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Social workers must take a role in tackling asylum seeker “destitution”

Some asylum seekers in Scotland are being left destitute and social workers must play a role in ensuring their wellbeing, delegates to SASW’s World Social Work Day conference have heard. Mildred Zimunya, a project worker for Glasgow charity Waverley Care told social workers that some refugees are left without accommodation or access to public services after their asylum applications fail but before they are deported.

Outlining research carried out by Waverley Care’s African Health Project, Ms Zimunya recounted the experiences of 19 asylum seeker respondents living with HIV, who spoke about their “bewilderment and uncertainty” concerning their position, as well as “the emptiness, the interminableness of their present existence”.

The use of vouchers instead of cash benefits, as well as the stigma and labelling of being HIV positive prompted feelings of “pain and shame” respondents explained.

“As social workers how do we balance that and support these people even though they don’t have recourse to public funds? How as social workers can this group be helped? They are in situations where they are not being deported as yet but they are not going to be supported either. They feel isolated. No friends, no family and they can’t work, can’t fend for themselves.”

The SASW conference, staged in Perth Concert Hall, heard from two asylum seekers who had spent time without any public support after their applications for asylum were denied. One described how when his initial asylum application was turned down he spent five months without support. “I feared leaving the house in case they changed the locks while I was out. Today I just want to tell you how important it is to acknowledge we are still human beings. I’m not here to cry for help but ask you to help others.”

The WSWD event heard how figures for March 2011 suggested there were 2,450 asylum seekers in Scotland, with 1,163 applicants receiving Home Office support and 301 applicants in receipt of Section 4 support – in the form of vouchers rather than cash benefits and refugee accommodation provided they have agreed to depart and are making active plans to go home. Almost 60% of all asylum seekers in Scotland are nationals of China (30%), Pakistan, Iran, Nigeria and Iraq.

Concluding the session, SASW manager Ruth Stark said: “If you don’t have papers, if you don’t have the status that allows you to be here, you can’t get a service. With the added strain of some of these people having HIV this is surely where we as social workers should be taking much more action in making sure there are services available for people who are living in destitution. This destitution is not just about clothes and food or accommodation but destitution of the mind, where people feel they have no hope and no help at hand.”