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Monday, March 20, 2006 

"Failed" asylum seekers to return to being given hated vouchers.

Five years ago, in one of his rare acts of sanity, David Blunkett abolished the voucher scheme which marked asylum seekers out as being different. Five years later, less than a year on from a viciously anti-immigrant Tory electoral campaign, they're going to be brought back.

The vouchers are to be paid to more than 5,000 failed asylum seekers who qualify for "hard case" support because they cannot be sent back to countries such as Zimbabwe, Somalia and Iraq, which Britain considers unsafe, or there is no safe return route or the asylum seeker is too sick to travel.

They get a bed and either three meals a day and no financial support or £35 in vouchers each week to buy food and toiletries. MPs will be asked tomorrow to confirm this return of vouchers and approve the extension of their use for other essentials such as nappies or clothes.

A Home Office spokeswoman said the decision had been taken to reintroduce vouchers because "hard case" support provided a limited form of help for those about to leave Britain: "It should not act as an incentive to remain in the UK once they have exhausted their appeal rights."

The immigration minister, Tony McNulty, has said the immigration bill to be voted on by MPs tomorrow allows provision of cash or vouchers. But refugee groups say local providers are being told they can only use vouchers.

Ms Sherlock of the Refugee Council said the government may claim it was only a short-term measure but reality for many on "hard case" support was that a cashless system would be a long-term way of life because conditions in Iraq, Zimbabwe and Somalia showed no improvement.

"People whose applications have been rejected only get any support if they sign up for voluntary removal and follow all the rules. So why does the government still feel they have to be stigmatised, and made to jump through hoops to get the basics they need to survive?" she asked.

The government seems to be trying to make life as miserable as possible for those who have no home to return to. £35 is a shockingly low figure to be able live on for a whole week, especially if it's meant to pay for three square meals. It would possible, but only if those 3 square meals were either processed microwave meals or beans on toast. Added to that, the government now again intends to humiliate them when it comes to actually paying for their food. For a government whose main policy is apparently spreading choice, the voucher scheme seems to be very much at odds with it. As the article states, being able to get hold of culturally specific items such as halal prepared meat would be made more difficult, just as one example.

Then there's the increased reaction to immigration which has taken place since 2001. Following campaigns in the tabloid media, asylum seekers have increasingly been demonised as being here to sponge off the state, while the majority are in fact fleeing tyranny. The reintroduction of the voucher scheme will mark them out as exactly that; unable to leave, but living off "us". The government also knows that change in Somalia, Zimbabwe or Iraq does not at the moment look very likely. Even if Robert Mugabe were to die, there is little to suggest that the ruling Zanu-PF party in Zimbabwe would as a result lose power to the Movement for Democratic Change. Is it really too much to ask of Labour for these people, who are faced with returning to a country which may not welcome them back even when they are forced to return that in the meantime they are allowed actual cash to spend on themselves? Surely it isn't.

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