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Is UK government policy resulting in asylum seekers starving to death?


Please read the following letter which was sent to me following the recent deaths of an asylum seeking mother and child who starved to death in London. Earlier this month, The Guardian reported on the case and the full report can be read here -


In response to theabove tragedy, I was asked to publish the following letter which was also sent to The Guardian. It was written by Dr Aida Alayrian.

Dear Editors,

17th October 2012,


When policies designed to ostensibly lessen deprivation for vulnerable people result in imposed destitution, critical reflection becomes glaringly unavoidable. This reflection, however necessary, has arrived too late for Mrs. G and her baby boy, who tragically lost their lives to a failed system of State support, media negligence and fundamental denial of their human rights.


Despite the warnings from Westminster Council’s serious case review following the preventable death of this asylum seeking mother and child, the response from the Home Office has been to increasingly unravel what minimal support the State provided asylum seekers in transition between support schemes. The Refugee Integration and Employment Service, once offering vital support to asylum seekers following successful applications in the UK, have been forced to terminate services due to funding cuts.


On 5th October 2012, Amelia Gentleman’s article to the Guardian, ‘Double Death in Asylum Seeker Family Reveals Gap in State Benefits’, quoted Dave Garratt, the chief executive of Refugee Action, "The transition from Nass support to full state benefit entitlement funded by the Department for Work and Pensions continues to fail some of the most vulnerable and marginalised people in society. Unacceptable delays in these transition arrangements are all too common, resulting in homelessness and hunger."


In the absence of such services, the government assured those concerned that support would be available through the voluntary sector, in a largely unchecked repositioning of responsibility. As the current economic recession has coloured socio-political debate, such government tactics of offloading accountability on the third sector for the guarantee of basic human rights is becoming ever-more frequent.


Responding to those who fled torture and persecution in search of refuge with policies of forced destitution is an extreme violation of basic human rights and, at best, a bureaucratic failure. Looking beyond the brief and passing headlines, a shameful picture emerges of a system bound by racialized and exclusionary policies that lay claim to a hierarchy of human worth. This expression of structural inequality, and consequent lack of social responsibility, bitterly undermines UK domestic Human Rights law as well as international conventions such as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which the UK Government is signatory. 


Recently the UK public fell horrified to learn of the heart-breaking abduction of a young April Jones. As this tragedy gripped national press networks, protection of children has justifiably come to the forefront. Reflecting on the untimely death of Mrs. G and her baby, we are shocked this incident failed to take hold of national attention to such an extent.  It is only when we consider the media portrayal of these two unbearable calamities that we are able to distinguish a readily overlooked subliminal discourse of race and social class unfolding, dismissive of egregious violations of the human rights of refugee and asylum seeking communities. Human rights are not just for some, they are an unalienable entitlement of all.


As with other concerned members of society, those of us part of United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy feel compelled to raise the questions of what could have happened differently to prevent such senseless and tragic loss of life. Although Mrs G’s vulnerability, and thus that of her child, was raised by social workers, no psychological or therapeutic help was provided to them. This left us wondering, if there are indeed many more people in similar positions whose psychological needs are left unattended, potentially rendering catastrophic circumstances. While the lack or incoherence of material support may be a primary factor in the case at hand, the absence of psychological support services is also implicated. If relevant therapeutic help had been made available, there may have been a greater potential for filling the holes that ultimately took the lives of Mrs G and her infant. Similarly, our duty to defend human rights is not merely about providing material support to those in need, but also about helping those within society to gain the psychological and emotional resilience to become self-sufficient. The diversity of factors embodied in refugee and asylum seeker experiences are often cause for extreme vulnerability; thus, our neglect of psychological needs of these communities is just as dire as the absence of any other support services.

As a society firmly committed to human rights, we are obliged to recognize the vital need for appropriate therapeutic intervention particularly for the most vulnerable in society. To pay lip service to this recognition, however, is not enough; explicit support and acknowledgement from government and decision makers of this basic right is crucial. Until psychotherapy is made available and easily accessible for all those who are in need, not merely those able to pay or those who are acclimatized to British cultural norms, our duty to serve human rights remains unfulfilled.

To place the blame of this tragedy disproportionately upon the apparatus of the State would be misguided; the media has long maintained a deafening silence to the injustices endured by the refugee and asylum seeking community, bringing largely punitive and dehumanizing accounts to the public eye. Gentleman’s (5th October 2012) solitary reporting to the Guardian informed the nation of this horrifying situation where a mother and baby’s lives were unnecessarily lost, revealing not only failures of the asylum system, but also evinced the prejudice within society at large as more journalists had not found it pertinent to cover. We have reached a deeply concerning moment when mainstream media predominantly demands our attention for the trivial, and when reporting on the critical issues affecting human lives, routinely omits the experiences of the socially and economically excluded except when to confirm well-rehearsed stereotypes.

We regularly witness and hear that refugees, asylum seekers and destitute face mounting discrimination in their daily lives and are especially likely to experience poor treatment. We hope the avoidable and alarming death of this mother and child will not be written off as an instance of ‘collateral damage’, but instead will be a lesson for state, public and voluntary services to find a way of closing the gaps. Increasing accessibility of appropriate psychological support is one avenue that has thus far been severely underestimated by government, exacting extreme costs for those suffering that must be brought to an end. It is incumbent upon us to reject human rights as merely rhetorical and demand results and accountability within our social and political institutions. 


Dr Aida Alayarian

Clinical Director & CEO, Refugee Therapy Centre


Thanks for your time,


Billy Briggs.

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