British charities warn of harm to asylum children

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: (Published 13 January 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:77
  1. Alison Bolton

    Welfare charities in Britain have warned that children will suffer if the government's proposed amendments to the Asylum and Immigration Bill go ahead. The amendments, which would reduce social security benefits, including the loss of child benefit for some people from abroad, are due to be debated this week. The families of asylum seekers and sponsored immigrants will be particularly affected.

    “Families will be left with no means to pay for rent, clothes, food, or heating. Third World deprivation will be brought to the streets of Britain,” said Beth Lakhani, welfare rights adviser for the Child Poverty Action Group. A detailed submission by the group was sent to the Social Security Advisory Committee last month.

    The amendments were planned to be passed through parliament before Christmas but were stalled after an outcry by church leaders, charities, civil rights organisations, and members of parliament. Now, both houses will debate them before they can become law.

    The charity Save the Children and the Refugee Council have issued a joint report on the impact on children of the amendments, claiming that any rise in homelessness and poverty, precipitated by the loss of housing benefit and income support, would increase health problems.

    Although asylum seekers are entitled to NHS care, the report warns that registration with a general practitioner can be difficult without an address. The need to send in a complicated form to qualify for free prescriptions, dental work, and spectacles is problematic for those with poor language skills, but so is the lack of a permanent address. Children whose carers were no longer entitled to income support would no longer be eligible for free milk and vitamins or for free school meals.

    The report claims that the children of asylum seekers are at increased risk of accidents and injury due to homelessness and of serious nutritional deficiencies from an inadequate diet; they are also more vulnerable to disease, including tuberculosis, rickets, anaemia, and vitamin deficiencies. Cold and damp living conditions may exacerbate chronic medical conditions such as asthma.

    The Social Security Advisory Committee will by now have read the charities' evidence. Whether any concessions have been made will become clear this week.—ALISON BOLTON, freelance journalist, London

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