The Independent – Daily Edition
January 9, 2019 Wednesday
Mother has to travel nearly 100 miles with newborn to sign on with Home Office
by MAY BULMAN SOCIAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT
An asylum seeker woman has been forced to travel nearly 100 miles every month with her newborn baby in order to attend a routine meeting with the Home Office or face losing her allowance.
In a case that has been branded a "disgraceful" consequence of the hostile environment, the single mother from Armenia was at one point forced to breastfeed her child while crouched down on a crowded platform at Manchester Piccadilly station, according to a volunteer who accompanied her on the trip last month.
The woman, who has not been named to protect her identity, had been travelling from her asylum accommodation in Stoke-on-Trent to Dallas Courtin Salford in order to comply with immigration rules after her local reporting centre was closed last October.
She is one of hundreds of asylum seekers in Britain who are having to take long journeys to attend sign-on meetings after the Home Office closed a number of reporting centres in a bid to "effectively manage the reporting population" – in what was branded an expansion of the hostile environment policy.
The Independent revealed in November that asylum seekers in Stoke-on-Trent were having to spend up to three-quarters of their £37.75 weekly allowance on travelling to the reporting centre in Salford after the local immigration service closed. Immigration minister Caroline Nokes said there was no upper limit to the distance a person may be required to travel in order to attend their nearest reporting location.
Chris Lawler, who volunteers for Stoke-based refugee charity Sanctus St Mark's, said he was "mortified and shamed" to accompany the Armenian mother on the round trip -which entailed two trains and a bus each way, at a cost of £32.80, which the charity paid for.
"The journey was very stressful indeed and very poignant, too. At one point she had to breastfeed her child on the crowded platform at Manchester Piccadilly," he said. "There were no facilities whatsoever. I asked but was told waiting rooms had been removed. In the end, she had to crouch down and feed her baby like that. It was upsetting to see this young woman struggle with her baby, struggle with the cold and with the crowds looking on. How mean, how brutal and how humiliating? I was, appalled, frankly but I could do nothing to alleviate the situation."
Responding to the young woman's experience, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said: "This is disgraceful and shows just how inhumane the Tories' hostile environment is. The creation of these barriers are clearly causing distress and hardship to already vulnerable people trying to do the right thing."
Reverend Sally Smith, who runs Sanctus St Mark's, said that at the charity's weekly drop-in providing assistance to asylum seekers, one of the most common worries for people was how they would afford to travel to their reporting sessions. While there is purportedly a reimbursement scheme, she said that most asylum seekers did not receive travel cost refunds, and that some were even instead told to save money out of their food allowance.
"The lack of concern for vulnerable individuals and families demonstrated by the Home Office is shocking and should not be tolerated in any civilised society," she added. "The journey itself is difficult for people who have no English and are not familiar with the public transport changes. Once they arrive, queueing to get in can take several hours without shelter from the weather."
Reverend Smith said a particularly shocking aspect of the young woman's case was the fact that she was being forced to sign on with a five-week-old child, despite the fact that according to Home Office guidelines, women should not be required to sign for six weeks after giving birth. "Despite efforts to get her appointment changed, the Home Office insisted that she had to go on that day, and their reason was that they stipulate a six-week break from the due date rather than the actual delivery date," she said.
Gareth Snell, Labour and Co-operative MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, who has contacted the Home Office about the woman's situation, said: "This case demonstrates everything that I feared was the case when this first came up as an issue. Clearly the decision to move the reporting centre from Stoke is ridiculous. I can't understand why anyone would look at this new system and not notice that it deliberately and by design makes registering at the points where you're asked to register more onerous and more expensive, and ask what is the possible benefit of adding all those extra hurdles into the system if not to dissuade people from doing it?"
Jude Hawes, manager of Stoke's Citizens Advice Bureau, who has raised concerns about the long journeys before, said she was "horrified" that a vulnerable young woman and her baby were put at such risk. "This is one of many instances where people who are vulnerable, physically disabled or severely mentally unwell have been forced to try to make a journey which puts them at physical risk or pushes them into severe financial hardship," she added. "Despite Home Office claims, it is crystal clear that no proper examination of the risks or impact on individuals was undertaken before the unwise and irrational decision to close the local reporting centre was made."
The Home Office has been approached for comment.