Working with Destitute Families

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The refusal of asylum can have a profound impact on children’s lives. Lisa Nandy explores new ways of working with families in the Midlands, who have been made destitute by the asylum process.

There can be many challenges in working effectively with refugee and asylum seeking families, but when those families are at the end of the asylum process, refused asylum and without permission to work or claim benefits, those challenges become far greater.

Over the last three years agencies supporting people seeking sanctuary, including the Children’s Society, have witnessed a significant increase in the numbers of destitute children accessing their services. This picture is supported by wider research: in a short survey in 2008, the Joseph Rowntree trust counted 51 destitute refugee and asylum seeking children in Leeds in just one week, which represented a fourfold increase over the past two years (Brown, D. Joseph Rowntree Trust, More Destitution in Leeds, June 2008).

Destitution is the ‘inability to access statutory support mechanisms… reliance on friends, family and charitable groups for basic subsistence and /or accommodation. It can also be defined by its symptoms or effects, such as homelessness’ (Information centre for Asylum and Refugees, 2006).

Most, though not all, of the children who access destitution services are with family members. Many of these families are not in touch with any other statutory or voluntary agencies, living essentially an underground existence with basic health, education and safety needs going unmet.

Defining the problem

The Children’s Society became so concerned that it commissioned research to identify why so many families were becoming destitute. The report, ‘Living on the Edge of Despair’ (Clarke, N. and Nandy, L. The Children’s Society, 2008), was based on a small study of in depth interviews with 13 destitute family members in the Midlands. There were 16 destitute children in the study, all under 8 years old.  The study revealed that the majority of families were destitute because they had been refused asylum. At this point some had been refused asylum support by the Home Office and others had opted to go underground rather than face the prospect of removal. Some families in the study were still waiting for a decision on their asylum claim and had wrongly been refused support. Others were missing out on help they could have received because they did not know they were entitled to it.

The research demonstrated the heavy toll this existence places on the families. We found children growing up in dirty and unsafe conditions, eating only once a day and without the ability to read or write, in any language, because they had never been to school. Children and their parents struggled to access basic healthcare and unsurprisingly had a variety of mental health problems. We were particularly concerned about the potential for exploitation of those families: in our study women told us they were forced to prostitute themselves in order to survive and two had conceived children as a result.

Our Project

In response to this we set up a project in the Midlands to provide crisis grants and basic essentials to destitute families for up to six weeks while our practitioners helped them to find a more sustainable solution. Rather than set up something new, we decided to base the service in places families already knew and felt comfortable in. In Stoke on Trent this was set up in a Children’s Centre, whist in Birmingham we chose a drop-in centre for refugees. We have already learnt that items are as important to families as money, especially buggies and prams, nappies and other equipment for babies. Churches and volunteers are keen to collect items to donate, although they often provide toys rather than essentials which, though very welcome, are not the items families most badly need.

The grant we provide is a weekly cash payment and is administered by the Birmingham Law Centre. One of the essential criteria for case workers applying to the fund, on a family’s behalf, is to demonstrate that steps are being taken to move the family out of destitution. This enables us to help more families and to ensure that we are not merely sustaining families in a situation of extreme poverty.

Sustainable solutions

For some families a sustainable solution can be reached by providing advice and advocacy, to help them access the services and support they are entitled to. The asylum support system is incredibly complex and this in itself can leave families destitute. Support can be accessed under various pieces of legislation. For instance, housing and cash payments are available under Section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, accommodation and living costs are available under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 and basic provisions under the National Assistance Act 1948. Women who give birth after being refused asylum are treated as single adults and can apply for support from the Home Office under Section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. This typically consists of a bed and vouchers.

Local authorities also provide some discretionary support, but this is subject to their own eligibility criterion. This means that in some areas families refused asylum can claim additional help, whilst in others they cannot. Navigating this labyrinth requires specialist knowledge.

Our research found that families who did seek help were often passed from one agency to another, often between the Home Office and their local authority, or asked to provide documentation they did not have before they could get assistance. Overcoming these barriers requires good language skills, resilience and knowledge of how the systems work, which most families simply do not have. Previously we had thought that the majority of families were unable to access support because they were not entitled to it. We were surprised to find that advocacy regularly leads to such support being provided, which shows how often it is wrongly assumed families are not entitled to help, when in fact they are.

For others families a sustainable solution requires finding a lawyer to help unravel their asylum claim. Nearly all of the adults in the research (10 of the 13) said poor or no legal advice had been a contributory factor in being refused asylum. In Birmingham our drop-in service is run in partnership with an organisation called ASIRT (Asylum Support and Immigration Resource Team), who, together with Birmingham Law Centre, ensure families have access to lawyers. Through our experience of working with refugees, we have seen the damage that poor legal advice can do. It can be incredibly detrimental to the credibility of the applicant, which is virtually impossible for families to resolve themselves. Sometimes poor advice is given by well meaning volunteers who are not legally qualified, or registered with the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC). Such volunteers do not realise the damage their advice may cause, or that they are breaking the law. We have come across families who have a perfectly good claim for asylum, which has gone unrecognised because of the advice they were given on their claim.

