Refugee and Asylum Support: Is Civil Society Filling the Gaps?

Refugee and Asylum Support: Is Civil Society Filling the Gaps?

Lucy Mayblin and Poppy James

Successive UK governments since 2002 have argued that restrictions on asylum seekers economic rights and entitlements – both welfare and work – are necessary to avoid ‘pulling’ disingenuous asylum applicants (economic migrants) to the country. Our recently published report looks at the impact on the third sector of this policy regime.

Refugees and those with leave to remain, have full access to the mainstream benefits system and the labour market until their status is reviewed (usually after 5 years). Asylum seekers, meanwhile, are actively prevented from integrating until they receive a decision on their application for asylum. Because most are not permitted to work, they receive £36.96 per week in financial support plus accommodation provided on a no choice basis in various urban areas around the UK. This figure of £36.95 is based on the weekly spend, on essential items only, of the poorest 10% of the British population. It is therefore around a third of the weekly spend of the poorest 10%. Refused Asylum seekers may apply to receive £35.39 per week in non-cash financial support plus accommodation –but only if they are unable to return to their country of origin, have a judicial review pending, and/or if they are complying with processes aimed at returning them in the future. If none of these criteria can be met, or if individuals cannot meet the threshold of proof required, they receive no support. In other words, they are made destitute by the state as a ‘nudge’ to induce them to leave the country.

The stratified regime of rights afforded to different groups who are going through or have been through the asylum system, results in different vulnerabilities to poverty and destitution as people move through the process. The upshot of this is that charities are playing a significant role in supporting those who have been failed by the state. Indeed, asylum support policies have been subject to extensive criticism from third sector organisations, in part because poverty and destitution amongst their clients creates extra demand for their services.  Yet the system of economic support which is in place for those going through the asylum system should, in theory, mean that charities are only supporting refused asylum seekers who are destitute. Other groups should be supported by the state.

We know that organisations are providing housing, legal advice, welfare advice, food and clothes banks, and small subsistence payments. The major changes reported by NGOs and researchers over the past 15 years are in the areas of client demand (increasing) and available funding (decreasing). While we have a good idea of the range of activities undertaken by refugee third sector organisations, as well as the challenges faced by them, what is not known is the quantitative scale of the third sector response.

But exploring the scale of the third sector response to refugee and asylum seeker needs presents a significant methodological challenge. In response, we designed a research approach which brings together four datasets: Data from the Charity Commission; a survey of member organisations of NACCOM – the No Accommodation Network – which is a national network of UK based organisations which support destitute migrants, including asylum seekers and refugees who would otherwise be street homeless;  Data from the British Red Cross, the largest NGO working in this field; and two case studies with small local organisations in England who support asylum seekers, refused asylum seekers and refugees: ASSIST in Sheffield, and Asylum Welcome in Oxford.

We found that there are currently 142 refugee third sector organisations that work on alleviating poverty and destitution in England and Wales. The total number of charities has increased over time, from just seven in 1990 to 142 when we undertook our research. In fact, despite wider funding constraints, 7 new organisations with and income over £5000 are created every year. They are often working on a small scale at the grass roots level. Because the number of asylum applications made in the UK peaked around 2002/2003 and has never reached similar levels in the years since, this growth in the sector cannot be put down to the presence of large numbers of asylum seekers coming into the country.

The main predictor of the presence of refugee third sector organisations in a particular city is not population size or broader third sector trends, it is dispersal patterns. Though asylum seekers are supposed to be supported by the government while awaiting a decision on their asylum application, when they are dispersed to a particular location, voluntary organisations working to alleviate poverty and destitution amongst them will spring up. The geography of the refugee third sector is therefore directly related to the implementation of asylum policy at the national level.

The British Red Cross is the largest NGO working in this field with operations in every major dispersal city. Nationally, the British Red Cross supported 9,138 asylum seekers, refused asylum seekers and refugees, and 4,130 dependents in 2015. While this number might not sound high, the number of asylum seekers supported by the British Red Cross nationally in 2015 is roughly equal to 25% of all those in receipt of asylum support that year. This figure has increased to 42% this year. These are people who are relying on charitable support to survive, despite the fact that the government have a legal duty to support them since they are banned from working and supporting themselves.

