New payment card for asylum seekers is inhumane, say leading refugee charities

Four leading refugee organisations in the UK, Scottish Refugee Council, the Refugee Council, the Welsh Refugee Council, and the North of England Refugee Service have criticised a payment card recently introduced for asylum seekers, which leaves many living in hunger and deprivation.

A new report, Your inflexible friend: the cost of living without cash, published today brings to light a wide range of problems caused by having to use the card, including being unable to buy enough food to feed themselves and their children.

The report backs up recent findings by the community campaign alliance Citizens for Sanctuary Glasgow, and sees all five groups amplifying the call to change the system.

The Azure card was introduced at the end of 2009 to replace the use of supermarket vouchers for asylum seekers whose claim had been refused but who were still unable to return to their country. The card is topped up weekly with £35 for a single person and can be used in a limited number of supermarket outlets.  It cannot be exchanged for cash, and only £5 can be carried over to the next week.

The research found that:

  • Without access to cash, over half (56%) of respondents could not pay for travel to see their legal advisers, or attend essential health appointments (53%)
  • 40% were unable to buy food that met their dietary, religious, or cultural requirements in the specified supermarkets, and many experienced hunger and malnutrition as a consequence
  • 39% believed the supermarkets do not offer good value for money, and that they would get better value at a market or charity shop
  • 60% had experienced the card not working, including 13 people with children, and 79% reported that shop staff had refused the card, despite being in the specified supermarkets
  • 56% reported feelings of anxiety and shame when using the card

Concerns raised

The findings confirm the concerns raised by the organisations when the payment card was first introduced in 2009, and that asylum seekers living on this type of support continue to live in deprivation as a result of the card. 

This nationwide report comes after a study done by community campaign group Citizens for Sanctuary Glasgow. That report, This New System is Breaking My Spirit (24 September 2010) revealed similar findings.

 John Wilkes, Chief Executive of Scottish Refugee Council, said:

“This report shows very clearly how the Azure card is forcing asylum seekers into unnecessary hunger and hardship. This payment system doesn’t just restrict what they can buy and where, but often it doesn’t work at all.

“People who have to get by on the Azure card are either waiting to return to their countries of origin, or cannot do so because it is unsafe. The UK government doesn’t allow them to work and support themselves, so they have no choice. It’s unacceptable that they are unable to buy items that meet their basic needs, and that they have to face hostility in shops when they use these cards.

“As the government looks to improve the asylum process, they must use this opportunity to end this inhumane system now, and offer asylum seekers cash as an alternative. Though levels of support are still too low – at just £5 a day - a simple cash support system would give them the freedom to spend their money as they wished, while allowing them to live in dignity until they can return home.”

 Rev David McLachlan from Glasgow Citizens For Sanctuary, said:

“This new report echoes our own findings. Although the two groups have worked on this matter independently of the other, our conclusions are the same.

“The Azure card can only be used in a very few shops – mostly supermarkets. Anyone living on only £35 a week would welcome the chance to go into second hand or charity shops to buy clothes. That option isn’t available. The card cannot be used for transport - which means that asylum seekers cannot even get on a bus if they are travelling with young children or the weather is poor. And it is impossible to save money over time (for example to buy a winter coat) as anything over £5 at the end of a given week is removed from the account.

“£35 a week is not much for anyone to live on. But the Azure Card also limits options, fosters indignity, and is prone to technical faults. Asylum seekers are unable to exercise the freedom of choice that should be the right of all people.

“Citizens for Sanctuary agree with the call to scrap the Azure card and to issue people seeking sanctuary with money and the freedom to make their own choices.  But as long as this card is being issued, steps must be taken to improve its use and flexibility, for example, by extending the list of co-operating shops and allowing access to transport. Glasgow Citizens for Sanctuary have been calling on Phil Taylor, Regional Director of the UK Border Agency for Scotland and Northern Ireland, to meet with us to discuss these concerns.” 

For more details, interviews or case studies contact Clare Harris or Karin Goodwin on 0141 223 7927 or 07734 030 763.



Notes to editors:

The report, Your inflexible friend: the cost of living without cash, will be available to download on November 5 from:

The report has been put together by members of the Asylum Support Partnership which is made up by Scottish Refugee Council, Refugee Council, Welsh Refugee Council and the North of England Refugee Service. 

The Azure card was piloted in Scotland from 30 November 2009 and was rolled out across the UK shortly afterwards. It is provided to people who are on ‘Section 4’ support, that is people seeking asylum who have had their claim refused but who for a range of reasons cannot return to their country of origin.

While Section 4 is intended as a temporary form of support Scottish Refugee Council research published last year showed that some were surviving for up to four years on this limited, cashless form of subsistence.

Scottish Refugee Council provides help and advice to those who have fled human rights abuses or other persecution in their homeland and now seek refuge in Scotland. We are a membership organisation that works independently and in partnership with others to provide support to refugees from arrival to settlement and integration into Scottish society. We campaign to ensure that the UK Government meets its international, legal and humanitarian obligations and to raise awareness of refugee issues. For more information see 

CITIZENS for Sanctuary is a campaign by CITIZENS UK to implement the recommendations of the Independent Asylum Commission. The Independent Asylum Commission undertook the most comprehensive review of the asylum system ever conducted, and produced over 180 recommendations to safeguard people who seek sanctuary here, while restoring public confidence in the UK’s role as a place of sanctuary for those fleeing persecution. A Which?-style monitoring activity to test the cards - a ‘Shop for Justice’ - was organised in Glasgow by local faith leaders and MSPs when the card was launched on 7th December.Glasgow CITIZENS for Sanctuary have continued to monitor the impact of the cards.