An asylum seeker's testimony: ‘I feel like I am being watched by the Home Office everywhere I go’
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.
I came to the UK from a country in Africa because I was fleeing persecution for religious reasons. When I first came to England I was caught by the police, placed in detention before then being released into a hostel. When I was in the hostel I was given my Aspen Card, while I was applying for political asylum. At this point I could use the card to take out cash money, but when my asylum case was rejected and I was placed under Section 4, I was no longer able to do this. At this point I was single and receiving around 37 pounds a week to cover all of my expenses with some additional support for my child. This was a new restriction as before I was able to use [cash, Ed.] to buy what I wanted. This made things difficult. I would use the card to do my shopping, to buy milk and food and I would also try to save money in order to buy some clothes for my baby. It was particularly difficult for transport, as I would have to try to exchange the money for cash in order to get around.
One day, I decided to travel to London to see some people from my community so I used the Aspen Card to buy a ticket from where I live to London and back. Shortly after I made the trip, I received a letter from the Home Office saying that they knew that I had travelled to London on these specific dates and they asked me to explain why I went and what I was doing. The letter also said that if I did not explain, then my support would be discontinued.
When I received this letter, I realized that I was being tracked and that the Home Office knew where I had been and the shops that I went to London, and what I had been doing. I honestly felt very scared and controlled, like I had no freedom. I was meeting with friends from my church, and the Home Office was tracking me. I thought that I would need to buy things from different shops, especially for the things that I needed for my child. From this day, I really have felt like I am being watched everywhere I go. I also felt that maybe I should not travel anymore to be with people from my community if this is what happened after doing this once. Before this, I did not realize that I was being tracked as I was new to the system. The letters that they send you are difficult to understand. When I first came under Section 4, I was told that I would receive vouchers, but then I was given the card instead. When you are being swapped between different programmes, between rules and regulations it’s very difficult to keep up with the changes.
When this happened, I called Migrant Help because I did not initially understand what this was all about. They asked me to explain to them where I had been, who I had seen, and they also asked for the full addresses of the places I had gone. So I explained but I also had quite a lot of help from my local asylum support organisation. But since that day I feel like someone is always looking over me wherever I go, I don’t feel safe shopping, or where I live, I worry about whether or not the Home Office thinks I am working illegally. I feel like I have no freedom in or out of the house. It doesn’t feel like I’m living in a free country, which is what England claims to be, but like I am in South Africa during the time of apartheid, or like being in the country where I am from, in a prison.
At the moment, I am still waiting for a decision from the court about my case. The thing that I want the most now is my own freedom, because at the moment I am in this system and I can’t do anything. Once I get status and my baby is old enough to go to school, I will be able to do everything for myself.
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 Memory Hope Blessing and directed by Esther Dix, the video was made in collaboration with Women for Refugee Women, which supports and empowers refugee women to tell their own stories and campaign for a fairer asylum system.