Freedom from Torture - The Poverty Barrier report

The Poverty Barrier report

'The Poverty Barrier' is a ground-breaking report which provides the most comprehensive study to date of experiences of poverty among survivors of torture during and after their passage through the UK's asylum system.

It reveals how the day-to-day struggles of living without the means to meet basic living needs reinforce the powerlessness, fear and isolation that are the torture survivor's inheritance from their past, acting as a clear barrier to a their long-term recovery.

Keith Best, Freedom from Torture CEO, said:

The report's shocking findings recall the formidable challenges our clients face. This is a wake-up call that we must do more to help those individuals who have sacrificed and risked so much in escaping torture in their home country, and have ended up being some of the most vulnerable, the most needy and the most desperate in the UK.

The purpose of this report is to show how simple changes to the asylum and mainstream welfare benefits systems could dramatically improve the capacity of torture survivors to realise their right to rehabilitation, as guaranteed under international law.

The right to rehabilitation for survivors of torture in international law

The right to rehabilitation for survivors of torture in international law

Article 14 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment:

1. Each State Party shall ensure in its legal system that the victim of an act of torture obtains redress and has an enforceable right to fair and adequate compensation, including the means for as full rehabilitation as possible. In the event of the death of the victim as a result of an act of torture, his dependents shall be entitled to compensation.

2. Nothing in this article shall affect any right of the victim or other persons to compensation which may exist under national law.

The report

The Poverty Barrier front coverThe Poverty Barrier front cover

The Poverty Barrier: The Right to Rehabilitation for Survivors of Torture in the UK

Together they paint a bleak picture of financial insecurity, social exclusion and hopelessness, confirming a disturbing reality for survivors of torture living in the UK; namely, that their experiences of poverty compound their trauma related to torture and impede their rehabilitation.

Freedom from Torture is grateful to the European Union which funded the research for this report. Disclaimer: This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Freedom from Torture and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.

Key findings


  • Poor quality decision-making on asylum claims - including the mishandling of torture disclosures - means survivors are required to lodge appeals and fresh claims, acting as an important root cause of destitution; and
  • The ability of torture survivors to engage effectively with the asylum system is undermined by poverty which exacerbates poor mental health related to torture and makes it difficult for survivors to report to the Home Office and maintain contact with legal representatives.

Financial Support

  • The level of financial support provided to survivors in the asylum system is inadequate to meet essential living needs, including those in relation to food, clothing and health and hygiene; and
  • Poor administration in the asylum system causes delays and gaps in support, leaving many survivors at risk of destitution.


  • The lack of secure accommodation, the poor quality of some of the accommodation provided, and the denial of accommodation to torture survivors - resulting in dependency and destitution - deprive torture survivors of the 'safe recovery environment' needed to effectively engage in torture rehabilitation.

Transition for those granted permission to live in the UK

  • Poverty - including difficulties securing basic income and adequate housing, accessing support from the mainstream welfare benefits system, and finding a job for those well enough to work - often continues for those who have been granted protection, which makes this an unexpectedly difficult period psychologically for many survivors of torture.


  • Poverty and insecurity in the UK reinforces symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by many survivors as a result of torture - this makes it especially difficult for them to cope with poverty;
  • Lack of funds (even if these would be reimbursed) to travel to appointments and to maintain contact with Freedom from Torture clinicians and other healthcare providers is a common problem; and
  • The ability of torture survivors to engage effectively in therapy is also impeded by chronic diet inadequacies leading to poor cognitive functioning, and chronic dependence, disempowerment and a lack of agency which exacerbate psychological health symptoms associated with torture and reaffirm the sense of worthlessness and humiliation that survivors experience as a result of their torture.


Some of the key recommendations made by Freedom from Torture in this report include:

The Government should:

  • raise asylum support rates to provide for a standard of living equivalent to mainstream welfare support provision. If utilities are provided as part of the provision of accommodation, the asylum support rate should be equivalent to at least 70 per cent of income support rates. This rate should then be increased in line with annual cost of living increments for mainstream support; and
  • implement the recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights for 'a coherent unified, simplified and accessible system of support for asylum seekers, from arrival until voluntary departure or compulsory removal from the UK' such that Section 4 support is abolished and Section 95 support is transformed into an 'end to end' cash-based support system.

The Home Office should:

  • rollout new guidance on handling asylum claims involving allegations of torture or serious harm with facilitated training for all asylum decision-makers to improve the quality of decision-making, save the cost and distress for applicants of unnecessary appeals and fresh claims, and prevent destitution;
  • ensure decisions concerning the provision of accommodation to torture survivors comply with Section 4 of the Asylum Seekers (Reception Conditions) Regulations 2005. In particular, those receiving or accepted for treatment at one of Freedom from Torture's centres should be accommodated close by to that centre. Torture survivors, including those who have experienced rape, should not be forced to share bedrooms with strangers and self-contained accommodation should be provided wherever this is clinically necessary; and
  • ensure that asylum support is not withdrawn until the Department for Work and Pensions and HM Revenue and Customs are ready to commence mainstream welfare provision via an identified bank account.

The Department for Work and Pensions should:

  • create a strategic lead tasked with developing an action plan to ensure the mainstream benefits system is more responsive to the needs of refugees including torture survivors; and
  • implement the recommendations of the Public Accounts Committee aimed at improving Employment and Support Allowance decision-making and the Work Capability Assessment process, and in particular the recommendation 'to review the operation of the work capability assessment for vulnerable groups'.

