Thousands of asylum seekers in the UK have spent over four weeks struggling to survive without money for food or basic necessities as the payment cards they rely on to buy essentials have stopped working. The problems arose as the Home Office switched between two private contractors. Charities had warned that the switch could go awry but were ignored.
In the UK, asylum seekers are entitled to a weekly allowance of up to £39.63 depending on the nature of their asylum claim. They are banned from working legally and are financially dependent on the state.
Each week, the money is uploaded to prepaid payment cards known as Aspen cards, which can be used to withdraw cash or pay for essentials in supermarkets. More than 55,000 people in the UK rely on Aspen cards for financial support.
On the 24th of May, the Home Office switched providers of the Aspen card from facilities management company Sodexo to financial technology firm Prepaid Financial Services (PFS). The orange Aspen cards provided by Sodexo were deactivated at 5PM on Friday the 21st of May, followed by a two-day blackout period over the weekend during which funds were inaccessible. On Monday the 24th of May, asylum seekers could activate the new green Aspen cards sent to them by PFS.
Or at least, that’s what should have happened. But instead, up and down the country, thousands of extremely vulnerable people have effectively been left destitute as their new cards have failed to turn up. Others have received the new green cards, but have been unable to activate them and withdraw money due to administrative errors.
According to the charity Positive Action in Housing, the Home Office internally estimated on the 28th of May that about one-third of asylum seekers had experienced problems with the new cards. On the 4th of June, two weeks after the handover, the charity West London Welcome said that 50 percent of its clients were affected.
The first point of contact for asylum seekers experiencing problems is Migrant Help, a charity which liases directly with the Home Office on issues such as the Aspen card. Overwhelmed by thousands of calls from distressed people struggling to access cash, the charity was quickly overwhelmed.
One asylum seeker, who was trafficked to the UK as a child, told VICE World news that she was waiting on hold to Migrant Help for a total of 20 hours. Like every other asylum seeker interviewed in this piece, she agreed to speak to VICE World News on the condition of anonymity due to fears that identification could jeopardise her asylum claim.
“After two hours it cuts you off automatically. So when I say I’ve spent 20 hours, it’s because I can tell you exactly how many times I’ve been disconnected.”
“I expected [the card] to be late. I thought maybe Saturday or Monday I might get it. Those days came and those days left and no card. So the whole week now came by. By Wednesday I’d eaten all my cereal, I had no milk left.”
By the following weekend, having not eaten for days and struggling to get through to Migrant Help, she was given cash and a food voucher by her local mental health support worker. But it was barely adequate – as it was a public holiday in the UK, food banks were closed and the cash would only last a couple of days.
“For a few days I was taking sleeping tablets to sleep during the day so that I wouldn’t have to think about it too much that I’m not eating.”
The Home Office says that asylum seekers can access emergency cash from accommodation providers in the event that they cannot access their support funds. However, the asylum speakers who spoke to VICE World News say that these funds are not always available.
One asylum seeker, who came to the UK from Libya with his wife and six young children, told VICE World News that Migrant Help promised every day to send emergency money but it never came.
“I called Migrant Help four times and they said they would talk to the Home Office. Each time they told me we will send you cash within 24 hours. But each time the same thing happened – they [didn't] send me anything.”
“They [the Home Office] know I have six children. My children will ask me for things, for food, and each time I tell them I can’t. I’m very worried. Children need many things. I’m praying to God for things to improve.”
Charities claim the Home Office were forewarned about the problems of switching private contractors. Refugee Council, one of the largest organisations helping asylum seekers in the UK, was first told about the Home Office preparing for the procurement of Aspen late in 2019. The charity says the Home Office verbally agreed to a staggered approach to roll-out.
Despite asking the Home Office for advance warning, it was not until April 2021 that Refugee Council was invited to discuss roll-out, which was imminent and would not be staggered. This gave the organisation, along with many other charities, barely any time to prepare.
To make matters worse, the Home Office did not begin informing asylum seekers about the change until the week beginning the 10th of May. It sent out letters advising card users to withdraw sufficient funds for the weekend in advance, and made posters in ten languages and later a picture diagram. Many of the asylum seekers who spoke to VICE World News said they never received a letter, and only found out about the switch just before or as it happened.
To activate the card, a user must first call a specific number. With limited access to mobile phone credit and wifi, and sometimes non-existent English language ability, this process in itself can be difficult to navigate.
