Yesterday, the Guardian published a piece on the fates of asylum seekers in these tough economic times. Forbidden from working or otherwise supplementing their meager allowance from the state, 31,500 people are mired in poverty, stuck in limbo.
[Shakira] Begum is a proud housekeeper, and a generous hostess. It is only if you have lived with her for a few days and catch her anxiously counting slices of bread, or carefully diluting washing-up liquid in a small plastic pot by the sink, or boiling saucepans of hot water to heat deliberately shallow baths, that you slowly begin to understand the full extent of her daily struggle. Poverty manifests itself in small things.
For Begum, and 31,500 other asylum seekers, deprivation is a legal obligation. Forbidden to work, she is forced to live on state handouts. New legislation that came into force last week has frozen benefits for asylum-seeker lone parents at £42.16 per week, instead of increasing it in line with inflation to £44.35. Begum receives an extra £50 a week for her daughter Farzana. Under the same legislation, single asylum seekers aged over 25 have had their benefits cut to just £5 a day. No asylum seeker is allowed to supplement their income, no matter how long it takes the Home Office to process their claim. Begum and Farzana, have been waiting for three years for a decision to be made about their asylum claim. She lives in fear that any day she could receive a rejection letter and will be deported.
Sadder still is the heartbreaking requests of thirteen year old daughter Farzana, who is desperately trying to be seen as normal. After a school friend photographed pictures of her dilapidated home and spread them around school, Farzana only has other friends in similar positions come over to visit. She yearns for birthday gifts like an Ipod, in spite of her mother scraping to pay for groceries each week. Her youthful hopes seem almost cruel when contrasted with their stateless circumstances.
Farzana has been getting straight As in art, and wants to go on a school trip to Paris to see the galleries, but they can't afford it, and her ID card probably wouldn't get her past the border. "Mum says I can't go," says Farzana, "But maybe it will be OK if I just go in with everyone, you know? Maybe they won't notice."
Though their existence is bleak, Begum fled an abusive relationship and an increasingly oppressive religious culture in her native country of Bangladesh. In light of the past trauma experienced by her and her daughter, they are willing to wait for the British government to hopefully grant them citizenship. In the meantime, Begum attends community college and looks forward to a brighter future:
Begum's favourite day of the week is Friday. It is when she volunteers for the Women Asylum Seekers Together (Wast) charity. Unlike most organisations that campaign on asylum issues, it is led by female asylum seekers themselves. Begum helps run the meetings. In Wast's small, overcrowded room, this small, welfare-dependent mother is a leader, welcoming new mothers from Eritrea and the Ivory Coast, fetching them chairs and asking them questions. She has a reputation among the regulars as a mine of valuable information. She knows how much benefit you're entitled to, when markets offer the best deals, legal aid numbers and cheap bus routes. Despite this, she does sometimes go over budget. When she is ill and cannot cook, she gives her daughter money for more expensive ready-cooked food.
Watching Begum at Wast, it is clear that she is not just fighting for herself, or even just for herself and her daughter. "All of us women are a team," she says. "If I get my papers, I will keep coming back here. This is not just about me. This is about all asylum seekers. All of us together."
'We're All In This Together' [The Guardian]