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  • Writer's pictureRachael Fulton

Left Destitute: Glasgow's Forgotten Asylum Seekers

Winner of Refugee Week Media Award 2013

Sitting on a battered couch in a West End church beneath a poster of Glasgow, Michael Smith talks of the life of poverty he lives in the city.

There's an intense sorrow hanging behind his eyes, a measure of loss that can't be quantified or explained. Memories of his family back home haunt his days in Glasgow, where he now lives a terrified, isolated life as an asylum seeker.

Michael - not his real name - was once a successful businessman, a happily married family man with four children. He is now alone, homeless, without a penny to his name.

He is one of many asylum seekers in Scotland that are left destitute when their asylum claim is refused and all government support is withdrawn. Like other asylum seekers left with nothing and stranded within the city borders, he has fled persecution and threats against his life in order to seek refuge in Glasgow.

"I feel like nobody, like I am no-one," he says, wearing cast-off clothes picked up from charities across the city; broken buttons hanging from a dogtooth jacket.

"I feel completely powerless. I have nothing. Not even enough money for bread."

New research in an independent study entitled Trapped - Destitution and Asylum in Scotland by Morag Gillespie, head researcher at Glasgow Caledonian University, shows that over a hundred asylum seekers in Glasgow are destitute - many of them children and pregnant women.

Although approximately 1800 people claim asylum in the city, there are many people who are unaccounted for, struggling to survive with no money or food.

On the back of Morag's findings, the Scottish Refugee Council and Refugee Survival Trust have launched the Stop Refugee Destitution Scotland campaign in an attempt to solve the problem.

The petition that accompanies the campaign aims to change the government's policy on asylum seekers so that they may avoid living on Scotland's streets or starving due to lack of food.

Refugees are often smuggled into the city by traffickers, as they desperately flee war-torn or oppressive homelands where their lives are in danger.

They arrive disorientated, with no belongings or finances, and are left to convince the UK government that they will be murdered, raped or injured if deported home. If their attempts at asylum fail, they are evicted from government accommodation and left to face life on the streets.

Michael's political beliefs are what prevent him from a safe return to his home country of Zimbabwe. He supported a political party that went against the oppressive government in power, making him an enemy to the regime.

While on a business trip to Scotland in 2005, Michael received a call informing him that his office had been ransacked and that if he returned home, he was likely to be killed.

He lives with the constant threat of being sent back to Zimbabwe, fearful of what he might face if he returned home.

He is trapped in Scotland, and the little money he originally travelled with ran out long ago. He has been living here ever since, first moving between couches at friends' houses, then living with strangers and finally resorting to sleeping at a night shelter for destitute asylum seekers.

In the past, he has been forced to rummage in skips for food and eat portions of chips abandoned on the pavement by people on nights out.

"One time a man let me stay in his house for a week, he was a drug addict," says Michael, the tone of his soft-spoken voice tinged with shame.

"I stayed there for maybe a week, but there was nothing there and no electricity. Another person I stayed with said that showering was too expensive, so I couldn't wash there."

Michael lost touch with his wife and four children 18 months ago, after receiving a letter through the Home Office telling him that the family had fled Zimbabwe for their own safety.

His wife arranged for the children to be smuggled over the border into neighbouring countries, but Michael believes the five are now divided - some in Zambia, Botswana and South Africa. He has not seen them since he was left stranded in Glasgow and now struggles to remember facts about them - such as their ages - as he describes leaving them behind.

Although he has applied for asylum to grant him safety and the right to work in the UK, his attempts have thus far failed and any government support he once had has been withdrawn.

Michael is none the wiser about why this has happened, having provided as much evidence as he could of his plight, and patiently awaits the verdict of a judicial review.

"I am terribly sad," he says, misery flickering across his face, eyes still transfixed on a far wall of the room.

"I cannot return to Zimbabwe, but here I have nothing. I worked all my life in Zimbabwe. Here, I am prohibited from working. I volunteer in the community, I give as much as I can because I can't work.

"I must walk over town to get food. I get clothes from different places - they are donated. Sometimes they suit me, sometimes not. You can see they are broken."

The Stop Refugee Destitution Scotland campaign is an attempt to change Home Office policy on the rights of asylum seekers and to prevent them from experiencing destitution when their asylum claims are refused. The campaign website contains a petition that can be signed to help instigate legislative change to help asylum seekers.

It promotes the review of existing asylum support and giving asylum seekers the right to work after six months so that they are able to support themselves. The campaign is also championing a change in culture and public opinion, so that society are made aware of the difficulties and abject poverty faced by people coming to our country to seek safety.

  • The campaign runs from October 1, 2012 to March 31, 2013 and uses the Twitter hash tag #stopdestitution

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