The Aspen Card Crisis and the Home Office’s bureaucratic slow violence against refugees

1 June 2021

The Home Office has privately admitted that thousands of asylum seekers continue to be left without working payment cards for more than ten days after their financial support was cut off during a Home Office contract changeover.

One third of all asylum seekers on support – between 19,000 and 20,000 women, men, children and babies are believed to be affected.

The Home Office switched off asylum seekers’ debit cards on May 21. Families were told to expect to have their cards from Monday 24 May. But more than a week later, thousands are in a state of near destitution.

Those left vulnerable by the state include babies and children, pregnant women, the elderly and sick, forced into a state of destitution after their Aspen cards (a form of debit card issued to asylum seekers so they can buy basic supplies) stopped working.

Last week the Home Office sought to minimise the scale of the problem and suffering caused. Some of it’s statements even appeared to suggest that asylum seekers were to blame for the issues caused rather than the system itself.

The problems have arisen after a Home Office decision to end its Aspen card contract with facilities management company Sodexo and begin a new contract with financial technology firm Prepaid Financial Services, which is currently mired in controversy to do with money laundering concerns.

It remains to be seen whether the new cards work properly. We have had multiple reports that cards either have no money on them, or they work once and then stop working a few days later.

Glasgow is familiar with the bureaucratic slow violence that the Home Office regularly inflicts on our refugee population.

Prepaid Financial Services, has not commented thus far. The Company, a subsidiary of EML Payments, came under fire earlier this month from Ireland’s central bank because of significant money-laundering risks.

Instead of paying contractors to accommodate asylum seekers, should we not harness the immense skills and qualifications and allow people to do paid work and save money and build up resilience? Not only would this reduce the burden on the taxpayer it would allow people to contribute to their community while spending years waiting for the Home Office to make robust decisions on asylum cases.

Asylum seekers receive a weekly allowance on the payment card of £39.63 if they are in a house and £8 a week if they are in a full-board hotel.

The situation is acute because asylum seekers are not allowed to work or hold bank accounts, and therefore have little food stocked up or family to turn to.

Home Office officials have estimated that around two thirds of people on asylum support have the new card and have activated it. However they have not taken into account those whose cards have activated and then failed. The Agency says it is trying to identify the ‘missing third’ who either don’t have a card due to change of address or who haven’t activated it, possibly because there is a problem with the cards themselves, not the people trying to activate them. The Home Office has also posted out 6,000 replacement cards which are supposed to arrive by Tuesday June 1st 2021 – 11 days after cards were first switched off.

Robina Qureshi

Call to Action!

Write to your MP in your own words (using any of the text above) and also to the Home Secretary, and express your concerns.

  • What piloting or testing of the New Aspen Card did the Home Office undertake before it was rolled out on 24 May 2021?
  • If the card rollout was never tested beforehand, this live test is a frighteningly cruel one. Why would the government choose to risk further impoverishing families already living in a state of destitution?
  • In light of the recent concerns highlighted in the press about Prepaid Financial Services, what due diligence checks did the Home Office do?
  • The company PrePaid Financial Services, which the Home Office contracted to take over the Aspen card contract, has been quiet. What is its position on all this?
  • Was the award of the contract to Prepaid Financial Services conducted after a free and fair competition?
  • Was there any connection whatsoever between this company and any member of the Conservative and Unionist party who lobbied for the contract. (This question is pertinent in view of the revelations emerging in the High Court over the award of contracts for the supply of PPE).
  • How did this contract get awarded? What was know about Prepaid Financial Services at the time the contract was awarded? What due diligence checks were undertaken to check its reputation? What relationship existed between this company and members of the government?

ℹ️ Remember to to copy your correspondence to (Our detailed statement and full contact details for the Home Secretary can be found here).

Donate to this emergency via CAF, JustGiving or PayPal Giving. Alternatively, post a cheque to: Positive Action in Housing, 98 West George St Glasgow G2 1PJ. For other ways to give, visit our donate page. Companies can ask us to invoice them by emailing us.

Finally, watch out for updates on our blog or follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. And please use hashtag #AspenCardScandal and tag @positiveactionh if you want use social media to highlight this scandal.

Read The Guardian's Coverage

More Facts

  • Glasgow has the highest proportion of dispersed asylum seekers of any city, with several hundred believed to be affected.
  • Since last week, hundreds of people have been calling the Home Office contracted helpline MigrantHelp, with many people waiting for hours to be put through and hanging up in frustration. Those who got through were often given varying answers, including that Prepaid Financial Services would call, or that they should call charities for help.
  • In the week beginning May 24, Positive Action in Housing received more than 350 calls and emails requesting help with food, baby milk and nappies. Some families sent us heartbreaking images of empty food cupboards and fridges, asking for milk and nappies for children and babies.
  • Recognising the scale of the emergency, the charity began the distribution of food vouchers and crisis grants to around 200 families. Caseworkers sent block lists of urgent cases to the Home Office to request working Aspen cards with credit on them. Self help guidance was distributed. Because of the high numbers of cases concerning babies and children, our volunteers spent the long weekend delivering around 100 emergency food packs, including baby milk and nappies. We also signposted a further 100 people to Glasgow Central Mosque, Al Khair Foundation, the Drill Pantry in the East End of Glasgow and other food sources.
  • We understand that the Home Office has issued some emergency crisis payments through accommodation providers who went round to a few peoples addresses with crisis payments, although this was hindered by the MigrantHelp helpline being overloaded with calls.
  • Asylum seekers are now stuck with a broken card payment system and we anticipate more problems for some time to come.The new card system is deeply flawed and questions need to be asked of the Home Office and Prepaid FS about what went wrong.
  • In statements to press last week, the Home Office appeared to minimise the scale of the Aspen card problem, which was at odds with what NGOs were experiencing. For NGOs it was a full scale emergency. The Home Office also appeared to suggest the problems were the fault of asylum seekers for not activating their cards correctly. This is the wrong narrative. The problems being experienced lies with the card payment system itself and not the people who are supposed to be using it. Because of people being shifted to different addresses at a whim by the accommodation providers it has also meant cards went to the wrong addresses.

Please indicate your consent to this site’s use of cookies

Some cookies are essential for our site to function. We also use cookies for functionality and for performance measurement.