The Ministry of Justice and Legal Aid Agency should:

  • abandon plans to introduce a residence test for legal aid and ensure there is no curtailment otherwise of the current legal aid eligibility for asylum seekers and refugees seeking judicial review of decisions related to asylum support, provision of immigration status papers and access to mainstream welfare entitlements.

Survivor experiences


AN was arrested in his home country alongside a family member who had been involved in anti-government protests. He was detained and tortured and only released on bail after signing a false 'confession' of involvement in anti-government activities. He fled the country and immediately claimed asylum in the UK in 2010. He was initially detained while his claim was considered, but released after a month and referred to Freedom from Torture.

Since then, AN has stayed with family members while his asylum claim is processed and only claimed 'Section 95' support from the Home Office to help cover his essential subsistence costs. He began to receive this after a delay of two to three months, during which time he was entirely dependent on his family for financial support.

After nearly two years, AN has still not received a decision on his asylum claim, despite submitting medical evidence of the torture to which he was subjected. It became difficult to live together with his family in their one bedroom flat after the arrival of a new baby. He therefore applied for Home Office accommodation. However, the only accommodation he was offered was in another city which would have been far from both Freedom from Torture, where he receives clinical treatment, and his family who provide him with emotional support. Although his living situation was very difficult, he did not feel well enough to live alone and his family persuaded him to stay despite the hardship for them all.

The financial support provided by the Home Office - around £35 per week - has not been enough to cover his basic expenses and AN has struggled to manage over the two years he has been waiting for a decision on his asylum claim. He finds it especially difficult to pay for bus fares and is often isolated in the flat with nothing to do and nowhere to go. These living conditions have impacted on his mental health and he struggles to follow clinical advice about how to recover from torture, including the need for social interaction. He has to 'report' every month to a Home Office reporting centre and although his attendance record was good, on the few occasions when he was not able to get there through ill health, he was 'sanctioned' and lost his weekly support.

His family try to help him but their own limited resources are already stretched to the limit. AN is not able to pursue his studies while his asylum claim is being considered and he feels that he has lost direction and control over his life.

* Names and other potentially identifying details have not been used in order to preserve anonymity as agreed with research participants.


Listen to Jackson – a member of both the Survivors Speak Out (SSO) network and the advisory group which we created to guide our research – speak about his own experiences of trying to survive in the UK and the impact of this on his long-term recovery. After being tortured in a southern African country, Jackson came to the UK in 2002 in search of protection and was unable to work or support himself for 10 years.


When VA arrived in the UK in 2006, she could not speak English and found the language barrier a real problem. After claiming asylum, she was sent to live in Home Office accommodation in another part of the UK away from London where others from her home country lived. She was not interviewed about her asylum claim for a year after her application, partly because of the problem of finding an interpreter who spoke her language. Her asylum claim and subsequent appeal were refused.

VA's financial support was stopped at this point and she was evicted from her accommodation with 28 days notice. VA had nowhere else to go so stayed with other asylum seekers in accommodation centres, though this meant the risk of eviction and sometimes sharing a bed. VA found this situation extremely distressing and stressful. She frequently saw friends being detained for removal to their home country. She found it terrifying when the Home Office officials would enter the accommodation forcefully, making arrests, and fighting to put people in handcuffs, amidst screaming and shouting. VA suffered frequent nightmares and was constantly afraid that she would be discovered and sent back to her country. She could not understand why she, and others like her, were made to feel like criminals when they had come to the UK to seek protection from torture and other forms of persecution.

For three years, VA had no financial support or safe place to live. She was totally dependent on others, including asylum seekers and local voluntary organisations. She became very unwell and initially tried to cope by isolating herself. VA was gradually supported to go out, to learn English and to volunteer for local charities. Eventually her English improved and she found it helpful to keep busy and be involved with the local community.

In 2011, VA was finally able to find a lawyer who could help her make a fresh asylum claim. She was able to submit a report from Freedom from Torture which described and evidenced the torture she had suffered. This took time to prepare as she needed many counselling sessions before she was able to disclose details of what she had experienced. Some months later, and five years after her arrival, she was granted permission to live in the UK.

VA was found to be in 'priority need' of housing because of her health problems and continuing vulnerability and now has a safe place to live. She is very keen to support herself and is currently looking for a job while attending college three days per week.

* Names and other potentially identifying details have not been used in order to preserve anonymity as agreed with research participants.

Torture Survivors' Photo Project

To mark the release of Freedom from Torture's 'Poverty Barrier' report we gave clients disposable cameras and asked if they would be interested in giving us their own visual representations of poverty in the UK.

More than 30 survivors participated in the project and they came from a range of backgrounds - from different countries and religions; from the young to the old; from across the country, London to Glasgow.

Everyone who took part was eager to use their camera to raise public awareness of the devastating impact poverty is having on survivors of torture. Documenting their day-to-day reality - from sleeping under bridges to struggling to stay warm, these pictures highlight many of the issues detailed in our research.

Expert blog series

Our special blogging series features commentary from a range of different experts - including clinicians, survivors of torture, asylum support activists and mental health campaigners - each with their own expert insight into the impact of poverty on survivors of torture, and other vulnerable groups across the UK. You can read our latest entry below.