The number of people fleeing death and persecution who have made fresh claims for asylum in the UK has plunged after the Home Office insisted they travel hundreds of miles to do so.
Destitute asylum seekers have been forced to make journeys of up to 500 miles each way – sometimes costing more than £100 – in order to submit further evidence to their claims after a policy change in 2015 meant the process could only be carried out in Liverpool.
A new analysis of government figures shows that since the policy was changed, the number of people making fresh claims has more than halved, plummeting from 162 in 2014 to just 70 in 2017. The overall number of people applying for asylum has risen by 6 per cent in the same period.
Asylum seekers can submit new evidence if their application is refused and their appeal rights have been exhausted, at which point the Home Office decides whether it will be considered as a fresh claim.
During this process they are not eligible for government support and are not allowed to work, meaning many become destitute.
Charities based in the south of England and in Scotland said they had spent thousands of pounds to help asylum seekers get to Liverpool since the restrictions came in four years ago.
Meanwhile, people who are not in contact with charities may have been prevented from making the journeys at all – putting people who may be eligible for protection at risk of deportation or being driven underground and into exploitation.
The Scottish Refugee Council said it helped around 135 asylum seekers to make the journey from Glasgow to Liverpool each year at a cost of about £72 each for travel and food – or £9,700 overall.
Wafa Shaheen, head of integration at the charity, said it was “outrageous” to expect people with “very limited or no means of financial support” to make the long journeys.
“They may be destitute and will certainly have spent a long, difficult period of time coping with serious insecurity and anxiety about their futures,” she said.
“Requiring people to make this journey forces them to rely on charity and goodwill to find the money for a bus ticket. It can be confusing, stressful and disorientating for people and we know several clients who have been asked to make the journey more than once.
“It’s unnecessary and we believe obstructive as it puts real barriers in the way of people being able to exercise their rights within the UK asylum system.”
Bridget Chapman, learning and project coordinator for Kent Refugee Action Network (Kran), which supports asylum-seeking children and young people in the Kent region, said many of their clients had to travel to Liverpool – which she said could take up to four hours.
She gave the example of one 22-year-old who is profoundly deaf and has learning difficulties, but faces having to make the journey after his asylum claim was refused last year.
“He is physically incapable of making that journey alone. He’s a really vulnerable young person with very limited hearing in both ears,” she said.
“Why would you make people go to Liverpool? There’s a Home Office building in Folkestone, there’s one in Kent, there’s one in Croydon. Why would you make people go to Liverpool unless you just want to make life difficult for them?”
Ms Chapman said the process of making an appointment with the Home Office’s fresh submissions unit was also difficult, adding: “It took several days for them to even answer the phone. I must have made 60 phone calls before someone answered. It would ring for about two minutes and then cut off.
“It’s deliberate. It’s part of the hostile environment, making people’s lives as difficult as possible.”
Southampton and Winchester Visitors Group (SWVG), a volunteer organisation that supports refugees and asylum seekers in the Southampton area, said it had spent almost £2,500 to send 13 clients to Liverpool since 2016.
Lesley Sheldon-Browning, a volunteer for the organisation, said she recently accompanied a young asylum-seeking mother on the journey – a round trip that took 12 hours in total and costed around £110, for a meeting that took just five minutes.
She said the woman, who cannot be identified, was “very vulnerable”, had a history of torture and spoke limited English, and had a two-year-old child.
“Although she’s learning English, she couldn’t possibly manage to navigate her journey to Liverpool alone,” said Ms Sheldon-Browning.
“She gets £5 a day from the government. If it wasn’t for the charity, she wouldn’t have been able to afford that, which means she would have been pushed further into destitution. The likelihood is she wouldn’t have turned up and would’ve subsequently been deported or gone underground.
“It’s a completely malicious. There’s no reason why they should go to Liverpool. They could go to the local police station and hand it in. It really is a completely unjust policy designed to reduce the number of further submissions and to keep the statistics down.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK has a long and proud history of offering sanctuary to those who genuinely need it and each claim is carefully considered on its individual merits. But when someone is found not to need our protection, we expect them to leave the country voluntarily.
“The requirement to lodge further submissions in support of a fresh asylum claim in person has been in place since 2009 and applies only to failed asylum seekers whose claims have already been refused. The process enables the Home Office to speed up the decision-making process, meaning that protection can be granted more quickly to those who need it.
“In exceptional circumstances, for example due to a disability or severe illness, further submissions from failed asylum seekers may be accepted by post. Additionally, if a claimant with dependant children cannot make suitable childcare arrangements, a postal submission may be accepted.”