Medics reveal: refugees literally driven mad by the ‘draconian’ asylum system

26 March 2017

Room for Refugees – Chris, Zora, Cabdi and Mohammed at the top of Arthurs Seat in Edinburgh.
Please credit: Photographer: Alicia Canter.

ONE woman spends her days looking for pennies on the street to help her survive. Another has become so paranoid she goes hungry because she fears she will be poisoned at her local foodbank. Some have ended up in psychiatric wards, or made suicide attempts.

Welcome to the fallout of the UK asylum system, which NHS doctors claim is making already traumatised refugees mentally ill. The British Red Cross claims it is now seeing destitute refugees who are feeling sui-cidal on an almost daily basis. Other leading charities claim the system is designed to “break” people.

In testimony provided last week to the Scottish Parliament’s inquiry into destitution, asylum and insecure immigration status, doctors from NHS Glasgow Psychological Trauma Service claim policies that make refugees destitute is re-traumatising them.
Clinical psychologists claim their clients are experiencing chronic anxiety, clinical depression, flashbacks and even psychosis as a direct result of their asylum support being stopped.

Refugees can find themselves destitute, homeless and with no access to public funds (NRPF) at various stages of the asylum process, including when their case has been refused. The Home Office claims this ensures refused refugees return to their home countries. But campaigners say the policy is both inhumane and ineffective. In their evidence to the inquiry, trauma service doctors said destitute clients were more likely to experience mental health crises.

“One client refuses to go to a foodbank believing she will be poisoned because she is a black asylum seeker,” the evidence notes.

Due to the level of destitution of refugees, psychologists said that rather than being able to offer therapy they were instead spending time making applications for emergency grants. Rachel Morley, consultant clin-ical psychologist for the service, told the Sunday Herald it was essential that traumatised people got appro-priate support. “Destitution makes people profoundly unsafe,” she said. “It can make people unwell. It can worsen PTSD, make people more depressed, and suicidal. Destitution also makes people vulnerable to still more trauma, more violence, more sexual exploitation.” One client told her: “Girls are raped or sleep with men because they need a place to live.”

Doctors are now calling for Scottish Government support for an advocacy service to work with victims of trauma. One client whose case has been refused said his experiences of the asylum system have caused flashbacks of torture and detention in his home country. “My sessions [with the psychological service] did help a little but they cannot stop the sadness because the problems continue,” he told the Sunday Herald. “I worry all the time. I feel I haven’t got anything positive in my life. Sometimes I feel like my life is finished. The system is making us ill.”

The British Red Cross said the number of destitute refugees and asylum seekers it helped in Glasgow had increased from 326 in 2014 to 820 in 2016. Phil Arnold, head of refugee support, added: “Our clients tell us that relying on friends, who are often struggling themselves, for a sofa to sleep on or food to eat, is ex-tremely difficult.
“We’ve seen an increase in the number of clients thinking about suicide. It’s an almost daily occurrence at the moment and we’ve had to ensure that all of our staff are now trained in suicide prevention.”

Robina Qureshi, director of refugee charity Positive Action in Housing, which gave out £45,000 in destitution grants last year, said the system left people hopeless and despairing.
“We see healthy, strong people who have escaped gang rape, or seen family members shot in front of them, who come to the UK because they see it as a beacon of hope, somewhere they will find protection. Instead they are oppressed by a system that is ultimately designed to break human beings.”

But Qureshi, whose organisation runs the Room for Refugees hosting scheme, claimed finding somewhere secure to stay can be life-changing. “They can start to rebuild their strength, re-engage with lawyers and in-tegrate into society,” she added. “The charity has found thousands of people accommodation and though it cannot offer rooms for people with severe mental health problems, it tries to identify empty flats or other solutions.”

Hamid Mohammadi, 38, who fled Iran due to political problems, has been destitute for seven years but was saved from homelessness by the hosting scheme. Now volunteering for a Glasgow hospital, he claimed having a roof over his head made a huge difference. Yet his situation can make him depressed and anxious. “Often I can’t sleep and everything is very stressful,” he said. “Twice when I have not been sleeping I have got up suddenly convinced that someone is coming to arrest me and take me back.”

Christina McKelvie MSP, convener of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, said: “The evidence is stark. In the words of our witnesses, destitution leaves people without a life and just an existence, and is built in to the UK asylum process.”

A Home Office spokesperson said those who had been refused asylum were expected to leave the UK and were given support when going through the process if they could prove they would otherwise be destitute.

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