Many asylum seekers have reported their date of birth was incorrectly recorded by the Home Office on their cards. One man, who desperately needed access to his funds for a taxi home after he was hospitalised, felt impelled to agree with the incorrect date given to him by the Home Office just so he could access his Aspen card funds more quickly.
According to the charity which liaises with him – which chose not to be named due to the risk of identifying the man – this could affect his asylum claim in future if he is accused of having lied about his date of birth.
One of the biggest issues asylum seekers and charities face is a lack of communication from the Home Office. Asylum seekers are unable to contact the Home Office directly, they must go via Migrant Help or a lawyer. While Migrant Help’s phone lines have been swamped with calls, charities are having to foot the bill.
St Augustine’s, a small grassroots charity in Halifax, estimated costs of £700 helping clients unable to access Aspen card funds. Refugees at Home told VICE World News one of their clients had not received her card while she was 40 weeks pregnant and expecting her baby at any minute. The baby was born last week.
The use of private contractors in asylum support services has been falling under intensifying scrutiny over the last few years. Last week, the High Court ruled that the Home Office's decision to house cross-channel migrants in the "squalid" Napier barracks was unlawful. The “detention-like” setting, where nearly 200 residents contracted Covid in January, was run by Clearsprings, a private contractor.
A Home Office spokesperson said, “It is disappointing that this judgment was reached on the basis of the site prior to the significant improvement works which have taken place in difficult circumstances. Napier will continue to operate and provide safe and secure accommodation. We will carefully consider the ruling and our next steps.”
Accommodation providers are contractually obliged to carry out weekly welfare checks on behalf of the Home Office. The woman who was on hold for 20 hours to Migrant Help told VICE World News that the manager of her accommodation, operated by Clearsprings, had not been “to check whether I’m alive or dead. She knows I don’t have my card. What does she think I’m surviving on?”
In 2020, the National Audit Office investigated the Home Office’s asylum support contracts. In response, 42 refugee support organisations published a report based on evidence they provided to the investigation. The report highlights issues including delays receiving asylum support, inadequacy of the Migrant Help advice line, and poor accommodation standards.
Aspen cards have not been without their own measure of scandal. The Home Office has been accused of using the cards as a way of spying on asylum seekers through monitoring their payments and issuing punitive controls. The new private contractor providing Aspen cards, PFS, is a subsidiary of EML Payments, an Australian fintech company which counts pre-paid gambling cards among its services.
According to some of the asylum seekers who spoke to VICE World News, the Aspen card situation is just the latest example of Home Office cruelty. One man, who fled Syria after his hometown was destroyed by the Syrian army, ISIS and other militia, said he feels he has been treated “like a dog.”
“I specifically came to the UK to study. My dream was to study biology. But when I came here I [was] shocked about the truth of the government and how the Home Office is dealing with asylum seekers.
“I’ve been stressed and anxious and depressed before I came to this country. When I came to this country my depression and anxiety has been more severe.
“We are very happy with the people of the UK. They are very friendly and kind to us. We go to the church for some food and we get some help from Care4Calais. Our problem is with the government and their procedures. They are treating us like animals.”
While it is hard to say how many people are still unable to access their funds, the fallout from the Aspen card contract transfer will likely be felt for many more weeks to come.
“I just want everyone to know that this is outrageous,” says a female asylum seeker. “Inhumane. Vulnerable people, children, families. It’s wrong. Completely wrong. If it was them they would not accept it. So why do it to me if you cannot handle it yourself?”
A Home Office spokesperson said, “The vast majority of supported asylum seekers were able to activate their new Aspen cards prior to the service going live, or have managed to active them since.
“We are aware that a small number of asylum seekers are still facing difficulties using their cards. We are supporting them with emergency cash payments and vouchers, and are issuing replacement cards where required.
“Migrant Help remains available to respond to queries from asylum seekers and anyone experiencing issues can contact the 24/7 hotline.”
Migrant Help said that additional staff had been allocated to answering calls due to the high demand on its helpline. “We are working hard to assist as many people as we can and apologise to anyone experiencing long waiting times,” the charity said.
CORRECTION 29/06/2021: This article originally said Migrant Help must authorise emergency payments from accommodation providers. This is not the case and we regret the error. We have added a comment from Migrant Help.