The hoops that asylum seekers have to jump through just to get one meal on the table, especially during inflation, shows a consistently failing system.
As I see three smiling faces standing in juxtaposition to a bleak 500-square-foot studio apartment, I am immediately greeted with a simple ‘salaam’ and a hug. Here in Hayes at the accommodation of asylum seekers, hospitality has not been forgotten as a banana is immediately offered to me while the aroma of chicken stew fills the air.
Saba, Nasreen and Zinnia are Iranian asylum seekers at the accommodation. Though their circumstances are grim, they find comfort in the company of each other, especially during mealtimes. Fleeing from political unrest, they landed on the shores of the UK in search of a better life, one where their human rights are not curtailed, and they can live without fear. But as they leave their old troubles behind, a new set of obstacles arise as they begin to wonder whether they will be able to afford their next meal in this cost-of-living crisis.
According to the Office of National Statistics, low-cost food items have become 17% more expensive in the last year. Sky News found that in 2022, the price of vegetable oil has increased by 65%, and pasta by 60%. Food insecurity is only increasing as this surge in low-cost food prices is greater than the overall rate of inflation for food and drink which stands at 16.7% as of January 2023.
As asylum seekers living in an accommodation with a kitchen, rather than in a hotel, Saba and Nasreen receive a government allowance of £45 a week each. Saba receives a further £45 for her three-year-old daughter. This has to cover everything except accommodation and utility bills: food, drink, clothing, toiletries, transport, mobile phone contracts and all the other costs of everyday life. This allowance is loaded every Monday onto an Asylum Support Enablement Card (ASPEN) card which acts like a debit card.
Not surprisingly, life is a struggle. “Initially, I had to give up meals so that my three-year-old daughter had food to eat for the week. I have had to ration food to make sure she gets her meals,” says 33-year-old Saba who has been in the country since 2021 and is raising her daughter alone in the UK.
“When I walk through the aisles of the grocery store, I feel sad because I do not have the money to purchase things that are £2 and £3. So, basic food items turn into your dream,” says Nasreen, 37, who has been in the country for 13 months.
They say that they sometimes have tea and bread with cheese for breakfast but can only afford to have one nutritious meal a day. This meal is usually eaten at 5:00 or 6:00 pm to compensate for no lunch and sometimes even no breakfast. There is also no way of making sure they are having a balanced diet.
Saba explains, “My shopping basket usually contains chicken or meat, sunflower oil, chocolate biscuits for my daughter, egg, spaghetti, potatoes, and milk. There is a limitation on purchasing vegetables because if you buy carrots for one week, you may have to give up purchasing another vegetable and buy it the following week. You need to save money to buy rice for the whole month because it is more economical.”
Nasreen adds, “I usually purchase potato, tomato, onion, vegetable, yoghurt and occasionally nuts. Meat is a big part of Iranian culture, so we need to have it for at least one meal, but it is the most expensive food item we purchase. Often if you buy meat during the week you may have to skip out on buying another item like eggs.” She continues, “We mostly shop at Lidl as it is the most affordable grocery store. We do have access to foodbanks but the closest one to us is in West Ealing and we would have to unnecessarily spend more on a tube journey.”
While street markets would be cheaper, the nearest one for them is also a tube ride away with a round trip cost of £5.60. “We do not have any savings after each week because we spend almost all our money on food,” Nasreen says.
If asylum claims were processed, their situation could be better. However, according to Gov.uk, it usually takes six months to for an asylum seeker’s claim to be processed. But many asylum seekers like Saba and Nasreen are still waiting on a decision for their asylum claim even though they have been in the country for more than a year. In addition, as stated by the UK Parliament, asylum seekers are legally not allowed to work for at least 12 months from the time their claim has been made. During this time, they have No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) – in other words, no access to Universal Credit, Carer’s Allowance, or even Child Tax Credit, to name a few. In an alarming statistic, over 160,000 asylum claims were pending an initial decision as of December 2022, and had NRPF as a condition to their stay.
