An asylum seeker's testimony: ‘I realised that I was at the mercy of the system because I did not know how things work’

This real life testimony of a UK asylum seeker's experience of using their 'Aspen Card' payment card, explores the stress and anxiety caused by both the Home Office's surveillance of their purchases and the highly punitive measures that it can then take.



Performed by an actor, this video is based on the real life testimony, transcribed below, of a UK asylum seeker's experience of using their Home Office issued 'Aspen Card' debit payment card.

I arrived in the UK in 2009 and I have been living here for over ten years now. I have used both the Aspen Card and the card that was issued by the Home Office before that, the Azure Card. When I was released from immigration detention I was destitute because I am not allowed to work and that’s how I was put on Section 4 support. They transferred me to a location in the north of England and then after a couple of weeks I got this card called the Azure Card. I remember the G4 housing officer never told me about the surveillance system. My first experience of surveillance was during the winter of 2014. I remember that I got the Azure card in November, and I didn’t have any winter clothes so I needed to buy some. Between being dispersed to my Home Office accommodation I was given some Tesco vouchers worth £90. So I used my Tesco vouchers for my daily living expenses and I saved the money that was being credited to my Azure card for around two weeks so I could buy a winter jacket.

Soon after, I got a letter from the Home Office saying they had some serious doubts that I was actually destitute because I had not been using the money on my Azure card. They also said that if I did not provide a satisfactory response that they would discontinue my support. I was very confused about how they knew that I had not been using my card. At this time I did not know much, I was very new to the system, I did not now how the system works. I was completely isolated in a city I have never been to, far away from London. I got really, really panicked. Then I wrote to my solicitor and asked her what I should do. I told her that I had been given the Tesco vouchers, sent pictures of them to her and explained that I was saving my Azure card money to buy a winter jacket. The assumption by the Home Office was that I had been working illegally or maybe had some undisclosed support from other parties or another income because I hadn’t been using the card. What made it worse was that I couldn’t communicate with the Home Office via email or over the telephone, as they said the only way to respond to them was via fax. I didn’t have a fax machine at home so I went to the library but they didn’t have a fax machine there either. So eventually my solicitor sent the explanation. I don’t think they ever sent me a letter saying they received my response but my asylum support was not discontinued, thankfully.

Then I realised that I was at the mercy of the system because I did not know how things work. When you don’t know how things work or the policy then it is easy to play with you because you don’t know. I thought, this is enough, and I started going through everything, how the system works, how immigration law works. I remember when I went to the court hearing when I was in immigration detention I was absolutely clueless. Through self-studying I learnt many things, including how immigration law and asylum processes work. So now I know the system so that others cannot play with me anymore. This way I will not fall into a vulnerable situation again.

They have the same surveillance in place for the Aspen Card as for the Azure Card. But by the time I received my Aspen Card I knew how things worked, so I made sure I used it appropriately. I used it just around the area where I lived. The point is that the Home Office can use this data to come up with any ridiculous argument to cause trouble. If, for example, I travel to Birmingham and I had to use my Aspen card for anything urgent, they can ask me how I got to Birmingham. They might make the argument that I don’t have money and that I can’t use the Aspen Card to travel by bus, so how did I get there? To be honest, it’s very troublesome to go through all of their questioning. Since then I have learnt the hard way and have studied how the system works. Since then I haven’t had any trouble because of my Aspen Card. The fact that I speak English also enables me to navigate the system a little better. But many people don’t know how it works. I have come across many people who are based in one location and then they go and use the card in London or other distant locations, so I try and advise them not to do it. I am sure there are thousands of people who have no idea. People on the whole don’t know that the information is being collected, until they get a letter from the Home Office. Even then, how many people understand or read the letters from the Home Office? For example, my mum received the letter with the Aspen Card in English and my mum cannot read English. I was there so I could help her, but if I wasn’t there, my mum would have no clue she is being subjected to surveillance through this card. People have family or friends in other places so you can’t expect them just to stay in one place, people need to travel, but they don’t know they are under surveillance and then they get into trouble.

Then again, even if you know you are being surveilled by the Home Office, or that you are being tracked, many people have no choice. If an emergency happens and you need to be in another location, you will have to travel outside of your designated location and need to use the card. You are put in the position that you know that you are under surveillance, but you still have no choice because that is the only form of support you can get at the moment. I know we are being surveilled through many different ways, even through the internet, but this is a different type of surveillance. In this position, you feel like you are under the Home Office’s authority while you are waiting to get status so you can be an independent person. I have been enduring this for around six years and psychologically this makes you very paranoid.

At the moment I am waiting for a decision regarding my status – I have one pending application and we would be lodging another application soon.

This research is a result of a collaboration between Mishka, a campaigner and expert-by-experience with a focus on asylum and refugee rights and UK immigration detention, Grace Tillyard, doctoral researcher in the Media, Communications and Cultural Studies department at Goldsmiths University of London, and Privacy International.

Performed by Tewodros Aregawe and directed by Esther Dix, the video was made in collaboration with Phosphoros Theatre, a London-based theatre company and charity that makes socially engaged performance starring refugee and asylum seeking actors.