There’s one of those “share this photo” memes doing the rounds on Facebook where someone has put a stock photo of someone with wrinkled hands holding some coins next to a Daily Mail story about a family from Somalia, and added some inflammatory text suggesting that all pensioners get £6K a year while asylum seekers are given free houses. Like this:
Before going into the details, this is a classic example of a false dilemma or false dichotomy. It isn’t a case of state pensions or support for asylum seekers but not both. I could as easily do a different one where a very rich pensioner sponges off the tax payer while someone who just wants a better life after being persecuted is forced to live in a cardboard box.
Leaving aside the “generic pensioner”, it’s worth reading the original story at the Daily Mail to find out the facts of this case. It was published in 2010 so it’s rather old now, and it mentions certain key points that the meme image does not:
- The story begins “A family of former asylum-seekers from Somalia” (my emphasis). In other words, they aren’t asylum seekers. They have been granted asylum. As such they are entitled to all the same rights and benefits as our “generic pensioner”, including being able to apply for council housing if they want to. As the story admits, “Rules allow anyone who is eligible for housing benefit to claim for a private property in any part of the country they wish.”
- They were not “given” the house. It is rented and paid for through housing benefit. The rent may be high, but that’s down to the landlord deciding to charge that much and to allow it to be let out to housing benefit claimants. A lot of landlords are very strict about “no DSS”. As the story says, “The current housing benefit system was overhauled by the last government in April 2008. Labour Ministers introduced new caps on the amount claimants could receive, depending on the size and location of the property. But instead of bringing costs down, the new system encouraged many landlords to raise rents to the level of the maximum allowable”. In other words, not the family’s fault
- The family were granted asylum in 1999 and the mother has never worked since then. Could it be because asylum seekers are banned from working and she had a large family to look after once it was granted? I don’t know why the father lost his job as a bus driver but the story does admit that he’s trying to find another one and doing training to help him do so
So there. The story isn’t as straightforward as it looks. It has two main points: standard Daily Mail rhetoric against foreign people, and blaming housing benefit claimants for the decisions of landlords. The first is as much a feature of the Mail as Page 3 is of the Sun, and the second could be dealt with if we had proper rent controls that applied to everyone whether or not housing benefit was involved. Benefit caps and bedroom taxes are popular with the tabloids but they aren’t the right way to reduce the housing benefit bill.
What support do asylum seekers get then? The UK Border Agency website has a list:
- Accommodation including utility bills is provided, but there’s no choice about where it is and it will be in Scotland, Wales or the North of England. It will not be in London or the South. There are also strict rules about what behaviour is expected
- A cash payment of about £40 a week is made to cover all other living expenses
- Asylum seekers are banned from working. If their case takes more than 12 months, they are allowed to apply for permission to work, but there are strict rules about what they can do. Begging is illegal
- Health care and education for children under 18 is provided. This isn’t just to be nice: if someone comes from a country where there might be diseases like yellow fever, typhoid, you want to make sure they aren’t infectious. Apart from a few exceptions, all immigrants wanting to stay for 6 months or more are required to have a health check before being allowed entry, regardless of who they are. Local authorities have a legal duty to make sure all children below a certain age are educated and school is the usual way to do this
Asylum and immigration are often confused. However an asylum seeker is someone who flees their country to escape persecution while an immigrant is someone who enters the country for other reasons. While asylum seekers should seek refuge in the nearest safe country, often they make arrangements to escape without knowing or caring where they’ll end up. They don’t just seek asylum in the UK: a quick Google suggest almost everywhere has people claiming political asylum. However a story about Somali asylum seekers claiming refuge in, for example, Kenya isn’t exactly going to be headline news in the rightwing UK tabloids. Kenyan treatment of asylum seekers isn’t exactly pleasant so it’s not surprising people go elsewhere.