Every night, between the hours of 8am and 8pm, a church in Glasgow’s West End becomes home to up to twenty destitute male asylum seekers and a handful of volunteers. The volunteers then depart to their warm homes and, somewhat tiredly, go about their daily activities. The asylum seekers however must occupy themselves, feed themselves and stay warm for twelve hours, with no work – unless they have managed to find something illegal.
As somebody who leaves the shelter and heads back to another day at University, I am left each shift with guilt about what the guys are going to do to pass the time. As a man told me: ‘the nights go fast. Before you know it, it’s morning.’ They are in limbo: waiting on their claim to work its way through the long maze that is the Home Office asylum process. If someone is at risk of being persecuted in their own country, they may go abroad and ask for asylum in another country. Granting ‘asylum’ means giving someone permission to remain in another country because of that risk of persecution. The right to claim asylum is international law, and governments are obliged to provide protection for people who meet the criteria for asylum. Although they may have entered the UK illegally, once they have applied for asylum they are no longer ‘illegal’ and are entitled to stay in the UK whilst awaiting a decision. Someone who has received a positive decision on his or her asylum claim is given refugee status and allowed to remain. However, the decision making process is very tough, lengthy and many people’s claims are rejected. Meanwhile, they are prevented from working and are provided with only £36.95 a week to live on. Some of the men at the shelter will spend hours in the library; at least there they can get some warmth and use facilities for free. But for how long can you sit reading books and using a computer, day after day? Boredom is one of the main difficulties for these guys, for it is not only the lack of material resources that makes life difficult, but also the struggle of having no job and no money.
I spoke to a man from Algeria who was a fireman back home. When he arrived in the UK he was told he was too old to be a fire officer because he’d have to begin training again, his experience in Algeria counted for nothing. He then worked in a hotel in London for six years, starting as a porter and working his way up to becoming a chef. However, when he got divorced the Home Office removed his right to work and he had to begin his asylum claim again. He is now homeless and jobless in Glasgow. Another guy has been showing me some maths puzzles, and taught me how to do one – really well considering the language barrier. I found out he used to be a maths teacher. I struggle to deal with the idea of a man being degraded from a maths teaching position to teaching the occasional willing volunteer how to complete a puzzle. But with a smile on his face and a lot of patience, he sits and talks me through in broken English and plenty of laughter.
The optimism and resilience of the men I talk to is incredible. It would be incredibly easy to lose hope. They are just a few of the thousands of asylum seekers who have slipped through the gaps of our supposedly supportive government. With no access to jobs and less state support than the minimum provided for UK nationals, it is very easy for asylum seekers to become destitute, and they are not offered the usual homeless services for nationals, relying on charities like the Night Shelter for food and shelter. Most of the men I talk to want to work, and if they could work they would put money back into the economy. The only other option is to work illegally, which means no protection, no minimum wage, and can undercut workers from the UK. Although the government says it provides a place to live for all people going through the asylum process, the reality is that many cannot access accommodation in a country with a lack of sufficient public housing. Asylum seekers do not jump the queue for council housing and they cannot choose where they live. The local council does not pay for the accommodation allocated to them.
As another volunteer said to me, coming to the Night Shelter provides some perspective on a life outside of the student bubble. We can all get tied down with our studies, societies, and social lives, but it is important to sometimes reflect on the troubles of others in the city around us. As a Sociology student, I have studied the effects of migration, but from my studies alone I have no sense of what life is really like for an unwelcome migrant. We take for granted small things in life like being able to make a cup of tea or having a shower. We don’t have to worry daily about being taken away to a detention centre and potentially ejected from the place we live to a place we could be persecuted. This is a reality that many face every day of their lives in the UK. Yet the number is far less than the media makes out: in 2014 just 24,914 applied for asylum, less than Germany, Sweden, Italy and France. And most have the intention to return to their home country when it is safe to do so.
Whatever the backgrounds of these men, they have come from homes where they have friends and family, a good job and a language and culture they are proud of. Many did not want to move. Imagine uprooting your entire life and leaving for somewhere where you have no connections, no work and must start from the very beginning. Most of us would not choose to do this. Imagine if, after you went through the struggle and pain of leaving a life behind, you were denied the right to work and the right to housing and state benefits in the country you had arrived in. With recent media attention at the situation in Calais it is clear something has to change. People are dying whilst fleeing their countries. We are now bombing Syria. We therefore have a duty to accept the refugees of conflicts we are perpetuating. But we cannot simply allow people into the country; they must be treated as equals, with the same human rights to food and shelter that the rest of us take for granted.
To find out more about the Night Shelter and if you are interested in volunteering visit:
For more information about asylum seekers and refugees in the UK visit:
By Annie Tothill