Asylum seekers turning to drink amid lengthy waits over claims, study suggests

A new study examining alcohol use by asylum seekers has found long waiting times for claims to be determined, together with social isolation and poverty, can contribute to problem drinking.

It is a key finding in a report for the group Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP), which looked at the drinking habits of 20 refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland and the north of England.

Of the respondents, 18 were described as being destitute when interviews were carried out.

Asylum seekers and refugees are self-medicating by using alcohol, according to the report (Gareth Fuller/PA)

The report, by Dr Fiona Cuthill and Dr Steph Grohmann from the University of Edinburgh, found “the main cause of harmful alcohol use in this population is the long duration and uncertain outcome of the UK asylum process”.

Trauma experienced in the country they fled from, together with the “stress of the immigration process” and a lack of counselling and mental health support “contributed to attempts at self-medication of mental health issues using alcohol”, it added.

Cases are “routinely” taking years to be determined and can sometimes take decades, the report said, with asylum seekers provided with financial support at the rate of £37.75 per week for a single person, as well as being barred from working.

The report said: “During the processing of an asylum claim, long waiting times, boredom, social isolation and poverty were seen to contribute to problem drinking.”

Researchers said it is “striking” that every single respondent in their study “made a connection between harmful alcohol and substance use and the UK immigration and asylum process”.

Alcohol was described as being a “cheap and readily available means to cope with stress and mental ill health in both contexts”.

If asylum claims were rejected “alcohol use morphed from a method of numbing to a method of self-harm”, the report added.

It recommended “culturally appropriate mental health services” should be developed for asylum seekers and said people should be allowed to work while claims for asylum are being considered.

Report author Dr Cuthill, the academic director for the Centre for Homelessness and Inclusion Health (CHIH) at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Our work makes clear that refugees and asylum seekers who experience harmful alcohol use in the UK do not arrive with these problems – rather, they are triggered by the stresses and long waiting times of the UK immigration and asylum process, and are compounded by the experience of destitution that often results from a rejected claim for asylum.”

She added: “Drawing on these findings, our report makes clear recommendations for policy and practice, including that the UK Government allow people seeking asylum to work and engage in meaningful activity while their claim is being processed, and that when asylum is refused that people should either be immediately deported or continue to be given accommodation so that destitution is not the immediate result of a refused claim.

“We hope that the findings and recommendations of this report are able to contribute to a better understanding of health harms that are often overlooked among refugees and asylum seekers, as well as the creation of a more humane process for responding to these, and the situation of asylum seekers more generally.”

Lindsay Paterson, interim director of SHAAP,  said it is an “important report, which provides invaluable insight into the conditions that affect refugees’ and asylum seekers’ experiences of harmful alcohol use in the UK, and provides recommendations for policy and practice that could hardly be more timely or relevant”.

She added: “The burden of alcohol harm falls disproportionately upon the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society, and this includes people who have been made destitute as the result of a rejected claim for asylum and who, as a result, have very few places to turn for help or support.

“The recommendations in this report point the way towards crucial changes that need to be made to address this situation, and that can continue to reduce alcohol-related harm across the UK.”

A Government spokesman said: “This report has assessed the experiences of only 20 asylum seekers and is not representative of the majority in the UK.

“We are fixing our broken asylum system to make it firm and fair. We will seek to stop abuse of the system while ensuring it is compassionate towards those who need our help, welcoming people through safe and legal routes.

“Asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute are provided with free, fully furnished accommodation and we cover their utility costs. We take their wellbeing extremely seriously and provide access to a 24/7 independent advice line.”

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