This illustrates how important it is for practitioners not to overstretch their own expertise, however tempting it may be to step in when there is nobody else to do so. Working with families in this situation can be both problematic and emotionally draining because, sometimes, no other agency will take a referral. Although we do not have a solution to this, we have learnt that strong networks and partnership working is the most effective way to deliver support. In Birmingham, for example, we are working with a range of agencies including the British Red Cross, Birmingham Law Centre, Terence Higgins Trust and the local Primary Care Trust. Often we find that lawyers or specialist health services will take a referral from us because we are able to provide the background support to a family that enables them to understand the process, attend appointments and make progress.  This reduces the amount of work for the professional involved and through these partnerships we are able to help families get the specialist help that they would otherwise be denied.

For some families, however, return to their country of origin may be the only alternative to the underground existence they are living in. We work supportively with people in this position to provide information about return, without coercing them into accepting this as the solution to their situation.

Wider change

The project is in its early stages and so far we have worked with 10 families, who between them have 22 children in the UK. We hope that over the next year we will be able to develop a more humane and supportive way of working with families at the end of the asylum process, in contrast with the current approach.

The Government has argued that destitution is an essential tool of immigration control and that it can be used effectively to persuade families to return home. This was the basis on which they introduced new legislation, Section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, which prohibits local authorities from providing support to families who had been refused asylum. The legislation was a radical departure from previous asylum laws, which had left families largely untouched in recognition of the fact that children were involved. A trial of this legislation with 116 families in 2004-05 demonstrated decisively that this approach did not work: “section 9 did not influence behaviour in favour of co-operating with removal” (Border and Immigration Agency, Family Asylum Policy: The Section 9 Implementation Project, 2006). Meanwhile the devastation caused to the children was well documented by a range of agencies including Barnardo’s (Kelley, N. and Meldgaard, L. The End of the Road, 2005), the Refugee Council and Refugee Action (Inhumane and Ineffective: Section 9 in Practice, 2006).

The Children’s Society’s experience of working with families in the asylum process for over 15 years has shown us that trust is essential. By the end of the process families are often frightened and bewildered and in no position to engage with the State. Voluntary agencies play a crucial role in supporting these families in the short term, but our hope is that by working towards a more humane system the need for this kind of crisis intervention will be lessened.

 A wider purpose of our work in the Midlands is to demonstrate the power of humane and supportive intervention.  The Children’s Society was originally founded to counter the brutal effects of destitution in an era where children were routinely denied help and support. We cannot accept that 128 years later there are children in the UK who are forced to grow up in similar destitution and we are confident we can persuade the Government that this approach is both damaging to children, and wholly unnecessary. The most effective and humane intervention is based on trust.

Case Study 1: Hope

Hope arrived at a Midlands based charity homeless and without any support. She had exhausted the hospitality of her friends and had no source of income. Because she was more than six months pregnant the charity referred her to the local authority for help. After an initial meeting she was told she would need to show a number of documents to prove she was eligible for support. A screening with social services was arranged for the following week, five nights later.

The local authority said it was unable to offer any support until this date, but fortunately the charity was able to find alternative accommodation for Hope for those five nights. Her charity worker also helped her to gather the documents she needed and at the screening social services accepted a duty of care. However, their policy was not to release any support until they had seen proof that Hope had first applied for Section 4 (hard case) support from the Home Office. This application could be made at a local office run by the Refugee Council. Again, social services refused to provide accommodation for Hope until she could get to the Refugee Councilt to make the application, because policy dictates support cannot be provided until the application is made.  The charity supported Hope to get the necessary documents as quickly as possible and she was eventually given somewhere to live.

Hope’s story demonstrates some of the bureaucratic hurdles facing families seeking help. It illustrates the need for practitioners to act as advocates and sometimes, in the short term, seek safe alternative means of support. Hope’s story also demonstrates the pressing need for reform of the wider system, to ensure that vulnerable people are not passed from one agency to another and left without help in the meantime.

Case Study 2: Djany

Djany arrived in the UK after fleeing persecution in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She was refused asylum and was in the process of appealing against the decision when she found out she was pregnant. She approached a local charity for help and advice because, although she was getting Section 4 (hard case) support from the Home Office, she needed help attending medical and immigration appointments and filling in forms. 

Djany had been receiving help from Local Authority A, but was moved out of the area while she was pregnant. When her son was born the charity informed Local Authority A, who refused to accept responsibility for the baby’s financial support because they argued this rested with Local Authority B, where the baby was now living. Both authorities disagree with whom responsibility rests and the charity is still attempting to resolve this.

Djany, who was already depressed and taking anti-depressants before her son was born, has since deteriorated even further. Her main source of concern is that she does not know how she will be able to look after her son with no financial assistance. The charity is providing support with food and clothing for the baby and emotional support for Djany.

A local charity worker attempts to describe Djany’s feelings about the situation she finds herself in:
“She obviously feels responsible for the child but doesn’t have the necessary means to provide for it as she would like to. I think this has affected her, she feels inadequate and that she’s not a good mother. She doesn’t realise or understand that these are issues which are beyond her control.”

Djany is currently awaiting a decision on her asylum appeal.

Families in Djany’s position are often unable to resolve a situation involving more than one agency and need those agencies to resolve the dispute themselves. Where this does not occur an advocate is essential. In addition to the need for practical help, Djany’s story illustrates the pressing need for emotional support for women struggling to access support through pregnancy and with a new born baby.

Lisa Nandy is Policy Adviser for young refugees at The Children’s Society. She also chairs the Refugees Children’s Consortium, a coalition of 30 leading charities working on behalf of refugee children.  For more information visit

Taken from Every Child Matters


Every Child Update