After 12 months, asylum seekers can apply for the right to work but it takes six to eight weeks to have their application approved. Even though they now can apply to work in the UK as they have been in the country longer than 12 months, Saba cannot as she would have to pay someone to look after her daughter which she cannot afford to do and Nasreen has only just crossed the 12-month threshold.
Other asylum seekers are accommodated in hotels where meals are provided, and no kitchen is available. Their meals are free and now, they each receive £9.10 per week but till 2022, they were receiving only £8. Zinnia, 23, is also an asylum seeker who has been in the country for sixteen months and has just applied for the right to work. She lives in a hotel with fixed meals. While she has been to a foodbank before, the food she received was mostly tinned and sometimes past its sell-by date.
Saba also lived in a hotel with meals and no kitchen before moving to one with a kitchen. As she remembers that time in her life, she says, “I [used to] spend almost £7 out of the £8 I was being given on just travelling to and from college.” As she would exhaust her allowance on travel, she had to use her daughter’s to purchase food like instant noodles and eggs. She was forced to buy these items because her daughter refused to eat the hotel food being provided as it was too spicy and scared her. Saba also struggled with the hotel food because it was different from what she was used to. Since cooking was prohibited in the hotel, she used the kettle in her room to boil eggs and prepare instant noodles to ensure her child was getting some food in her system.
From the stress of moving to a new country, financial instability from not being allowed to work and lack of nutrition from skipping out on meals, Saba saw the health of her child deteriorating when she was living on hotel food. She did not have a fridge at her hotel at the time so purchasing milk for her daughter was also not an option. “I started noticing my daughter’s hair falling and her nails had white lines,” she says. When she took her daughter to the GP along with a container of the hotel food, she was told that it was not nutritious enough for the child. The GP also told Saba that her daughter was underweight and not growing. “I feel like a bad mother,” she says.
Healthcare has become a grave concern amongst asylum seekers. Nasreen had to be rushed to the hospital three times because she had heart attacks. She also developed a stomach ulcer from not eating enough food and even constipation from not having a balanced diet. Because of these complications, she has now spent approximately £10 on just travelling to the GP and to a church where free meals are provided once a week.
The amount of money asylum seekers in the UK are being given has not risen in time and in line with inflation, and many continue to find it hard to afford one adequate meal a day. On 21 December 2022, when inflation was at an all-time high, the High Court ordered Home Secretary, Suella Braverman to immediately increase asylum support and said she would be acting “unlawfully” if she didn’t. According to The Guardian, the Home Office even said that the money being given to asylum seekers was “no longer sufficient to meet basic living needs.” The allowance was then raised from £40.85 to £45 per week. However, the money has only increased by 60p per day which is still not enough.
The number of people with NRPF status being referred to food banks due to their lack of access to food was at 4% before the pandemic. This rose by 7% after March 2020 and due to inflation, it could have increased further now. However, the high cost of travel means that not everyone can procure food from a food bank.
Besides inflation, there are other difficulties asylum seekers face. Zinnia says that her mother who arrived in the country just a month after she did, only received her ASPEN card two months ago. This meant that although Zinnia and her mother were getting their own hotel meals, only £9.10 was being credited to Zinnia’s ASPEN card each week. So, two people had been living on £9.10 for the last 15 months. “I still remember my mum and I sitting down and sharing a meal for one at KFC,” Zinnia says with tears in her eyes.
Nasreen even registered for English language speaking classes, but it was far away, and she would once again have to spend £10 on travel. This was money that could be utilised for food and other necessities, so she was forced to give up the opportunity. “When food is all you have, it becomes all you care about,” she says.
As the three women lay a small square dining table and prepare to eat their one meal a day, they set down a ceramic plate with a little yellow gravy and a few chicken drumsticks. The chicken stew which was previously simmering away now looks like just enough to feed two people but four would be making a meal of it and they still invited me to stay.
*Names changed to protect identity
Featured Image by Zohreh Mohammadhosseinpour.