Yesterday the Bristol Refugee Rights (BRR) and Bristol Defend the Asylum Seekers Campaign (BDASC) held a stall outside Tesco Metro in Broadmead. I went down to see them, as I'd heard about a voucher exchange that they were running.
A member of BRR explained to me that people who arrive in this country and apply for asylum are split (by the authorities) into two categories. Those whose cases are pending receive a small amount of money, on which they have to try and live; they're the (relatively) lucky ones. The other group are those whose cases are rejected, but who remain in this country (there are a number of recognised reasons as to why people do this, e.g. there is a war and no rule of law, or perhaps their cases are under appeal). This group of people are given no money; instead each week they receive £35 worth of supermarket vouchers. They must live entirely from Tesco or Asda or Sainsbury.
What makes this system completely intolerable is that both groups of people, although they have legitimate reasons to stay in the country, are not allowed to work. This system is wrong on every level:
- it denies people the right to work; a right which is fundamental and vital for dignity and self-esteem.
- support is minimal in any case, but asking people to live entirely from corporate supermarkets is outrageous.
To counter this shite situation, BRR have started a voucher exchange: so, today I went down to their stall and gave them £20 which they will pass on to an asylum seeker. In return I got £20 worth of the asylum seeker's supermarket vouchers. Shopping at Tesco's is not my idea of a good time, but at least I have the option of going elsewhere, so I was glad to help.
This exchange needs to expand - there are a lot of asylum seekers who'd love to swap their vouchers for some real money. If you'd like to help contact Bristol Refugee Rights: firstname.lastname@example.org or 0117 9080844. Alternatively drop in to their centre, on Newton Road near Easton Leisure Centre. They're there on Wednesday mornings or all-day Thursday.
The nice lady from BRR said they really need people to send them cheques. They can then send back vouchers, and start expanding the exchange operation.
- The BRR woman also mentioned the case of Abraham Ghebre Michael. He fled Eritrea after being mistreated and hospitalized for refusing to go into military service due to his religious beliefes. In 2003 he sought aslyum in Britain. The Home Office have turned down his claim and now Abraham is homeless, destitute and without a solicitor. Amnesty have tried to tell the Home Office how dangerous it is to go back to Eritrea but no one listens. How can we call ourselves a civilised country, when this is how we treat people who ask for our help?
- As I've said already, this voucher scheme stinks on a number of levels. The fact that the government won't give money out to people whose applications are rejected put me in mind of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. What's wrong with people being given money, and the freedom to choose what they spend it on? Why have we become so keen on voucher systems, and the like? People will answer that it's in the name of accountability: "we don't know what they'll spend it on". It's the same reason people won't give money to beggars.
Bollox to that, I say. And George Bernard Shaw agrees: how dare we swan around imposing our middle-class morality on those that we think are in need of it? Mr Doolittle sums it up:
I'm one of the undeserving poor: that's what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he's up agen middle class morality all the time. If there's anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it's always the same story: "You're undeserving; so you can't have it." But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow's that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I don't need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don't eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I'm a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything. Therefore, I ask you, as two gentlemen, not to play that game on me. I'm playing straight with you. I aint pretending to be deserving. I'm undeserving; and I mean to go on being undeserving. I like it; and thats the truth.