18 June, 2021 - By Leyla Williams

The Aspen Card Crisis – A Month On

The Aspen Card Crisis – A Month On

Take a moment to imagine what you might do in this situation. You and your child have recently managed to escape war in your home country. You survive a life-threatening journey to seek refuge in the UK. You’re housed by the Home Office, but are banned from working or claiming any benefits, so have no way of making any money. You don’t have any family or friends here to help you, so you’re completely reliant on the £5.66 a day you’re supposed to receive on an ‘Aspen’ debit card from the Home Office in order to buy essentials – but you haven’t been sent an Aspen card. How would you survive?

This is the position that Zala* and her two year old daughter have been in for nearly a month now, since the Aspen Card crisis began. Since May 21st, Zala has been living without an Aspen card and hasn’t had any money from the Home Office. This is because the Home Office has botched up the rollout of new Aspen cards for asylum seekers and left thousands of people around the country with no money. We know a number of people like Zala, some with babies and very young children, who have been living without cards for nearly a month now. 

As a small charity embedded within the Hammersmith and Fulham community and surrounding neighbourhoods in our patch of West London, we and our members have been in a permanent state of emergency since the Aspen card crisis began. In the first few days of the crisis, we helped our members without cards contact Migrant Help, the Home Office subcontracted charity who operates a helpline for asylum seekers, hoping that the new cards would then arrive at people’s accommodations in a day or two – because how could the Home Office expect people to survive otherwise? But days turned into weeks. Half of the asylum-seeking families and individuals we support have been affected by this crisis. Slowly, after weeks, those who have been living without cards are starting to get them, but a number of our members are still waiting in desperation. The Home Office say they are issuing emergency cash payments, but people have waited weeks for these to come through, and many haven’t received one at all.

To support Zala and our other members in dire need, we’ve done what other small grassroots charities and community groups across the country have: stepped up to the challenge and ensured that everyone we know in this position is able to meet their essential needs, by organising emergency food or money for them. We’ve partnered with the Red Cross and other charities to ensure people can feed themselves. We’ve worked proactively and reached out to vulnerable families that were moved out of West London weeks ago to another part of the country where they know nobody, to discover they were without Aspen cards and going hungry, and organised immediate support for them. We’ve worked with the media to keep a spotlight on this crisis and supported our members to tell their stories, featuring on ITV News, Sky News, the Guardian, The Independent, and Huck. We discussed the issue with our MP Andy Slaughter and he raised it in Parliament. Our staff and fantastic community of dedicated volunteers have set aside time on a daily basis to keep in contact with the asylum seekers we know without cards, in order to make sure they have enough to eat and have emotional support. We’ve been busy running regular community events and picnics to enable people to make new friends and get some light relief from their situation. 

Nearly a month on, a number of asylum-seeking people we know still don’t have their Aspen cards, and the Home Office hasn’t formally apologised for the dangerous position it has left vulnerable people in. We continue to do everything we can to support people, but charities should never be expected to fill the void in the basic support the state is supposed to be providing. On our minds throughout this crisis has been two troubling thoughts: why has it been left to small charities like ours to ensure asylum-seeking people haven’t been left destitute after this disastrous handling of the new Aspen card rollout, and how are asylum-seeking people who aren’t in touch with charities surviving this? 

*names have been changed