The underground world of destitute asylum seekers in UK
17th March 2009: The shocking, hidden lives of asylum seekers, whose bids for sanctuary have been rejected by the government, are revealed for the first time in a photo exhibition that launches today.
Panos photographer, Abbie Trayler-Smith, has photographed men and women from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Zimbabwe and other troubled states who have fled torture and persecution in their own countries. They hoped they’d be safe in the UK but instead they are enduring a new kind of torment here – destitution. The vast majority of refused asylum seekers in the UK are denied any government support and are not allowed to work to support themselves.
Still Human Still Here: The underground world of destitute asylum seekers is launched in association with the Still Human, Still Here coalition of refugee and human rights organisations including Amnesty International and the Refugee Council, which is campaigning for an end to destitution for refused asylum seekers. For more information see www.stillhuman.org.uk
Trayler-Smith’s powerful portraits, combined with testimonies compiled by journalist Diane Taylor, document how people who have absolutely nothing survive in this country. All the individuals featured in the exhibition have been refused asylum and are living in destitution rather than return to their home countries, in most cases out of fear of what might await them upon return. With just a handful of possessions they move from place to place, sleeping in phone boxes, on night buses or park benches.
With many surviving on just £2 or £3 a week, finding enough food to eat is a major challenge. Tamba survives on cheap custard creams from a supermarket, bought with pennies begged from people he hears speaking his own language on the bus. Hamid, from Iran tears the coupons from abandoned McDonald’s cups until he has saved enough to buy himself a cup of coffee. Most experience intense hunger and some have been diagnosed with malnutrition.
Physical violence and racist abuse is par for the course for those living underground. At least two of the men photographed have been physically assaulted while living in on the streets; Anne, who was destitute for three years, was set upon by a gang of five men as she slept in a park; two of them raped her. She was too scared to report it to the police. Another, Thania, who saw her Rwandan Tutsi parents killed in a DRC refugee camp when she was just 15, has survived by selling sex for money just so she could eat.
Many of those featured fled to this country leaving behind well-to-do families and good jobs. Alain, for example, was a TV presenter in DRC but was arrested after taking part in a programme that was critical of the government. Refused asylum seekers are not eligible for housing and benefits and like the rest of the asylum-seeking population they are banned from working. Alain talks of the mental torture he endures living here, unable to work and get on with his life. ‘I’ve transferred from one prison to another,’ he says.
Trayler-Smith, who has spent much of her career photographing poverty and war in Africa, has been humbled by the experience of photographing similar problems on her doorstep: ‘It’s not what you expect to find in a Western society,’ she says. ‘The hunger, the hardship, but worst of all, the waiting. The not knowing how and when things will work out.’
Like her photographs, however, Trayler-Smith identifies with the positive in the stories she’s exposed. ‘What stands out,’ she says, ‘is the resilience of the human spirit, the strength and courage of these people, the humanity and the kindness among those who have nothing.’
Mike Kaye, of Still Human, Still Here says: ‘Government policy towards refused asylum-seekers is forcing people into complete destitution. This policy is inhumane and it is failing – driving people underground, into a world of poverty and hunger. These people should be given enough support to live with dignity until they are granted protection or can safely return home.’
Still Human Still Here: The underground world of destitute asylum seekers
Host Gallery, 1 Honduras Street, EC1Y 0TH
Opening Hours Mon-Fri 10am-6pm; Sat 11am-4pm