhere to live, which involves applying for documents such as national insurance numbers and biometric residence permits, often takes much longer – in some cases up to three months.



• The British Red Cross is the UK’s largest provider of support to refugees and asylum seekers and has destitution services in around 50 towns and cities across the country. These provide services ranging from food parcels, clothing and small amounts of emergency cash to help finding housing, individual casework and nappies and maternity packs for new mothers.

• The top 5 nationalities of destitute refugees and asylum seekers seen by the British Red Cross in 2016 were as follows:

1. Sudan (1,391)
2. Syria (1,341)
3. Eritrea (1,307) 
4. Iran (1,293)
5. Nigeria (1,118)

• These figures reflect the number of people supported by British Red Cross destitution services and their dependants. The true number of destitute refugees and asylum seekers in Britain is likely to be even higher, but conclusive figures on this do not exist as they are not collected by the Home Office.

• For further information, case studies or interviews please contact Anna MacSwan

What is destitution?

The Red Cross defines an individual as destitute if they don’t eat sufficiently, have no fixed home, cannot afford essential items (such as clothes and toiletries) and/or are experiencing worsening health.

Research carried out by the Red Cross in South Yorkshire has found that amongst destitute asylum seekers, two-thirds experience repeated hunger on a regular basis, with a quarter experiencing it every day. Over 60% had no fixed accommodation, and were therefore reliant on informal networks or relatives, friends or other acquaintances for a place to sleep at night. Over half reported worsening health over the last year.

In the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, the UK Government defines an asylum seeker as destitute if they do not have adequate accommodation or any means of obtaining it, or cannot meet other essential living needs.

Why do refugees and asylum seekers become destitute?

Whereas refugees have permission to work and claim mainstream benefits in the UK, asylum seekers do not and rely on asylum support payments of approximately £36 a week (also known as Section 95 support).

The most common reasons for asylum seekers becoming destitute are problems with asylum support payments, or support being stopped or suspended when an asylum claim is refused.

Asylum seekers whose claims have been refused are not all the same and can include people who:
- Are legally appealing a decision to refuse refugee status
- Are unable to leave the UK through no fault of their own (for example, people who are stateless or who do not have the identification papers to prove their nationality)
- Come from a country which is recognised as too dangerous to deport to

New refugees also frequently become destitute upon being granted leave to remain in the UK, at which point there is currently 28 days before all asylum support, including housing, comes to an end. The UK Government has now committed to reviewing the 28-day window and has agreed to evaluate how long it takes new refugees to find work, apply for benefits and find somewhere to live.

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