The Aspen card is a debit payment card given to UK asylum seekers by the Home Office. The government recently ended its Aspen card contract with Sodexo and started one with PrePayment Financial Services.
The Home Office acknowledges there are “teething problems” with the Aspen debit card switch, which began on 21 May and has left thousands of asylum seekers impoverished and hungry.
Positive Action in Housing has been helping refugees and asylum seekers at the sharp end of various crises created by the UK government’s forced dispersal policy in Glasgow for the past 20 years. We have learnt to recognise the signs. The Aspen card switch is not a matter of “teething problems”. We are in a full-scale crisis.
The Home Office claims that asylum seekers do not need to go hungry if their cards aren’t working because “a system of emergency payments is available” and “those who have issues are able to contact the 24/7 Migrant Help helpline.”
The system of emergency payments has problems because too many people are in need of help. Last week we fielded more than 250 calls, visits and messages in Glasgow, and around 100 outside Glasgow. People are panicked because they have children and babies to feed, they have no money for food and their new debit card still doesn’t work.
Glasgow has the biggest proportion of asylum seekers of any city in the UK. Thousands are therefore potentially affected across the UK by this switch. The sheer numbers seeking help from the Home Office-contracted helpline “Migrant Help”, mixed in with the language problems and difficulty communicating over a telephone line in these faceless times, means lines are being flooded, helpline staff can’t deal with the demand.
The people who need these “emergency payments” cannot access them, because they must call the helpline. So families are turning to the few charities working on the ground during lockdown.
The Home Office claims that it gave clear advice, but the instructions for card activation alone are around 700 words and difficult to understand.
Regardless, many of the problems being reported are from people who have not received their Aspen card. Some say they have received cards with a zero credit balance and their cards have been declined at ATMs and checkouts.
Families have been told to contact their bank, even though they don’t have a bank account (it is forbidden to apply for one, like it is forbidden to do paid work). Many people told us that despite entering their details correctly, their card was still locked.
The home secretary, Priti Patel, seemingly has no idea about the scale of the misery these people have experienced since 21 May. And now it's a bank holiday weekend – it will indeed be a long weekend for those affected.
Like Windrush, I predict the reverberations of this mess will be felt for years to come. For now, I have some questions for the government on behalf of our “constituents”.
Did the Home Office carry out any form of testing before rolling out the Aspen card switch? The company PrePaid Financial Services, which the Home Office contracted to take over the Aspen card contract, has been quiet. What is its position on all this? How did this contract get awarded? What was know about Prepaid Financial Services at the time the contract was awarded? What due diligence checks were undertaken to check its reputation? What relationship existed between this company and members of the government?
If the card rollout was never tested beforehand, this live test is a frighteningly cruel one. Why would the government choose to risk further impoverishing families already living in a state of destitution?
The state of affairs for asylum seekers in Britain is bleak. More could be left destitute on arrival because there are no safe and legal routes left to claim asylum here, let alone the refugees that could drown trying to reach our shores. Will this be Patel’s legacy as home secretary?
Robina Qureshi is chief executive officer of Positive Action in Housing, a refugee and migrant homelessness charity