UK Destitution on the Rise Among Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Almost 5,600 refugees and asylum seekers have been destitute in the UK in the first half of this year, according to British Red Cross figures released on 8 July 2016.

british red cross

The number of people supported by the charity’s destitution services, which include the provision of food parcels, clothing and small amounts of emergency cash, has risen by 16% since the same period in 2015, during which 4,679 people were helped.

Nearly half (44%) of those assisted by the Red Cross between January and June 2016 were from Sudan, Eritrea, Iran, Syria or Iraq. These are all recognised as being among the world’s top refugee producing countries due to conflict or political persecution.

destitute asylum seeker

Alex Fraser, Director of Refugee Support at the British Red Cross, said: “No one should flee the war in Syria or political persecution in Eritrea, only to become destitute in the UK. But for many, reaching safety is far from the end of their journey.

“With the number of people fleeing conflict and persecution worldwide at an all-time high, our government should be doing all it can to uphold its responsibilities to refugees. However, these figures show that all too often people are let down by an asylum system that is inflexible and difficult to access.”

The youngest destitute person seen by the Red Cross, which is the biggest provider of support to refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, was not even a year old, while the oldest was 91.

sad boy

Destitution is seen across the UK, with the highest numbers supported in Leicester, London and Cardiff.

Over 15% of those helped had been granted refugee status, and thus permission to remain in the UK, by the Home Office.

The government has recently committed to reviewing the window which new refugees have before asylum support comes to an end – currently 28 days – in recognition of growing evidence that the process of applying for work or mainstream benefits and finding somewhere to live can take much longer.

“It is vital that the government addresses these issues, which are prolonging the suffering of people who have already left everything behind,” Fraser continued.


  • The British Red Cross is the largest provider of support to refugees and asylum seekers in the UK and supported 9,059 people through its destitution services in 2015.

Destitute refugees and asylum seekers by nationality

  • Sudan: 642 (11%)
  • Eritrea: 587 (10%)
  • Iran: 580 (10%)
  • Syria: 361 (6%)
  • Iraq: 297 (5%)

What is destitution?

The Red Cross defines an individual as destitute if they don’t eat sufficiently, have no fixed abode, cannot afford essential items (such as clothes and toiletries) and/or are experiencing worsening health.

Research carried out by the Red Cross in South Yorkshire has found that amongst asylum seekers with no recourse to public funds, two-thirds experience repeated hunger on a regular basis, with a quarter experiencing it every day. Over 60% had no fixed accommodation, and were therefore reliant on informal networks or relatives, friends or other acquaintances for a place to sleep at night. Over half reported worsening health over the last year.

Why do refugees and asylum seekers become destitute?

Whereas refugees have permission to work and claim mainstream benefits in the UK, asylum seekers do not and rely on asylum support payments of approximately £36 a week (also known as Section 95 support).

The most common reasons for asylum seekers becoming destitute are administrative problems with asylum support payments, or support being stopped or suspended when an asylum claim is refused.

Asylum seekers whose claims have been refused are not all the same and can include people who:

  • Are legally appealing a decision to refuse refugee status;
  • Are unable to leave the UK through no fault of their own (for example, people who are stateless or who do not have the identification papers to prove their nationality);
  • Come from a country which is recognised as too dangerous to deport to.

New refugees also frequently become destitute upon being granted leave to remain in the UK, at which point there is currently 28 days before all asylum support, including housing, comes to an end. The UK Government has now committed to reviewing the 28-day window based on an evaluation of the average time it takes new refugees to find work, apply for benefits and find somewhere to live.


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