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People in life jackets on a jetty.
Asylum seekers are brought ashore after being rescued at sea by Border Force in Dover, Kent, in September 2022. Sean Aidan Calderbank|Shutterstock

The UK government is using private tech companies to deliver public funds to asylum seekers

When asylum seekers arrive in the UK, they are not eligible for benefits. Those who do not have anywhere else to live are provided with government-funded housing. Those who are not able to meet essential needs can access basic Home Office funds to cover food, clothing and toiletries.

The sums in question are paltry. As of December 2023, asylum seekers housed in self-catering facilities are given £49.18 per week, per person. Those housed in hotels get £8.86.

Private tech companies are increasingly encroaching on the delivery of public funds to vulnerable people. These are distributed via a prepayment system called the Asylum Support Enablement (Aspen) card, provided by Prepaid Financial Services (PFS, a subsidiary of EML Payments Ltd).

This is the same technology used by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ refugee cash assistance programme in Greece. Research there has shown that it restricts asylum seekers’ mobility and constrains what they can purchase.

We have found similar patterns in the UK. Our recent study shows this technology isolates asylum seekers from networks of financial support, compounding their already precarious financial situation. It also restricts their consumption habits, and enables the government to collect their personal purchasing data.

Protestors hold up posters.
Restrictive payment systems are part of how the hostile environment is created. Ian Francis|Shutterstock

A restrictive system

Over the spring and summer of 2021, we analysed policy papers, legal reports, web pages and government Freedom of Information Act correspondence related to the Aspen card.

We also undertook qualitative interviews and focus groups with 21 participants (all anonymised in our paper, and all based in Glasgow). These included asylum seekers who were Aspen cardholders, refugees who had used such cards in the past, and NGO staff who supported asylum seekers. We also interviewed staff at PFS.

As a funds management system, the Aspen card is highly restrictive. You can only use it to buy food and other essential items, mainly from the supermarkets that will accept it. Only asylum seekers whose asylum application is pending can use it to withdraw cash.

The card cannot be used for internet shopping. At the time of our study in 2021, it could be used for contactless payments, but that is no longer the case. Friends or family cannot add money to it and you cannot transfer money to other accounts from it.

Our interviewees told us it often does not work in independent shops including charity shops, cheap clothing stores, halal butchers and African food stores. As a result, they said that in Glasgow, asylum seekers often struggle to buy the warm clothing needed to manage the cold Scottish climate. They also find it difficult to access foods that suit their cultural and religious needs.

The Aspen card is fluorescent orange, which makes its users highly visible in public spaces – potentially exposing them to abuse. Further, in enabling the surveillance of people’s purchasing habits, the card breaches asylum seekers’ right to privacy. Our interviewees told us it makes them afraid of how their patterns of consumption might affect their right to asylum.

A highly unreliable system

Above all, the card often does not work. Our interviewees told us about people suddenly being left unable to withdraw money, sometimes for months at a time. As one asylum seeker explained:

The first time it happened, I went to the machine on Monday to withdraw the money, and it was telling me I had £70-something in there – but zero balance to withdraw. And I was like … I just got here, I’ve not even used the card! How is it possible that I don’t have any money to withdraw?

The Home Office has contracted organisations including the charity Migrant Help and housing management company Mears to support asylum seekers with such problems. However, more often that not, they are being left to deal with these issues alone. Another asylum seeker explained:

For close to eight months, I was not receiving the complete money. But I don’t have anywhere to go, because even if you call Migrant Help or you phone Mears or the Home Office, they will not give a response to you.

Of the 16 asylum seekers we spoke with, 13 had experienced a malfunctioning card, as had their friends. The stress of relying on such an unpredictable system only compounds the extremely low level of support these people have access to in the first place.

At the time of our research in 2021, the UK government was giving asylum seekers around £35 per week, per person. While this has since increased to £49.18, such severely limited funds make it practically impossible for people to fully cover their needs, let alone save any money.

When a card stops working, asylum seekers are left completely destitute. Mothers are unable to buy food, nappies or toiletries. One person with a young toddler was left for five weeks without income. When their housing officer eventually told them that emergency support would be granted, they were given just over an hour to collect it.

When questioned about these findings, Mears referred The Conversation to the Home Office. A spokesperson for Migrant Help said:

In instances of challenges with Aspen cards, we facilitate raising the issue to the attention of the payment provider, and strive to offer guidance and assistance. However, it’s crucial to note that we can’t resolve issues of this nature, as that is the responsibility of the payment provider contracted by the Home Office.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We take the welfare of all asylum seekers very seriously, which is why we provide a weekly allowance to those who would otherwise be destitute through our Aspen card system. There are no restrictions on asylum seekers using the monetary provision to make purchases from retail outlets or withdraw cash from an ATM to buy food.”

The government says it records people’s use of the Aspen card, and may investigate if there are safeguarding concerns or potential breaches of the conditions of support to which the recipients have agreed (to prevent fraud).

Despite this, many of the interviewees we spoke with were unaware of the terms and conditions applicable to use of this card. Furthermore, precisely because they are destitute, asylum seekers have no choice but to accept whatever terms and conditions those might be.

A tool of surveillance and control

Prior to contracting PFS, the Home Office had reportedly spent around £84 million on the previous card system, supplied by Sodexo. We estimate that between January 2020 and December 2021, it then spent over £198 million on the PFS system.

Home Office spending data shows most of this expenditure was attributed to an item labelled “cash support”. Although not explicitly stated, this is likely to refer to the emergency cash support given to asylum seekers when their Aspen card is not working. The documents show that instances of this charge spiked following the contract handover to PFS, which saw thousands of asylum seekers left without financial support.

This is concerning, not least because PFS is a preferred supplier for prepaid cards across UK government departments until at least 2025. PFS currently has agreements with around 121 local councils and NHS clinical commissioning groups. It also has an agreement with Crown Commercial Services – the largest public procurement organisation in the UK. (EML Payments Ltd was approached for comment regarding PFS, its subsidiary, but did not respond.)

Through its collection of purchasing data and constraining rules, the Aspen card serves as a tool of surveillance and control – a means through which the UK government’s “hostile environment” is potentially achieved. This raises questions about the role of financial technology companies in shaping punitive digital welfare practices across the UK.

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