Every day is a fight: Living on £5 per day
As part of the Still Human Still Here campaign which Freedom from Torture is part of, staff and supporters are joining STAR for a week of action in support of asylum seekers (20-26 February 2012). Freedom from Torture's Research Intern Martha Spencer blogs here about her experiences of living on £5 per day (the national asylum allowance).
There are two reactions from people I've spoken to about the '£5 a day' budget: those who instantly recognise the ridiculousness of trying to survive and create a life on such a small amount of money; and those who think that it means having a fiver in your pocket and that it probably isn't that bad ('you can get food really cheaply,' after all).
And then as you discuss what £5 a day really means with the second group you see the same incomprehension dawn, that £5 a day really does mean £35 a week - for everything. Through the research on The Poverty Barrier project I've had the chance to talk to asylum seekers of all different ages, backgrounds and current situations, all united by the difficulties that living in poverty creates. From my week on this budget I hope I've gained a small insight into these issues and what I've learnt is that it's a struggle, it makes every day a fight. It makes buying enough toilet paper something that has to be planned with precision.
I intern at Freedom from Torture three days per day week, so the first two days of the week were spent sitting at home. Initially this was fine, fun even. I slept, watched TV, read, ate some bread and peanut butter, tinkered on the internet, ate some more bread and peanut butter. But by the second day boredom and cabin fever were already setting in. And of course, in reality I've already smashed the budget before the week has even begun: my TV licence, internet connection, contact lenses and mobile phone contract are all 'necessities' that asylum seekers relying on welfare support have to do without but that zip out of my bank without me even realising.
So really I should have been sitting at home, unable to call anyone for a chat or text a friend, with no TV to watch or Facebook to peruse, with nothing to do and nowhere to go. To think this is the situation for so many survivors, living also in the context of the uncertainty of their asylum claim, fear of removal, missing family and being in an unfamiliar country, days filled with nothing must for some be unbearably bleak. I'm sitting in a nice, warm flat. We know that for so many asylum seekers, their accommodation is just unbelievably inadequate: rooms too small to lie down in, bedbug and pest infestations, no heating, room shares with strangers who don't speak their language, broken doors and windows which mean that anyone can come in and out - and no money to go anywhere to escape or distract themselves.
Feeling 'distanced' from society
I went for a walk, past all the warm and inviting coffee shops, bakeries and restaurants. Even with my self-inflicted 'poverty', it brought a sort-of feeling of exclusion knowing that I couldn't go in or buy anything from these places. It made me think about the idea of being in society, but not really part of it - feeling like these places are 'not for you' and that you are different, that you don't have the same choices as the people sitting inside drinking coffee and eating cakes.
This 'separation' from what other 'normal' people were doing ran through the whole week. One of the things I found the hardest was carrying on an ordinary routine with friends and family- all were of course very supportive, but I immediately felt slightly distanced from them and their activities and lives. Suddenly, I was saying 'no' to 'do you want to come to the pub?', 'shall we go out for dinner?' or 'let's travel back home to see Mum at the weekend.' They were things I couldn't get involved with. Within a few hours (as my housemate decided to come to the supermarket with me and filled his basket with fruit juice, meat joints, coffee and hair conditioner) I was starting to feel it was all very unfair!
Relationships with friends
Because of this disparity, within this one week I felt massively indebted to friends. Despite turning down invites from people, and staying in a lot, there were people who insisted on cooking for me, buying me drinks or helping me get home. Of course this has reconfirmed to me how lovely my friends and family are, but also brought to light that whilst this might be OK for one week, it would be very difficult and uncomfortable to have friendships that were 'one way' financially.
I found that my limited budget affected other people. It was at times very difficult to turn down social engagements and the generosity of others because to say no affected what other people wanted to do. My friend did not enjoy his Vietnamese noodle soup sitting across the table from me eating my pre-prepared peanut butter sandwich, and the restaurant wasn't happy about it either. This strain on relationships, along with a lack of control and independence have come through powerfully in the questionnaires Freedom from Torture clients have filled out as part of the research project.
For instance, the last questionnaire we received was from a young man who came to the UK in 2008. He is still waiting for a decision on his asylum claim and is on Section 95 support. He says:
I feel like, even though I am a human, I feel like a baby that cannot do anything, even though I want to do these things. Because of this I have lost my friends- I cannot keep in contact because I cannot top up my phone, I lost my phone and had to buy a new sim card- they close your account, but no credit so cannot call. I feel isolated. I isolate myself- if I try to make contact with others it is an additional expense. I know my limits, so I am just by myself. That person might expect something from me and I cannot do that even visit them or call them.
Life without fall-back
Another thing that struck me this week is that having no access to cash renders you so vulnerable in going about your day-to-day life. To not have the safety net of being able to jump on a bus or (if needs be) in a cab if you suddenly start feeling ill, threatened on the street, or if the weather turns really bad - and to have no credit on your phone and no cash or bank card for the little (or big) unexpected things that happen is just a little bit worrying.
Knowing money is there if you need it is hugely reassuring and without it you have to approach things in a whole different way. Living on such a tight budget means that every aspect and activity has to be planned. If you are going out, how exactly will you get there and back, how much food and drink do you need to take with you? There is no room for spontaneity, there's no popping into a shop or cafe if you are hungry or thirsty or cold or tired. And of course travelling anywhere that you can't easily walk to is a nightmare cost, creating a lack of freedom that makes everyday tasks like going to the doctors or the supermarket an issue. Many people at Freedom from Torture have health problems that hinder or restrict doing these things as well, and are usually without any extra money or assistance.
So taking part in the STAR action has given me the time to really think about how what it means not to ask someone to live on £5 a day like I have, but tell them to, which is what is happening for asylum seekers in the UK. We all know that at the moment resources are massively scarce, that asylum seekers are by no means the only people struggling (myself being an unemployed graduate on Job Seekers Allowance!) but it is still a massive injustice that those seeking refuge in the UK are given an inadequate amount of money to get by, and moreover that they are treated as undeserving and portrayed as 'spongers'.
It's made me think about the idea of 'living on £5 a day' and what a strange and contradictory phrase this, when you think about what 'living' should mean.