The local response by smaller organisations is also significant. While the Red Cross helped around 9000 people nationally in 2015/16, there were 2,000 visits to ASSIST’s Help Desk in Sheffield that year; 102 clients were provided with small weekly welfare payments; 62 clients were provided with medium term accommodation; and 49 clients were provided with emergency accommodation. In 2015/16, there were 2,976 visits to Asylum Welcome’s main office in Oxford; 2,321 food parcels were handed out; in total 1,029 clients received help; including 88 unaccompanied young asylum seekers and refugees.

The majority (53%) of people receiving support from the British Red Cross in 2015 were asylum seekers who are entitled to government support; 25% had been granted some form of protection; and just 10% are refused asylum seekers with no further representations to make (those who we might rightly expect charities to step in and help). The majority (61%) of British Red Cross beneficiaries were also in receipt of statutory support: just 30% were in receipt of no statutory support, indicating that £36.95 is not enough to live on. The data shows that destitution often arises because of errors and delays caused by government service providers. This includes a significant number of people who are made destitute when granted refugee status (26%), or as a result of issues with their asylum support payments coming through.

There are a number of types of support provided by refugee third sector organisations which cost little or nothing. Services such food parcels, clothes banks, advocacy and advice contribute to the support package offered to clients, which may become necessary because of gaps in statutory provision. In 2015/16 Asylum Welcome handed out bags of food to asylum seekers and refugees valued at £30,869. After cash, food parcels, clothing vouchers and hygiene packs were the most common types of support the British Red Cross gave out in 2015. In total, the British Red Cross provided 1,535 food parcels, 1,370 vouchers for Red Cross clothing shops, and 1,022 hygiene packs.

The volunteer contribution to the refugee third sector cannot be overstated. We estimate there to be more than 218 volunteers across ASSIST teams in Sheffield, spending on average a total of 463 hours a week volunteering –this is the equivalent of 13 full time roles at minimum wage levels. In a given week, 45 volunteers spent a combined total of 189 hours volunteering across Asylum Welcome’s destitution services – this is the equivalent of 5 full time roles. The NACCOM survey shows that smaller organisations rely more on volunteers to deliver services.

The total income of our sample of refugee third sector organisations in 2015/16 was £33.4 million. The sector is dominated by a high number of small and medium sized charities, much like the wider voluntary sector.  Organisations with an annual income of over £1 million make up only 3% of the total number of organisations identified, yet account for 70% of the sector’s total income. Over £11 million of government funding contracts have left the sector in recent years and this has mainly affected the larger organisations.

Twenty-four members of the NACCOM network answered detailed survey questions about the proportion of their income received from different sources. Grants from charitable foundations and individual donations were the largest source of income for the organisations sampled. Far fewer received any form of income from statutory sources. Government funding has a huge impact on the income of larger organisations: of the eight RTSOs with an income over £500,000 that are registered with the Charity Commission, three are operating with a significantly reduced income compared to five years ago, as a direct result of a reduction in government funding.

In conclusion, our research shows that the two main groups who are being supported by the third sector are asylum seekers who are, or should be, receiving asylum support, and refugees who have received a positive decision and should be able to access mainstream support. In light of the increasing number of organisations forming, the pressures on funding, and the precariousness of available funding sources, it seems likely that current rates of expansion within the sector are not sustainable unless public donations can keep pace with charitable need. This in itself is unlikely, particularly since dispersal areas, where there is greater demand for charitable support for these groups, are often located in areas of higher deprivation. Charities should not be doing the work of government. What is needed, we suggest are a series of policy changes, which could lift asylum seekers out of poverty, decrease the burden on charities and civil society more broadly, as well as restoring dignity to those who have sought safety in the UK.


Lucy Mayblin is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. Poppy James is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield.