The British government’s deliberate policy of destitution forces asylum-seeking women into extremely precarious and often dangerous living situations; exposing them to exploitation and violence. Here, women speak about their experiences of destitution in the UK.
I’ve been destitute, when I was in Cardiff, in 2010. Life is like a darkness in you. When my case was refused the Home Office took me out from there and took me to live in Swansea. I didn’t know anybody. It’s like the wall is falling in on you. But you’ve still got your strength. I went to sleep in one church in Swansea in 2010. And then from there I made some contacts on the internet. The Refugee Council said the Notre Dame Refugee Centre in London had a lot of places, and they do sanitary products – I didn’t have anything. I had nothing.
I came to London and went to the Notre Dame Refugee Centre and they helped me. A woman said ‘have you eaten?’ No I’ve not eaten. I’ve not even showered. I was a bit scared where I was sleeping that someone might do something to me. In the night I need to close my eyes but I can’t sleep. Where am I? But then someone gives me food and they say, ‘eat. Don’t be scared, eat.’
You know, I look at myself and say this is life in the UK. I met a woman from the Congo. She’s helping asylum seekers because she’s passed through the whole process. I slept in that woman’s home for four days. I never had any money from the government until 2015. I was walking from one charity to another so that I didn’t have to pay for the bus. I walked. It is hard. It was a difficult life.
When I was destitute I lived with a family that provided accommodation for me. They were not giving me any food. And I had to rely on the help of people who gave it to me. I would also go and get food parcels from the Red Cross which would help. That was useful but just for 2-3 days and then I would run out of food. Then also when I came here to the women’s centre I’d have lunch. You live with people who are helping you but you cannot express your mind and they would say whatever they wanted to you. You could not say anything because you’re worried about what the repercussions might be if you express your mind. So this is what refugees, and people who are having benefit sanctions, have to go through.
I was released from Yarl’s Wood about two months ago. In my letter they said I can’t work, I can’t do anything. At the moment it’s not easy for me. I sign every two weeks. I have to pay my own travel when I go. They told me if you can’t cope then go back to Nigeria. I stay in accommodation with my friends. It’s accommodation with my seventeen-year-old son and I have to take care of him and it’s not easy for me.
When you put a number of applications in at the Home Office and they refuse and refuse and refuse and you’re not allowed to work anymore you become destitute. You might have a roof over your head but you have no food being provided for you and you can’t open your mouth to say anything because you’re grateful that people are giving you a lodging. There are a lot of overstayers in this country. They are not asylum seekers and many of them are destitute. Some of them have been here eighteen years, sixteen years, some four years, could be twenty years. And a few of them are my friends and when I think about it it brings tears to my eyes because we are all destitute. There are so many of us out there and we have no help from any organisation. We go, and people say we only help asylum seekers. We have nowhere to stay and we’re out there. We’re not allowed to get help and nobody’s remembering us. And I pray that one day the government will remember us – all of us, including asylum seekers.
When they talk of destitution sometimes some people think it is living on the streets. No, sometimes it is living with friends for benefits or with benefits. Those ones who need something from you. You stay with them, they offer lodging but expect something out of it. This goes for people with children – you have to take their children to school, you have to take care of them free of charge, clean their house, do all the work, and you don’t fall ill, you don’t think of your family back home, you don’t make calls in the house because you can’t make noise in the house.
So all of this is distressing and it’s torture and sometimes it leads to mental illness. I’m relating this to my experience. In 2015 I was living with a friend. I was helping, doing all the work, and I’m a very good cook. And when she lost her mother I cooked for everybody who came to the house. Then I had a breakdown, psychologically and mentally and physically. Then she gave birth to twins so I had to do all the work for them. All this stress made me miss the date of my hearing. It was too much and I ended up in a mental health hospital for five days. It’s so distressing. So don’t expect to be in someone’s house and think you are not at risk. You are still at risk.
When your case is refused, you’re not allowed to work and you cannot provide for yourself. You don’t qualify for legal aid. To make an application you need to pay at least £1000 for the Home Office fee. The last application that I made cost £1500. Now the same application costs more than £2000 from what I’ve heard. So where on earth are we supposed to get this money? And that’s just the Home Office fee. On top of that we need to pay at least £1000 to the solicitors. So the government denies us the right to work but at the same time forces us to work somewhere illegally just to be able to afford to regularise our status. I was in a situation where I was working for somebody. The person knew my situation and I went to work just to make the money to make my application. On top of everything else that person didn’t pay me. And I relied on that man.
I was living at a friend’s place. Her husband expected me to do everything. Even when my son was crying I had to take care of his baby. I would be carrying his son and feeding him while my son would be there crying for food. My friend is a woman who would go to work at night. The husband wanted to sleep with me. Because I refused he told me to come and watch TV with him. I said no. They gave me a room, I would lock my door. When he comes he turns the door handle and it’s locked. One day I was feeding my baby. The man came to me and said I shouldn’t help myself to food. I said that his wife told me that everybody should make their own food and that I would make some for him if he wanted. I put the kettle on the gas. This man threw the kettle filled with the hot water at me. My baby was crying. He raised up my baby and beat him. My baby was nine months old. So in that place even to eat was a problem.
Because I wouldn’t sleep with him he beat me. So I had to call the police. I was bold enough to call the police. The police came and saw I was bleeding. They arrested the man and held him for two days. The wife locked the door of the house and I wasn’t even allowed inside the gate. I had to carry my baby from morning until night. I was wet with poo. I was wet with urine. My baby did not eat. I had to go and meet the council. When I got there they asked, ‘do you have status?’ I said ‘no, I don’t know what you mean by that. I don’t have anything.’ They said in that case they couldn’t help me. I decided to go back to London. Since I’ve come here to the All African Women’s Group I know my rights. I know what to do.